Nadiyah Johnson isn’t shy about voicing her mission: to uplift BIPOC entrepreneurs and bring them to the forefront of Milwaukee’s tech scene.
When Johnson first started her software consulting company, Jet Constellations, in 2017, the computer scientist sought to address the technical gaps experienced by Black and brown tech founders. But a persistent lack of representation across the tech scene drove her to serve a greater purpose.
While she noticed local organizations were beginning discussions about how to attract tech talent to the region, Johnson also saw Black talent overlooked or fleeing for cities with more inclusive ecosystems. The imbalance didn’t sit right with the lifelong Milwaukeean.
“It was disappointing,” Johnson told Technical.ly. “There were corporations coming together to build a tech hub, but I was the only person of color and a woman in those rooms. I have a strong interest in helping the city reach its full potential. I didn’t want to see a ‘Tale of Two Cities.’”
‘We started with people’
Milwaukee’s Black citizens have long struggled with the city’s wealth and achievement gaps. When it comes to representation in entrepreneurship, the city has historically performed below most peer-metro areas, with just 12% of small businesses owned by minorities in 2016, despite making up nearly one-third of the region’s population.
While those numbers have ticked slightly higher over the years, BIPOC entrepreneurs remain underrepresented and underfunded, Johnson said. She wanted to change the narrative.
Shortly after getting Jet Constellations off the ground, Johnson launched the Milky Way Tech Hub as a social community arm of the business in 2017. What started out as a series of monthly meetups for emerging BIPOC entrepreneurs soon evolved into a business accelerator and resource center offering everything from upskilling and business planning to product development and capital.
At the root of the business hub’s model is community, something Johnson considers key to Milky Way’s success.
“Corporations often know what they need, but they don’t always know what the community needs,” Johnson explained. “I realized the necessity of creating those tables where those tables didn’t exist and embrace cultural differences and different backgrounds. This [inequity] is something that isn’t being talked about enough. We’re filling a gap.”
But success hasn’t come overnight. Even as Johnson and the Milky Way Tech Hub garnered accolades and attention across the region, the organization received minimal financial support during those first two bootstrapped years, said Johnson.
“We didn’t start with the quote-unquote ‘powers that be,’ we started with the people: having folks share their vision for the city and building out a roadmap,” she said. “We’re still not nearly as funded as the white-led tech hubs, even though our goal is the same. Over and over again, we have to prove our business model and our metrics. I’ve had to deal with some barriers.”
Betting on herself
Johnson said she has long experienced the disparities between her Black and white peers in the tech space. As an undergrad at Marquette University, she grew accustomed to standing out in the classroom, where most of her fellow classmates were white, privileged men.
She recalls one instance when a well-meaning professor pulled her aside following a presentation and encouraged her to “tame” her natural hair — even as she was complimentary of her work. It was a frustrating start to a tech career, she said.
“I started thinking ‘Maybe this isn’t a space for me,’” Johnson added. “But there was something inside me that made me want to persevere. There are these huge disparities, but it served as a motivator. It needed to change.”
" “Equity to me is being able to distribute the power that already exists in a way that allows everyone in the ecosystem to thrive."
Slowly but surely, Johnson said, she began to bet on herself. She earned her degree, built out her skillset, and led in the corporate space before taking the entrepreneurial leap. But she saw an opportunity to use her platform and success to create more meaningful impact.
“It’s not because we are some big company, it’s because we are ‘boots on the ground’ and have the ability to find and reach the amazing people in our city and help them become the next tech founders,” Johnson added. “Our arms are locked with other organizations acting as a great unifier to advance our city in the right direction with tech.”
Since she launched Milky Way Tech Hub, its concierge startup services and accelerator have served as a launching pad for more than two dozen startups and has awarded more than $100,000 in funding. It has also received support and funding from community partnerships with organizations including Marquette University, Wisconsin Voices and American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.
This fall, Johnson joined Gov. Tony Evers and other tech diversity advocates to kick off Wisconsin Tech Month, which highlighted the state’s technological divide and called for equal opportunities for STEM programming, tech education and training, networking, and venture capital.
And earlier this year, Johnson was invited to a working session with Vice President Kamala Harris to address the needs of small businesses and tech training throughout the pandemic.
Why Black tech hubs matter
While Johnson considers all of these signs of upward momentum, she said it isn’t enough for a select few BIPOC founders to get an invitation to the table. She would like to see Milwaukee’s tech leaders embracing more corporate-community partnerships and investing in grassroots efforts instead of “recreating the wheel that ends up being more damaging than not.”
Too often, people look at BIPOC small businesses as a side hustle or maybe not as impactful because they’re not as big, she added.
“I’m all for creating a DEI strategy that does not erase the work of Black and brown people, something that ‘illuminates’ rather than ‘duplicates’ our work … and a better understanding of what it means to uplift communities of color,” Johnson said. “We continue to face these constant barriers in tech and I am going to be as vocal as possible about my journey and continue to make change.”
Today, Johnson is focused on steering her recent momentum to expand Milky Way Tech Hub’s presence across the state and leveraging data and technology to generate equal footing for all citizens through a forthcoming Smart Cities initiative.
“Equity to me is being able to distribute the power that already exists in a way that allows everyone in the ecosystem to thrive,” Johnson added. “I want people to know Black tech hubs matter. We’re getting Black and brown people excited about technology, getting them equipped with skills to pursue jobs in tech, and that makes me excited and enthused about the future of the city.”