Changing the trajectory: Entrepreneurship organizations aim to revitalize central city

Que and Khalif El-Amin started The Blueprint in 2018 to help Milwaukee entrepreneurs get started.

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 10:46 am


Chantel Teague grew up off West Hampton Avenue on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Now the founder of a growing tech business, the 24-year-old plans to establish a physical headquarters in the same neighborhood when the time comes.

“My family’s from urban Milwaukee and it’s really important to me that that community returns back to a solid community, which it once was,” Teague said. “I can look at the pictures of my family growing up and see it was thriving and there was a community aspect to it, and I think that has been lost. Having thriving businesses that have opportunities for the people in those communities would be beneficial.”

Teague is working on an app, called StyleQ, that instantly pairs wellness professionals such as massage therapists and hair stylists with people seeking on-demand services. The platform is set to launch in April.

“With technology, we basically optimize the booking process around the professional’s schedule, as well as the end user’s,” Teague said.

StyleQ recently earned $2,500 in funding from The Blueprint, an urban entrepreneurship training program that in November completed its first  cohort at the Midwest Energy Research Consortium’s Energy Innovation Center on the northwest side. Through the Blueprint program, Teague gained access to new people that helped her build her business network.

The near north side of Milwaukee has faced economic decline for years, which is inextricably linked with high levels of poverty and unemployment.

The greatest concentration of unemployment in the city is on the near north side, which has a predominantly African-American population. While the City of Milwaukee had a 9 percent unemployment rate overall from 2013 to 2017, the 53206 zip code had a 20.4 percent black unemployment rate, and the 53216 zip code had a 12.3 percent black unemployment rate. There are several census tracts on the near north side in which, as of 2010, fewer than 50 percent of adults age 25 or older had a high school diploma. The overall City of Milwaukee poverty rate was 27.4 percent from 2013 to 2017, but in 53206, the black poverty rate was 42.3 percent, and in 53216, it was 28.1 percent, according to the American Community Survey.

Milwaukee’s central city needs more employers to create job opportunities for residents. But it has been hard to attract or retain businesses to the city’s low-income neighborhoods. Some say the solution is to help foster the creation of more new businesses in those areas.

The Blueprint is one of several programs aimed at turning Milwaukee’s central city around via entrepreneurship.

The Blueprint

The visionaries behind The Blueprint are brothers Que and Khalif El-Amin, owners of Young Enterprising Society.

Two years apart, the siblings grew up playing sports together and always had a competitive drive.

“We did pretty much everything together growing up as far as being involved in sports, going to the same schools until high school, but just always being around each other, whether that’s competing in the driveway, basketball, video games, in the classroom, whatever that may be,” Khalif said. “We just always had that sibling rivalry in a good way. I wouldn’t call it a rivalry (now) as more so just accountability and competition. Pushing each other to be the best that we know we can be.”

The entrepreneurial-minded siblings have collected all of their efforts – small business consulting, clothing lines, exclusive parties, philanthropy, urban agriculture – under the YES umbrella since 2012. Their latest venture is The Blueprint, which launched in July with the help of funding from The Milwaukee Institute and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

Targeted to any entrepreneur in the City of Milwaukee with an idea or a startup related to technology, advanced manufacturing or e-commerce, The Blueprint aims to help participants develop technology and innovation skills, and ultimately launch successful businesses.

Being located in Milwaukee’s central city is important to the El-Amins, who grew up partly on the north side, and they hope to help boost the area around the Century City business park.

“The reason we chose the City of Milwaukee is because we really wanted businesses to stay within the city because that’s what builds the city back up,” Que said. “And oftentimes we see…companies, especially in accelerator programs, coming from different parts of the country or even different parts of the world…. Getting the knowledge, getting the information and getting the money, and then after the eight weeks is over, they’re going right out of the state. So that’s just a loss.”

They’re also diligent about including entrepreneurs of color in their programs by targeting their message to the audiences they want to attract, Que said.

