Milwaukee business leaders discuss how region can address racial disparities

Leaders say more opportunity needed for black professionals, businesses

Last updated on June 3rd, 2020 at 02:05 pm

In the midst of nationwide protests and civil unrest over long-standing racial injustices, some business leaders in Milwaukee Tuesday discussed how the community can work to overcome these issues.

The discussion was part of a webinar put on Tuesday by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. It was held as groups in Milwaukee and elsewhere protest the recent death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

Nicole Robbins, executive director of Dr. Martin Luther King Economic Development Corp., said Floyd’s death was one instance of racism that reaches back centuries.

“It’s been heartbreaking and disheartening that we are in 2020 and still having the same issues that really have gone back to over 400 years,” Robbins said. ” … It’s just a very difficult time for me personally and also as an organization, but we’re working together to try to impact as much change as possible right now.”

Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed last week when a police officer kneeled on the back of his neck for several minutes. Protesters have spoken out on not only against his death but racism in all forms.

Racial disparities exist in the business world, including in Milwaukee. An MMAC study found metro Milwaukee ranks last among 20 of its peer cities when it comes to the prosperity gap between both African American and white residents and Hispanic and white residents

Kevin Newell, president and chief executive officer of Royal Capital Group LLC, said perhaps the biggest barrier black-owned businesses face is access to capital. It is hard for businesses to forecast three to 12 months out without a reserve line of credit, he said.

“Everything else I think is secondary to that,” Newell said. “I would think that access to capital at an affordable rate is the biggest challenge, particularly this community, faces.”

Clifton Phelps, co-owner and vice president of business development for JCP Construction, said another challenge business owners need to overcome is breaking into what he called the “Good Ole Boy” network, or getting in front of the right people to increase their customer base.

“There’s a lot of deals being done in Milwaukee where we’re not at the table,” he said.

Businesses can help lift up black workers and businesses in a number of ways, the MMAC webinar panelists said.

One way is to be intentional in hiring and contracting practices, noted Robbins.

“I would say, move beyond your scope of getting your HVAC guy you would typically get. Look for maybe a black-owned company to do that,” she said. “Or if you have bookkeeping services you need, find a black bookkeeper. There’s many ways to try to slowly integrate that. If that’s something where you don’t feel like you have a Rolodex of black professionals handy, just try to slowly develop that and implement that in your business plan.”

Phelps suggested providing direct support to black-owned businesses by being a regular customer. Similar to Robbins, he said employers should focus on providing more opportunity for black professionals.

He said that a lack of opportunity is a major reason that young black professionals leave the Milwaukee region.

“We have such a great flight out of here as black professionals, I was almost on that train twice,” Phelps said. “So, we need to be talking about how to get opportunity, so people can see hope, see experience, and know better and do better.”

In an effort to address these racial disparities in the region, MMAC last year began asking companies to sign its “Region of Choice” pledge. The initiative aims to increase diversity in the region’s workforce by 2025 through increasing the number of African American and Hispanic/Latino employees by 15%, and the number of African American and Hispanic/Latino managers by 25%.

“I think it’s a tremendous effort,” Newell said of the Region of Choice initiative. “The goals are finite, and I guess we’ll find out if they’re tangible or not, but I like the direction, I like the commitment. And that’s oftentimes the first step toward progress.”

Demonstrations nationwide continued this week over Floyd’s death last week. Things have at times turned violent due to vandalism and looting, while officers in some clashes with protesters have used rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray.

Milwaukee has seen its share of unrest. Demonstrators have taken to the streets the last several days, and dozens of businesses have been damaged.

Local leaders have responded to the protests and the destruction. Dr. Eve Hall, president and chief executive officer of Milwaukee Urban League, implored business and community leaders not to let destructive rioting distract from the need to address racism in the community.

“The real test and reminder for all of us in leadership positions, whether elected, appointed, paid, or as volunteers, is to not lose focus and to address the ongoing inequities, racism, and injustices and the policies and systems perpetuating them head on,” Hall wrote in a letter published Sunday.

More than 130 Milwaukee community leaders also signed a letter in response to the demonstrations.

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Alex Zank
Alex Zank covers commercial and residential real estate for BizTimes. Alex previously worked for Farm Equipment magazine and also covered statewide construction news at The Daily Reporter. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he studied journalism, political science and economics. Having grown up in rural western Wisconsin, Alex loves all things outdoors, including camping, hiking, four-wheeling and hunting.