Juli Kaufmann considers herself a neighborhood activist who became an accidental developer.
For the residents living in Walker’s Point, Lindsay Heights and Sherman Park, the accident has been a godsend.
Kaufmann left her work in nonprofits in 2005 to launch Milwaukee-based environmentally-friendly residential construction firm Pragmatic Construction LLC.
One of the company’s first projects was a house which was a prototype for Pragmatic in which Kaufmann and her family lived. Pragmatic did not survive the housing crash so Kaufmann, a serial entrepreneur, started her current company, Fix Development LLC.
Entrenched in Walker’s Point, Kaufmann wanted a higher quality of life for her family; 2005 Walker’s Point was not the Walker’s Point of today.
A vacant lot at West Bruce Street and South Second Street kiddy-corner from her home bugged her.
“It was the neighborhood dog poop lot,” Kaufmann said. “I was motivated by green issues and I wanted a building that could contribute to the environment and the neighborhood.”
So Fix Development took on its first development, the $7.5 million Clock Shadow Building, a four-story commercial building that pushed the envelope for environmentally-friendly, sustainable design. It was a challenging project.
“Had I known in advance how it would almost kill me… Ignorance is bliss,” Kaufmann said. “I had very little experience. But it helped set me on the path I am now on and showed me what I want to be when I grow up.”
Through her work at Fix, Kaufmann has married her previous experience in the nonprofit world with real estate. The goals for her development projects are not just to make money, but also to provide environmental, social and cultural benefits that improve the communities where they are built. Typically she takes on projects in economically challenged neighborhoods of Milwaukee that need investment.
Because of her work, Kaufmann will receive the BizTimes Woman Executive of the Year Award at the Women in Business breakfast during the BizExpo conference on May 31 at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.
Susan Lloyd, executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation, a private grant-making institution that serves the Lindsay Heights, Clarke Square and Layton Boulevard West neighborhoods, said Kaufmann’s “quadruple bottle line” approach of being socially just, environmentally and economically sustainable, and sensitive to preserving the culture of the neighborhood, sets her apart from most commercial real estate developers.
“I think of her as one of Milwaukee’s shining lights and one of Milwaukee’s most innovative entrepreneurs,” Lloyd said. “She is disrupting the most traditional real estate model, which is centered on financial return.”
With her latest projects, Kaufmann has partnered with a neighborhood leader and gotten community buy-in (in some cases just $1,000 per person), so the community owns the project.
“In divested neighborhoods, there are tons of passionate community activists,” Kaufmann said. “They are in the best position to know what is best, but don’t have the financial resources. I bring the real estate experience and the partner brings the credulity.”
Kaufmann is currently working on several projects, including Sherman Phoenix with JoAnne Johnson-Sabir in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. The $3.5 million project will convert a former BMO Harris bank branch, that was burned during civil unrest in 2016, into an entrepreneurial and wellness hub that will house about 20 businesses.
She partnered with nonprofit Walnut Way Conservation Corp. on The Commons, a redevelopment project in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood that created a hub of health and wellness tenants including Outpost Natural Foods, the Milwaukee Center for Independence and Aurora Health Care – Integrative Medicine Group.
Kaufmann is also partnering with Riverwest business owner Carolyn Weber to purchase the former Centro del Nino School, 500 E. Center St., to open the city’s first hostel-style hotel.
In addition to Fix Development, Kaufmann is the co-founder of Fund Milwaukee, a local investment group that seeks to match unaccredited local investors with opportunities to support local entrepreneurs. The effort has raised more than $1 million in local capital to date, funding dozens of local businesses like Purple Door Ice Cream and The Tandem restaurant, both of which occupy Fix Development projects.
Kaufmann says she is driven by projects that inspire her as a Milwaukee resident.
“What I do today is a continuing evolution,” she said. “I use real estate as a tool for social change.”