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If Milwaukee wants to become the next big tech hub, this is what needs to change

Ditch the status quo and focus on building equitable opportunities across the board, as Technical.ly heard at the This Week in Milwaukee Rising Summit.

This Week in Milwaukee Rising Summit panelists.

(Photo by Anna Lardinois)

What does the headline for Milwaukee look like in 10 years?

That was the question lingering on the minds of participants at the This Week in Milwaukee Rising Summit, a roundtable event hosted by Technical.ly on Tuesday. The result was an enthusiastic and wide-ranging conversation examining the city’s journey to becoming the next big tech hub — while underlining the challenges Milwaukee’s business community faces on its road to building a thriving and equitable economic future.

But what does equity actually look like? And when will we stop talking about creating equal opportunities and put our money where our mouth is?

An equitable Milwaukee means exposure and access alike

The event, held Oct. 4 at Northwestern Mutual’s Cream City Labs, was part of the lineup for Milwaukee Tech Week, a weeklong celebration of tech led by Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition designed to celebrate innovation in Southeast Wisconsin. The summit was the first such in-person event for Technical.ly in Milwaukee, bringing startup founders, students, business leaders and nonprofit pros together in one room.

Ahead of a roundtable discussion with all summit attendees, several past subjects of our reporting series joined this reporter onstage for a discussion of their work. That included Nikki Purvis, president and CEO of the African American Chamber of Wisconsin; Quentin Prince, executive director of Milwaukee Youth Sports Alliance; Teresa Esser, managing director at ESG Financial Inc.; and Tarsha Wiggins, founder and CEO at Speak Wellness Behavioral Health Consulting; as well as Shakkiah Curtis, manager of member engagement at the Milwaukee Tech Hub.

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(Graphic by Technical.ly)

The panel brought to life several emerging themes from our reporting, including a sense of urgency among the business community to push beyond Milwaukee’s status quo to embrace fresh perspectives and pathways in its bid to grow its economy.

Kicking off the talk, the panelists were asked to define what an equitable future looks like here in Milwaukee. The first step toward establishing Milwaukee’s technology ecosystem is to get more diverse voices to the table, Purvis said.

“If there is equitable, representation of diverse backgrounds in all of these things, then we don’t have to have these conversations anymore,” she said. “That takes energy, that takes a willingness to give up power when you’re in a higher position, and understanding that when there is diversity and equity that we will have the outcome that we want to see.”

Nikki Purvis. (Photo by Antonio Davis)

Exposure, mentorship and partnerships are also key, Curtis added. As a young woman growing up in the central city, Curtis credits programs such as the Chapter 220 program for showing her opportunities outside of her neighborhood’s limited purview. Still, extending those opportunities across the city are necessary, she added.

Esser pointed out that social determinants, such as homeownership, need to be addressed in tandem with the region’s business initiatives. The homeownership rate in the Black community hovers at 26%, for example, while White homeowners in the city top 75%, she said. The housing gap and high rental rates among Milwaukee’s marginalized groups is a result of structural racism, she added.

“A person who does not own their own home cannot benefit from inflation, they can’t benefit from the [equity] structure,” Esser said. “Equity means making the structure fair for everybody.”

Teresa Esser. (Photo by Antonio Davis)

“We don’t know what it looks like, but we have to be willing and intentional in our path toward [equity],” Prince said. Later, he sought to clarify his thoughts in a LinkedIn post: “In my head, I wanted to say ‘I don’t know — I’ve never seen it.’ We can all imagine what it would look like, where we need the intentional focus to be, is in the process. A mentor once told me ‘in your mind, your business idea is perfect, that’s where you need to live.’ Let’s live out equity. I want to walk out my front door and point it out in every space.”

To Wiggins, the city’s businesses and organizations must reach beyond opportunity exposure.

“Now that we know what opportunities are out there, can we access it?” she asked. “Those two things [exposure and access] must be present if we’re going to talk about how to make things more equitable.”

Quentin Prince and Shakkiah Curtis. (Photo by Antonio Davis)

Milwaukee needs job creation — and a rebranding

Creating equal and fair access to opportunity was a central theme as summit attendees brainstormed solutions to the following questions during a breakout session:

  • What is the best way for the Milwaukee business community to come together to solve pressing social issues?
  • What steps are needed to attract new talent and build a more diverse pipeline in the city?
  • How can we get better at telling our own story?

Tarsha Wiggins. (Photo by Antonio Davis)

Some ideas that emerged: Centralizing resources for emerging startups, adapting to new educational models focused on tech outside of traditional higher education, and extending opportunities to business capital — including accelerating startup investments in early-stage ventures — could help eliminate persistent gaps in the city’s entrepreneurial landscape.

Building a viable technology ecosystem could also be the key to breaking down many of the city’s barriers. Besides contributing to social innovation initiatives, the rise of good-paying remote tech jobs removes hurdles such as transportation, potentially opening up the opportunity for a bigger, diverse group of people to take advantage.

Many attendees also pointed to the need to rebrand Milwaukee from its longstanding reputation as the home of the beer, cheese, and the Green Bay Packers — or being another loop in the Rust Belt. It’s great that we have so many breweries, one attendee noted, but our city’s tourism marketing misses the mark when it comes to highlighting the diverse number of businesses, cultural amenities, and people who make Milwaukee an attractive and unique destination.

Summit attendees discuss. (Photo by Anna Lardinois)

Despite the city’s challenges, panelists and attendees alike said they were energized by the work being done to change the narrative of Milwaukee — and felt inspired to play a role in embracing innovation across the region.

“It’s the innate hustle of entrepreneurs and the path to success that I’ve been able to witness over so many years,” Purvis said. “That’s what keeps me motivated. Knowing that from those entrepreneurs comes job creation, comes a boost to our economy … it’s just really inspiring.”

So, what does the headline look like for Milwaukee in 10 years? If any of the attendees at the This Week in Milwaukee Rising Summit have a say, it won’t look like the one running today.

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Special thanks to Cream City Labs for hosting, Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition for organizing the week of events, and our panelists for joining the conversation.

Have thoughts on the above questions? Share them with us at milwaukee@technical.ly.

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