This article appears as part of This Week in Milwaukee Rising, a weekly newsletter from Technical.ly highlighting the innovators bringing a more just, equitable and dynamic Milwaukee economy. Subscribe here. The series is underwritten by American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact.
Spreading positivity in Milwaukee is a mission close to entrepreneur LaShawnda Wilkins’ heart.
In 2014, while celebrating the Fourth of July holiday at the corner of 50th and Congress, Wilkins was shot after being robbed at gunpoint. The violent incident changed the course of her life.
“There were four guns pointed at my face and all I could think of was my son and [praying] to the Lord to help me make it through,” Wilkins recalled. “Going through that experience and trauma — I was only 24 — it really matured me. I’ve always been a person who appreciates life, but when you’ve been in a situation like that … I just thank God for sparing my life.”
While she healed from her wounds, she was determined not to let the traumatic experience send her spiraling into a dark place. Instead, Wilkins chose to channel her energy into healing — not just physically, but also emotionally. After the shooting, she couldn’t stop thinking about the shooters who all appeared to be between ages 16 to 19, at most.
“That really did something to my spirit,” Wilkins told Technical.ly. “It showed me that we have to do a lot of things to help the kids and the community. People are hurting and they don’t have a lot to do. We have to find healing. There are a lot of ways to do that outside of the streets.”
That’s where she hopes her new venture can help. The CEO and founder of SpeakLife magazine — which tells readers, “your dreams were made to exist” — has spent years promoting the dreams of creatives, business professionals and aspiring entrepreneurs. That’s been mainly through her endeavors as a writer and motivational speaker, but now she’s taking her efforts up a notch with the opening of a new coworking and event space: SpeakLife Studios.
Entrepreneurship as community booster
The rise of Black entrepreneurship is often connected to a drop in crime. Black Americans comprise roughly 14.2% of the population, yet Black-owned businesses make up only 2.2% of the nation’s employer-businesses. But a multitude of systemic barriers — such as a lack of resources, higher loan denial rates, and limited access to critical civic infrastructures like business improvement districts, aka BIDs — have prevented BIPOC businesses from gaining parity with white-owned ventures.
Without these crucial economic advantages, many BIPOC-majority neighborhoods find themselves facing high rates of crime. A study from RAND, for example, found a decline in youth violence rates in Los Angeles’ economically deprived neighborhoods, when those communities were exposed to the activities of BIDs.
With the goal of being a resource to others who need community and professional connections, Wilkins calls SpeakLife Studios a positive “opportunity space” where business owners can gather to network, host events, or tap into resources to grow their ventures. The space is also home to Wilkins’ consulting business, where she provides services including resume writing, interviewing guidance and personal branding.
“It’s a one-stop shop for business owners,” Wilkins said. “We wanted to help the community find its way [into business]. ”
All of the services are designed to uplift and inspire her fellow entrepreneurs and foster business partnerships — especially in a region that hasn’t always been so receptive to sharing resources, Wilkins said.
“We need to learn how to support each other in the city, but how can we support each other if we don’t know each other?” she said. “There’s a lack of visibility for small businesses in Milwaukee.”
Positivity with a purpose
Today, Wilkins is considered one of Milwaukee’s young agents of change — but she says she was simply born with the motivation to inspire.
“We go through things and you have a choice to go through them and become a failure, or go through them and conquer,” Wilkins said. “You can ignite yourself into a better destiny just by pouring out different experiences and letting people know you can turn that pain into something beautiful. I’m always thinking on the bright side.”
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