Millennials seek empowerment

Matt Cordio, the 24-year-old co-founder of the nonprofit group Startup Milwaukee, is part of a growing number of young professionals involved in entrepreneurship in the city. He has taken a leadership role at Startup Milwaukee, which has unveiled new internship and mentorship programs this year, and has continued to host regular meetups and foster discussion through social media within for the community.

A lifelong resident of the Milwaukee area, Cordio graduated from Marquette University with a degree in business administration and a focus on entrepreneurship in December, 2011. Cordio is a native of Cedarburg.

He believes technology puts Generation Y (or Millennials, or whatever the latest moniker is for the younger generation) in the driver’s seat in today’s business world.

BizTimes reporter Dan Shafer recently interviewed Cordio about his background and his thoughts on the challenges facing Milwaukee’s younger generation, the impact of social media, perceptions of Generation Y and more.

What were some of your career goals when you started college?

“My goal was actually to become a journalist. And I was discouraged by the pay. I interned at WTMJ radio and had to wake up every morning at 2:30 a.m. and be there at 3:30 or 4. That’s painful.”

So the entrepreneurial side wasn’t your initial focus?

“No. But since I was a teenager, I’ve been starting random companies. I’ve always been very entrepreneurial. I started a magazine at my high school. I started up a catering company when I was in late middle school or early high school. Not wanting to work for somebody else is kind of my mentality.

“After radio, I actually worked at Target. I went there just to earn money for school as a part-time job. Six months later I became a guest service team leader, so I had like 20 cashiers that I managed. That was a really interesting experience. That, I think, has shaped me in a lot of ways, which is weird because it’s a retail job. I got the chance to manage and lead and really learn what it’s like to deal with a lot of different types of people.”

Is that part of what inspired you to launch Startup Milwaukee?

“After Target, I had a startup idea and went into 94labs, which is a now-defunct incubator-accelerator. I had a startup, and it failed. 94labs was not a very well-developed program at the time. I thought I was going to get a lot of resources.

“I’m not a developer and, at the time, I had no idea what I was talking about when I was trying to hire a development company. I couldn’t find the mentorship and support, whether it be from peers or it be from experienced entrepreneurs. That is what led to the founding of Startup Milwaukee.”

Within that startup-entrepreneurship realm, it seems like there are a lot of people trying things right now, but Milwaukee and Wisconsin are still toward the bottom of national lists.

“Yeah. It’s not good.”

Why do you think that is?

“This is a bigger economic development thing, and it might be above my pay grade, but I think the city and the state – but more so the city, I think – and the county and the regional area need to have a vision. I think there’s a lack of vision. In the city, there’s a leadership deficit as to what our economy should be.”

In the business community? Or are you talking about political leadership?

“Everywhere. I think there’s just a lack of vision. You see a lot of one-off things that aren’t thought of strategically, and there’s no leadership. There are leaders within certain initiatives leading their own initiatives, but there’s a lack of collaboration. Milwaukee lacks a vision.

“I think there needs to be more investment in programs that develop talent in the entrepreneurial space, especially technology. A few weeks ago, the WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.) released a report where it looked at the output of driver industries, and it’s like paper mills and whatnot. It said 15 percent of our economy’s output is from technology, and the national average is 18.8 percent. There’s a massive deficit there.”

What are some of the other bigger challenges that the younger generation faces in Milwaukee right now, in terms of business?

“I know people that I graduated with that couldn’t find jobs for a year or two.”

So that first job out of college is still a challenge?

“Yeah. It’s probably always a problem, but that is, I think, a major problem the young generation faces. I think there’s been a lot of discussion about what this generation – Generation Y – is all about, and I think it’s honestly bulls—.

“There are a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions, like that Generation Y workers or Millennials don’t want to work full-time, they don’t care about the company that they work for, they’re lazy and entitled, and I believe that is completely false. I think that Generation Y is definitely interested in more flexibility in the work relationship, but I definitely don’t think Generation Y feels entitled to anything.

“Generation Y isn’t afraid to work on solutions to big problems – they just need to be set free and empowered to do so. Because, to be honest, we know a lot about technology; there’s a generational gap there. We understand it better than a lot of CEOs or CIOs or COOs do. If we’re empowered to do things, we’ll see results.”

How important is social media to this generation?

“It’s essential. I think that social media is a super-powerful tool if it’s leveraged correctly. It’s a great way to share information and receive information. I don’t read the newspaper in the morning, I read my tweets.”

What do you think has changed in Milwaukee in recent years?

“I think there’s a lot of momentum in Milwaukee’s technology startup community. I think there’s the young professional thing, potentially. I love Art Milwaukee and NEWaukee, but there’s no cohesive strategy there. But I think anytime anybody gets under the same roof and talks about shared things – which I think Art Milwaukee and NEWaukee do – it’s a great thing.”

Something that comes up often is whether or not Milwaukee has a perception problem. Do you think that’s a real problem?

“No. I think that some of the greatest promoters of Milwaukee rip it down just to build it back up again. You can’t build a community by ripping it down and hoping it’s going to be better someday. You actually have to take action and do things to make the community better. “

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