“The location has less to do with it, but being intentional on who you want into your program and being culturally competent is another one,” he said. “You really have to make sure it’s tuned for your audience, and a lot of times curriculum is not tuned to people, or the message is not tuned and it just goes (unnoticed) so they don’t even get the people, because they’re like, ‘I don’t feel comfortable in that space.’”

From among nearly 60 applicants, YES this fall selected 40 businesses for the first stage of the Blueprint program, a three-day business boot camp, and then narrowed the field to 12 companies that participated in an eight-week training program called The Cultivator. The 10 entrepreneurs who completed the training pitched their companies to an audience on Nov. 11. Ultimately, StyleQ and three other startups were funded by YES, with toilet scent packet manufacturer Potty Pearls earning the $10,000 top prize.

It’s key for YES to provide tech-focused training to entrepreneurs, Que said, because technology moves so quickly.

“If you read a blog about blockchain six months ago or even two months ago, it’s totally different than what it is now, so for them to be competitive in the market, they have to get information now,” he said. “And Milwaukee is often looked over in terms of technology, especially people of color. Just spreading the light on entrepreneurs that wouldn’t have got that exposure is something that’s really important.”

The El-Amins bring in successful entrepreneurs and investors from the community to teach some of the classes, which cover topics including: how to build a profitable business, how to position your business to raise capital, how to write proposals, and how to deal with the psychological effects of being an entrepreneur.

The brothers are relentlessly positive and, with a mental health therapist mother and nonprofit leader father, are hard-wired to help others.

Khalif remembers their father, New Horizon Center Inc. chief executive officer Saleem El-Amin, frequently saying, “You learn, you earn and you return.”

“I knew there was a need within the city that had given me so much,” Khalif said. “I wanted to give back.”

On any given day, three or four entrepreneurs stop by the YES offices for assistance or to give an update on their companies.

“We’ve got a Slack channel, so we’re constantly putting different events, funding opportunities, resources and things like that to make sure everybody is staying upbeat and staying abreast of the knowledge that we have,” Khalif said.


YES recently moved in to the newly renovated space M-WERC has opened on the second floor of the tower at 4201 N. 27th St. While several Milwaukee entrepreneurship programs are located downtown, the El-Amins prefer the central location of Century City and wanted to co-locate with M-WERC to avoid creating another silo, Que said.

M-WERC, an industry trade association for energy, power and controls companies in the Midwest, has its own entrepreneurial training program.

Young Enterprising Society is in the process of moving in to the new lab and offices at M-WERC.

Its WERCBench Labs accelerator is focused on startups in the energy, power and controls space. Since it opened the new space, which is more lab-focused, five WERCBench Labs graduate companies have set up shop inside.

And M-WERC is committed to helping rejuvenate the central city, as well. It recently announced it is adding a training program that will prepare workers in the Century City area for the jobs its startups and member companies are creating.

“In Wisconsin, our unemployment rate is down to 3 or 4 percent, but in the Century City area, it’s 12 percent,” said Jacquin Davidson, managing director-Milwaukee at M-WERC. “So we really want to help train and make jobs for people that live in the neighborhood.”

Sherman Phoenix

On a recent Friday afternoon, Alan Moore was giving PJae Jones a haircut at 2 Kings Barber Shop while two of PJae’s friends made fun of him.

The four were at the newly opened Sherman Phoenix entrepreneurial hub on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Moore, who co-owns 2 Kings with Darrel Pate, said he’s excited about the business opportunity at the Phoenix.

“It’s an amazing project and definitely a big movement for the city. I love being part of anything that’s contributing to the growth of the community,” Moore said.

Bring located at the hub, at 3536 W. Fond Du Lac Ave. in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, has helped Moore meet a lot of city leaders, as well as other business owners who are helping each other grow.

Sonya Bland-Borden owns Grace Memorial Funeral & Cremation Services at 3029 N. 35th St., from the Phoenix. While PJae was getting his haircut, she was stopping in at Confectionately Yours for a sweet treat, and took the opportunity to ask bakery owner Adija Smith about catering an upcoming funeral.

