By now, much of the country has heard a statistic, or two, about Milwaukee’s longstanding issues with segregation, racial disparities and economic inequality.
Tyshun Wardlaw remembers hearing some of these statistics about her hometown as she bounced between production jobs in Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee, working to gain a foothold in the entertainment industry. Wardlaw had initially moved to the West Coast to attend Santa Clara University, with dreams of working for the now-concluded Oprah Winfrey Show.
Returning to the Midwest, Wardlaw felt compelled to shed light on the challenges facing Milwaukee’s Black community by portraying the stories behind the statistics in the news. That meant stepping away from what she’d spent the past 10 years building.
“I was in news, I was in television, I was in daytime talks. I had these experiences, but I knew that there was more purpose within me to create my own content, to tell the stories in a way that was impactful and social and that really allowed people to be provoked with emotion,” Wardlaw said.
In 2015, with a single vision and no capital, she launched Wardlaw Productions, an independent film and television production company headquartered in Milwaukee. Wardlaw’s original vision came to life five years later with the premier of “Growing Up Milwaukee.” The feature-length documentary follows three Black youths – Marquell Jenkins, Brandon Haney and Tiana Gee – as they navigate life in Milwaukee’s inner city.
“The way I wanted to craft the film was I wanted to understand what it means for Black youth growing up in this city … and what they’re doing to survive in their day-to-day lives,” Wardlaw said.
Over the course of about two years, Wardlaw Productions captured the daily struggles, joys and dynamic personalities of each individual. The film includes interviews with several community leaders and nonprofit organizations working to break down barriers for Black youth in the Milwaukee area.
Leading a local production company, and being a Milwaukee native herself, Wardlaw was able to build rapport with the teens and earn their trust in a way that larger, out-of-state producers may not have. She’s still in touch with each of them today.
In February, “Growing up Milwaukee” debuted on HBO Max, a subscription streaming service under the WarnerMedia umbrella. The exclusive distribution deal accomplished what Wardlaw ultimately set out to do: tell Milwaukee’s story to a national audience – not only to raise awareness and spark important conversations, but also to send a message that, “All hope isn’t lost.”
“We still have work to do, but we’re hopeful that even as a generation to come, like the youth in the film, that they will continue to pass the mantle on to make sure that we’re not talking about the same issues 20 years from now,” Wardlaw said.
The early success of the local filmmaker’s first major project did not come without sacrifice and a few life lessons along the way.
Getting a new business off the ground without any starting capital meant Wardlaw needed a day job. From 2014 to 2019, she worked as a legal secretary for Milwaukee-based Hansen Reynolds LLC. The role offered flexibility, and she felt comfortable being transparent about her career aspirations. She also developed a solid base of understanding about the law, which still comes in handy.
While working at Hansen Reynolds, Wardlaw launched her production company, began filming “Growing Up Milwaukee,” and produced “Hummingbird: A Sister’s Courage,” a short film calling attention to the city’s human trafficking issues – all while finding her place within the local creative community and seeking out every entrepreneur group she could find. She took classes through the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. on business fundamentals like bookkeeping and finance.
She learned a lot about herself from the experience and about the power of saying “no” to plans instead of overcommitting. As her name started to circulate, Wardlaw had to strike a balance between knowing when to preserve her energy and when to get a second wind after an eight-hour workday.
By the time filmmaking became her full-time gig in summer 2019, Wardlaw had built a sturdy foundation to scale her business. Earlier this year, Wardlaw Productions opened a second office, expanding into Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. With another project currently in development – and under wraps – the company plans to bring on additional full-time staff in both its Milwaukee and Chicago offices.
As one of the few woman- and minority-owned production companies between the two markets, the business is uniquely positioned – both for the stories it tells and for the talent it attracts, Wardlaw said. She hopes to provide creatives, especially those of underrepresented groups, opportunities for gainful employment in the Midwest, even if it motivates them to start their own companies like she did.
“It’s my joy and priority not only to help employ people but to deploy them,” said Wardlaw. “If you gained something from me, and you know that you’re on to your next adventure in life, I want to be able to help you do that and realize your own purpose in that process.”
Founder, director, producer
“The moment I decided to leap into the wonderful world of entrepreneurship. I knew that I had a greater purpose and decided to no longer wait for contracts and/or other producing opportunities in the industry, but I would create my own content.”
Advice to your younger self?
“Respect the process. Each step during the process will render lessons that will continuously allow you to position yourself for the next steps in the journey. Don’t give up!”
Goal for next year?
“Continuing to scale my company in both Milwaukee and Chicago. Most importantly, continuing to use the power of storytelling through the lens and voice of a Black woman director and producer in the film and television industry.”
“I have a few favorite movies, but normally I’m drawn towards movies with great quotes. I love randomly quoting movies – this can be quotes from any genre.”
Holiday flash sale! Subscribe to BizTimes and save nearly 40%!
Limited time offer. New subscribers only.