MILWAUKEE — The number of Black-owned businesses in the Milwaukee area has grown by the thousands over the past two decades, but advocates say there’s a long way to go to reach racial equality in entrepreneurship.
Almost three years ago, Pam McCreary of Milwaukee was at a crossroads in her career and her daughter suggested it was time for a big change.
“I worked in corporate America my whole life and she’s always been the one who said quit your job and open a business with me,” she said.
McCreary says her previous job was eliminated so she decided to become her own boss inside Milwaukee’s Sherman Phoenix, where she sells apparel and accessories that remind others to find their inner peace.
“The items that I have tend to all lean toward a peaceful activity,” she said. “People find peace in cooking. I have tea, it’s called ‘keeping it peaceful’ tea.”
McCreary admits fear of failure almost held her back from venturing out on her own.
“There’s no way to really set up a retirement account or it’s hard to pay for health insurance so to let those things go for the uncertainly of a small business of your own, it’s scary,” she said.
Since the early 1990s, the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin has been supporting Black entrepreneurs in Milwaukee with funding and resources. Vice president Jona Moore says they’ve helped 650 minority-owned businesses open in the past two years.
“When the pandemic hit, there was a surge of entrepreneurs who sort of had to figure out a new way of income and so with that, entrepreneurs had to evolve and create more businesses throughout the last two years of COVID,” Moore said.
According to U.S. Census data, Black people own 12.3 percent of all small businesses in the greater Milwaukee area.
While the number of Black-owned businesses has grown substantially over the years, Milwaukee came in 79th in a study of the best cities for Black-owned businesses.
“There’s a significant challenge as far as the funding, the resources, the actual support, being able to find a commercial space, there’s a lot of different obstacles that minority owners have to go through to build a business than what their counterparts would,” Moore said.
Back at the Sherman Phoenix, McCreary says her risk was worth the reward. Despite having to pivot online for parts of the pandemic, she now has products featured in several local stores.
To support Black-owned businesses, MKE Black has complied a list of more than 500 in the Milwaukee area. Click here to find a breakdown of Black-owned businesses by industry.