Smith’s mother lives at North 37th Street and West Burleigh Street, and when civil unrest broke out in the neighborhood in August 2016, Smith was worried for her mom.

“I was so concerned and wanted to capture her from that and she was like, ‘This is our community and we’re going to stay here,’” Smith said.

When JoAnne Johnson-Sabir and Juli Kaufmann decided to start the Sherman Phoenix to help revitalize the neighborhood and asked her to be involved, Smith said she saw it as a sign from God to come back to the community where she grew up.

She was operating Confectionately Yours out of her home, with hopes to one day open a storefront, but she wasn’t sure where to start.

“I didn’t have all the resources that I got when I was connected with this project,” Smith said.

Now that she is part of the Phoenix, Smith has been linked to the African American Chamber of Commerce and has received business wisdom, tips on getting started, forecasting help and other assistance she wouldn’t have had access to at an independent storefront, she said.

“The exposure that the Sherman Phoenix brought to my business was amazing. The business I’ve been getting, I didn’t imagine it to be what it is,” Smith said.

While Smith was selling cookies, Angela Mallett and Meshika Stewart, co-owners of Honeybee Sage Wellness & Apothecary, were talking to a local resident about their herbal products and conducting inventory.

The pair focuses on education for holistic therapies. They’ve found a supportive environment of other entrepreneurs in the Sherman Phoenix, who make referrals to one another and provide ideas for new products or services.

Mallett, who lives in Washington Heights, has previously lived in Sherman Park and knows the neighborhood, but planned to open Honeybee Sage on North Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

“I definitely wanted to be in the inner city and make my offerings accessible to people of color,” she said, particularly because the central city has so many challenges. “One of the key things for me is the fact that so many children pass through here and they’re able to observe everyday people” running their own businesses.

Johnson-Sabir, who had taken doula training with Mallett about five years ago, convinced her to open at the Phoenix instead.

The Sherman Phoenix has surpassed expectations in its first couple months of operation, Johnson-Sabir said.

And tenants are working together to help each other succeed, whether it’s patronizing each other, offering free bootcamp fitness classes in the mornings to draw people to the space, or brainstorming new ideas.

“There’s this amazing synergy, so I worked at the pizza shop today, and then the bakery owner, Adija, came over to say, ‘You guys need to make breakfast pizzas. …I make a good sausage gravy so I’ll make the gravy,’” Johnson-Sabir related. “So there’s this great creative synergy that has been
unleashed in this space.”

In March, the Phoenix will begin formal entrepreneurship training, led by the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., and wraparound services, including wellness programming, Johnson-Sabir said.

The Sherman Phoenix started as a response to the civil unrest in Sherman Park that left its now-home burned out. The goal is to restore vibrancy to the neighborhood by providing a shared space for a group of entrepreneurs to set up shop.

Entrepreneurs in Milwaukee’s central city have the same challenges and successes as those in other parts of the city, she said, but were in need of connections to experienced entrepreneurs who could help them grow.

“What is needed would be the access, and the access is coming because now you can see us,” Johnson-Sabir said. “We’ve always been here. Just as brilliant and just as talented.”

Launch MKE

The civil unrest in Sherman Park was a wakeup call to Jay Mason that he needed to offer his skills to help revitalize central city neighborhoods.

Mason established Launch MKE in April 2017 to help train entrepreneurs in Milwaukee’s underserved neighborhoods. Most of its businesses are in retail, service, food or consulting.

“We want to do it on the north side of Milwaukee, some of those areas where we know in order to change the trajectory of a family or a community or a neighborhood, entrepreneurship is the way to go,” he said.

Four cohorts totaling just more than 100 entrepreneurs have graduated from the nine-week program so far, which the nonprofit offers in cooperation with national entrepreneurial ecosystem builder Co.Starters. Participants meet in a classroom setting once a week for a three-hour session, learning skills like marketing and customer identification. Then they go out and use it for fieldwork.

