MILWAUKEE — It was Shark Tank without the teeth.
The St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care hosted a free incubator workshop for 20 local entrepreneurs on June 29. The aspiring business owners presented their ideas to a panel of bankers, lawyers and investors, all of whom had the common interest in promoting economic development in the near north side of Milwaukee.
It was so successful, according to administrators at St. Ann Center, that the event has expanded and a second incubator will be held Thursday, Dec. 8, with 25 entrepreneurs having the opportunity to pitch their business plans to a panel of economic development experts.
All the entrepreneurs from the June event are residents of the 53205 and 53206 zip codes, areas that historically have been plagued by violence and poor economic performance. The entrepreneurs plan to establish their businesses within these zip codes.
The panelists offered advice – and potentially their money – to help move participants in the right direction. The event included an hour for the new business owner “elevator speeches,” an hour of information from the panelists, and an hour of networking.
In a district where the news is rarely positive, Alderman Russell Stamper II was excited about the event.
“Our district is growing, both economically and socially, and the best way to build a community is to do it by building from within,” Stamper said.
Areas within Stamper’s district have been getting attention recently due to premiere of the documentary, “Milwaukee 53206,” which focuses on the effects of incarceration on residents of the zip code. A 2007 University of Wisconsin Milwaukee report listed that 62 percent of adult males between the ages of 30 and 34 were incarcerated or had been incarcerated, which the documentary claims makes it the “most incarcerated zip code in the nation.”
Area is challenged, but ‘on right track’
Stamper is aware of the challenges the area faces, but he said the issues are surmountable. Since that 2007 study, Stamper said his district is increasing in home ownership, down 14 percent in crime, and fourth in the city in economic development.
“We’re on the right track,” he said. “What better opportunity than to take the most challenging and turn it into the best? That’s the best opportunity you could have.” Stamper helped sponsor the incubator, along with the North Avenue Market Place Business Improvement District (BID) and St. Ann Center, but the event could not have taken place without the leadership and organization Sister of St. Francis of Assisi Edna Lonergan and John Jansen, executive assistant. Sr. Edna, president and founder of St. Ann Center, is a nurse, occupational and massage therapist and gerontologist.
St. Ann Center’s two intergenerational care facilities were among the first of their kind in the nation. The first campus opened in 1999 on Milwaukee’s south side, while the second, located at 24th Street and North Avenue, has been open for about a year. The center is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for all ages, abilities, and disabilities, and often offers activities that promote relationships between children and the elderly. Overnight respite care is also available for up to three weeks for elderly and special needs adults.
Though St. Ann Center addresses many needs of the physically and mentally ailing of the Milwaukee area, economic issues were a need Sr. Edna and the center’s staff had not yet approached. While others may view the financial and the physical separately, Sr. Edna sees a connection.
She said many guests of the center have difficulties affording health care and services.
“It’s all one big circle,” she said. “We need to reach out to the community as much as possible and strengthen what we see.”
One form of strengthening is the center’s provisions of health care and education. An incubator to stimulate local small business could be another.
So Sr. Edna offered her new facility as a host location for the incubator.
“I didn’t know what an incubator business meeting was, but I thought, ‘Well, we’ll just do it and then we’ll find out!’” she said.
She and Jansen worked with Stamper and Jacqueline Ward, executive director of the North Avenue BID, to coordinate the incubator. They found investors interested in panel participation and reached out to the community through radio and newspaper, seeking for-profit business ideas that would bring income into the 53205 and 53206 neighborhoods.
They received dozens more applications than the maximum of 20 participants they could accept.
Franciscans ‘belong here’ to serve underserved
Sr. Edna was pleased with the response.
“Being a Franciscan, we serve the underserved,” she said. “This is a very economically poor area, but rich in ideas, in business. We belong here.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]Residents interested in the business incubator, as well as investors who would like to participate in networking and mentoring opportunities, can contact John Jansen, (414) 977-5031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.[/su_pullquote]
The leaders agreed they did not want the project to be a competition in which one entrepreneur wins the financial assistance, like the television show “Shark Tank.” The goal of the program was to get the participants to network and collaborate with each other, not to compete.
