Organizations step up investments in minority-led Milwaukee businesses

Dayana Jones

JCP Construction is currently working on the ThriveOn King building on North Martin Luther King Drive. Ken Robertson, the executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, says investments such as this can improve spaces that have been neglected in Milwaukee. (Rendering by Engberg Anderson Architects)

It’s no secret: Some Milwaukee communities suffer from a lack of business investment that create opportunities.

COVID-19 brought many of the social inequities that feed into this neglect into view, and some Milwaukee organizations are trying to do something about it.

In April, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation upped its usual investments into minority businesses by issuing a new impact-investment loan of $1.54 million to Milwaukee-based JCP Construction.

According to Ken Robertson, the executive vice president, chief operating officer and chief financial officer of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, this investment was a way to move more capital into a space that hasn’t had it. 

“This isn’t about equality,” Robertson said. “This is about equity and meeting people where they are.”

He said the Greater Milwaukee Foundation has plans to get more aggressive about investing in neglected communities.  

“When you look out across the city, you can see the unevenness of investment,” he said. “Portions of this city will not be developed without support.”

The Greater Milwaukee Foundation is unapologetic about honing in on those areas that need support rather than investing elsewhere across the city, Robertson said.

One of the principals in JCP Construction said the money will be put to good use.

“This started as a series of conversations about expanding JCP’s reach, and we are doing that now by strategically hiring new talent for our office,” said Clifton Phelps, vice president of business development of JCP Construction. “This investment has allowed us to completely invest in our company and increase paycheck dollars and hire staff we need to expand and compete with non-minority companies.”

JCP Construction is currently working on the ThriveOn King building on North Martin Luther King Drive; the Outreach Community Health Center on West Capitol Drive; and the new Safe & Sound building in Sherman Park.

‘A little more leg work’

In May, Northwestern Mutual announced a $5 million investment, targeting two Black-led, Milwaukee-based community development financial institutions to increase access to capital for Black and African American businesses. 

Those two institutions, Legacy Redevelopment Corp.  and Northw­est Side Community Development Corp., work with businesses at all stages to grow their enterprises.

Terese Caro, president of Legacy Redevelopment Corp., said institutions such as hers serve businesses that lack resources.

“These are nontraditional, nonpredatory loans that help prepare people for the next step,” she said. “We have to do a little more leg work to support small businesses.” 

According to Northwestern Mutual, this investment is a part of a larger investment in the Black community. 

“Our partnership with Legacy Redevelopment Corporation and Northwest Side Community Development Corporation is part of a larger effort stemming from Northwestern Mutual’s Sustained Action for Racial Equity (SARE) task force, which was created in 2020,” said Evan Reed, Northwestern Mutual’s senior director of impact investment strategy. “This task force takes a holistic look at racism and inequality from every perspective, including efforts we can undertake to help to close the racial wealth gap.” 

Reed said it will take time to see results, saying this investment is about putting roots down and seizing new opportunities. 

“We want to help each of these organizations strengthen their balance sheets to leverage additional investments towards scale and self-sufficiency,” he said. 

Outside of her role at Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., Tiffany Miller is also a small business owner. (NNS file photo by Ryeshia Farmer)

Another initiative, the Black Business Boost program, is working to provide 100 Black entrepreneurs and business owners in the greater Milwaukee area access to key supportive services to start, strengthen or expand their business ventures.

The program assists start-ups, existing businesses and individuals who are in the idea stage of starting a business. Black Business Boost offers help with credit recovery and support; finding co-working space, incubation programs and accelerators; assistance with equity and loan support; business training; and one-on-one support.

The initiative, launched in October, is funded with support from PNC Bank and is being led by the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., or WWBIC, in collaboration with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee. 

“WWBIC has always been there and has always recognized inequities,” said Wendy Bauman, the president of the organization. “We’ve always wanted to do more, and we’ve received an opportunity to do that.” 

“My hope is that programs like this one won’t need to exist one day,” added Tiffany Miller, the Black Business Boost coach.   

Organizations step up investments in minority-led Milwaukee businesses

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