He has developed a strict regimen: If a student is late to class, he or she is not admitted.

“It’s really for the students’ benefit. They’re accountable to each other, so if somebody comes in late, it hurts the whole class,” Mason said.

That’s because the program aims to school wannabe business owners in not just the hard skills, like how to file with the state, but also the soft skills, like organization and timeliness, Mason said.

In October, board member Kenneth Harris became president of Launch MKE, the culmination of a yearlong transition. And the organization recently established a formal relationship with Concordia University Wisconsin, which includes access to a classroom space on its midtown campus at North 60th Street and West Capitol Drive.

Mason has experience starting companies – most recently, Milwaukee-based Intellivisit. And he saw an unmet need in Milwaukee.

“The opportunities for business formation are pretty obvious as you drive through many low-wealth neighborhoods,” he said. “Where neighborhoods begin to thrive, it’s often because of the development of businesses.”

Harris plans to expand Launch MKE’s offerings to include the existing Co.Starters program, and also an earlier idea-stage course called Launch MKE Canvas, and later-stage one-on-one mentoring called Launch MKE Advanced.

Harris said he doesn’t see the nonprofit as competing with other entrepreneurial assistance organizations, such as gener8tor and the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., but serving as a feeder to them.

“In my understanding of nonprofits, my goal is to put myself out of business,” Harris said. “My goal is to make sure everybody who wants to be an entrepreneur has an opportunity to be one. We don’t want you to stay with Launch. We want you to become bigger; we want you to become greater.”

Launch MKE said so far, about 80 percent of its participants move forward with their businesses upon graduation from the program, which could mean taking an idea into an early-stage company or scaling an established company. Co.Starters’ five-year success rate is in the 50 or 60 percent range, which Mason hopes to see mirrored in Milwaukee.

Launch MKE also partners with BizStarts to share mentoring and coaching services.


In 2014, BizStarts shifted its attention away from high-growth “gazelle” startups and toward the vast majority of small businesses, said Dan Steininger, founder and president.

Established in 2008, the nonprofit was one of the first entrepreneurial assistance organizations in the Milwaukee area. For a while, Steininger was also an angel investor, funding area startups in the hopes of making a return on the investments. But high-growth, high-return startups are only a small fraction of the small business success stories, Steininger said.

He pointed out that Milwaukee is the one of the poorest cities in the nation, and its north side has suffered most.

“It’s almost impossible hoping to turn those neighborhoods around, hoping that some big employer is going to come in and locate in the inner city of Milwaukee,” Steininger said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Organic, homegrown small businesses are the answer to restoring vibrancy to those neighborhoods, he said.

Most of the approximately 240 entrepreneurs BizStarts helped in 2018 were “main street” businesses like hair salons and restaurants. Its services are free to entrepreneurs.

If enough of them open storefronts in a particular community, they can create a multiplier effect on jobs, Steininger said. He likened the intended effect to the recent development in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood.

“It’s really very heartening to go there and see what’s happening,” he said. “And that same thing could happen on the north side of the city. We just need to get serious about doing it. There’s been very little citywide focus on the importance of getting small businesses started.”

Steininger argues high-tech startups are chasing investor dollars and have no incentive to stay in Milwaukee.

“How is that helping our local neighbors who are suffering and there’s poverty and homelessness?” he asked.

And businesses in poverty-stricken neighborhoods face more barriers to success. Residents there may not have gone to college, and they may not have as many role models in business.

“The needs of this community are considerably different,” Steininger said. “They need more than money; they need handholding, guidance, help, mentorship.”

BizStarts sticks with entrepreneurs until their small business is thriving, as long as five years, he said. Even so, the success rate of its clients is just 30 percent.

“A lot of them, we are tough love. We say, ‘Don’t start this business,’” Steininger said.

When businesses do make it, they have a tangible impact on the community, he said.

“That’s what counters poverty. It counters crime. It’s what gives people reason to be proud of their areas, where they can shop right in their neighborhood,” Steininger said.  n

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