Help of some kind was given to all 20, whether in the form of strategic advice, collaborative ideas or financial backing. Panelists shared ideas such as how to work with banks and where to find affordable office space within the city.
At the end of the nearly four-hour incubator, Sr. Edna considered the event a success.
“It was a lot of work, but I’m so glad we did it. We all become stronger as a community when we work together. I’m all for collaboration,” she said.
Sr. Edna thinks supporting events like these was not simply a kind act on her part, but rather part of the role of any active community member.
“As good neighbors, we have a responsibility to build the community from within and be an anchor for good economic development,” she said.
Array of business ideas presented
The incubator’s participants had a diverse array of business ideas — from a children’s bookstore to biodegradable bedding to a substance abuse clinic. They were enthusiastic to get the chance to network with other professionals in their community, a rare opportunity for many of them.
Maurice Sharpe, a packaging supervisor hoping to create an eSports arena, said having a second shift job makes networking difficult.
“It’s not necessarily something that you have a lot of access to,” he said.
He found the expertise of the panelists to be beneficial and scheduled an appointment with a representative of the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) to learn more about applying for grants.
Janice Johnson, owner of restaurant The Big Eazy in Milwaukee, is looking to create a separate business of canvas painting parties. She, too, does not usually have time to network.
“At a small business,” she said, “you’re the payroll department, you’re the janitor … you’re everything. So, you have to make time.”
Johnson set up an appointment with Milwaukee’s Small Business Development Center, which offered to help restructure her existing business, an unexpected benefit of the incubator for her.
A well-researched, passionate presentation came from Larry and Sharon Adams, who plan to create a perennial nursery in their neighborhood.
The couple helped found the Walnut Way Conservation Corp., which turned an infamous drug house directly across the street from the Adams’ house into a neighborhood community development center.
Garden center would be first in the area
Letting others take the lead at Walnut Way, they turned their focus to the garden center.
“Being stewards and understanding the land is something we both share,” Sharon said. “Mine is more in dream format, Larry is more the implementer.”
They hope the nursery and garden supply center will be a prominent, positive presence in the neighborhood. Larry hopes people will purchase plants to beautify their homes and better the 53206 reputation.
“We want to ultimately get the respect that this area so desperately earns, needs, and deserves,” he said.
If everything goes as planned, Sharon and Larry envision a center that will provide for issues that most garden supply stores do not approach.
“If the individual needs more than just a plant, I would hope that we would have the right staff and the consciousness to give the conversation that’s needed versus just make the sale. It should be a place of healing, a place that can give some inspiration as well,” he said.
Their goal is to create the space and to find an operator. They have a building in mind with high visibility and empty lots next door which they think will be perfect for the development. They know the need is there, as there is no garden supply store in either the 53205 or 53206 zip code.
Eight million dollars a year leaves the area for garden supplies alone, they explained.
“To be able to get a portion of that cycling in is phenomenal,” Sharon said.
It pains them that every time their neighborhood is on the news, it is for a drive-by shooting or some other crime, despite the positive things happening in the community. With so many tragedies, both in Milwaukee and across the country, they stress the importance of holding onto hope.
“We have to be the good news,” Sharon said. “It’s painful, but if we don’t let our faith drive us, then we will succumb to fear.”
Even though they are retired, the two of them are more active than many of the employed.
“There’s still an obligation to give those talents that you have to better the situation, and I think that’s what we’re doing,” Larry said.
The couple appreciated the resources the incubator offered and saw the event as confirmation that their community is headed in the right direction. They are looking forward to making significant progress in the coming year.
“Our goal is to be in a start-up operation by 2017 … maybe, a launch with lilies,” Sharon said. “It would be a wonderful symbol of resurrection.”
The incubator, too, is a representation of a new direction for a neighborhood that has had severe struggles. It demonstrated to 20 hopeful entrepreneurs that they are not alone in their dreams of business development. Brick by brick, flower by flower, change is possible.