In late 2019, Advocate Aurora Health announced a $50 million commitment over five years to address disparities that affect health outcomes in Wisconsin and Illinois communities.
While the Downers Grove, Illinois- and Milwaukee-based health care system is in the business of addressing patients’ physical and mental health needs, part of its investment strategy in recent years has focused on supporting small businesses, recognizing the correlation between income and health outcomes in a community.
Advocate Aurora found a partner in Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., which is in the business of supporting entrepreneurs from under-represented groups and under-resourced communities.
As part of its $50 million initiative, the health system executed a $1 million loan agreement with the community development financial institution, which in turn has distributed funds to support two Milwaukee businesses’ growth plans: The Pink Bakery, the maker of allergen-free baking mixes, and Milwaukee Times, a Black-owned weekly community newspaper.
Vincent Lyles, vice president of community relations for Advocate Aurora, said WWBIC president Wendy Baumann was the health system’s first call when it began planning its distribution of funds.
“Their approach is a very holistic approach,” Lyles said. “It’s not just about giving somebody some money; it’s also about making the business strong, which in turn can facilitate growth.”
Lyles noted WWBIC was also positioned to deploy funds quickly.
“The need is real," he said. "The (COVID-19) pandemic has shown all of us how the world can be flipped upside-down. The fact that we’re able to lift up some of these businesses that were struggling throughout the pandemic that now have a firmer footing is all about health outcomes as well. All the research talks about (how) a wealthier community is a healthier community.”
Advocate Aurora’s investment also represented a new opportunity for WWBIC, Baumann said. Traditionally, the organization has borrowed from federal and local government entities, financial institutions, foundations and accredited individual investors.
“Why I was interested in Aurora … is the corporate piece coming in and saying, ‘We, too, feel we can invest in our communities.' In Aurora’s case, it’s with a very strong mission related to health and wellness of a community, and that being defined as economic health and wellness. It’s cutting edge and strategic,” she said, noting Advocate Aurora and Spectrum, both million-dollar investors, are the first corporate partners to make loan-capital investments through WWBIC.
The goal is for Advocate Aurora to deploy and recoup its investment by 2025, at which point it will redeploy those dollars, Lyles said.
“We see this as a cycle of opportunity,” he said.
The Pink Bakery opens allergen-free facility
[caption id="attachment_540614" align="alignright" width="220"] Nubian Simmons, owner of The Pink Bakery in Milwaukee[/caption]
The Pink Bakery’smission of providing desserts to people with serious food allergies aligns with Advocate Aurora’s focus area of addressing food insecurity, said Lyles.
The WWBIC loan allowed owner Nubian Simmons to purchase and convert a former Miller Valley office space into a dedicated manufacturing facility to produce her line of baking mixes, which use certified organic, non-GMO, gluten-free and Fair Trade ingredients.
Simmons, who grew up in Milwaukee and has serious food allergies, started experimenting with recipes a decade ago in hopes of making allergy-free brownies, cakes and cookies that would taste as good as regular baked goods. The Pink Bakery officially incorporated in 2014.
“It took me about five years to get my mixes where I felt like I would let someone else taste it,” she said.
Simmons moved to Memphis in 2016 to work at St. Jude Children's Hospital and continued building out the baking business. When she was a week away from closing on a land purchase to build a manufacturing facility, the results from an environmental test revealed the land was toxic. Simmons took it as a sign and decided to return to Milwaukee.
In fall 2020, she found the building in Miller Valley she now occupies. In early 2021, Simmons, who had bootstrapped the company, completed the loan paperwork with WWBIC, her first business loan.
“The WWBIC loan came right at the time that I needed it," she said.
Renovations on the space were completed in October; the facility operates free of the 14 top allergens.
Simmons said she intentionally prioritized minority businesses on the project, directing about two-thirds of her budget to minority contractors.
"There were so many Black businesses that closed because of COVID. I looked at this as an opportunity: If I have these dollars, let me see how many I can try to help keep in business," she said.
She now plans to hire for about four positions, including production staff. Simmons said the business is finalizing an undisclosed deal that will allow it to expand.
The bakery does most of its sales online, but its mixes are also available for purchase at Plantonic Cafe in Hartford and Wellness For Life Clinic in West Bend. In the future, Simmons envisions landing a contact to sell her baked goods with an airline or at a sports stadium.
"If someone were to place something like this in any of those places, I feel like more of us would come out because we would feel like those organization cared enough about us to try to include us," she said.
New ownership at Milwaukee Times
[caption id="attachment_540615" align="alignleft" width="254"] Milwaukee Times' office at 1936 N. King Drive.[/caption]
As one of three Black newspapers in the city, The Milwaukee Times is able to reach audiences, particularly those living on the north side, with important information and resources that other news outlets can't, said Lyles of Advocate Aurora.
“We’ve spent the last almost two years now talking to people about COVID, and we need vehicles like The Milwaukee Times to be able to share that message,” he said. “… The fact that this paper is able to communicate those messages in ways and reach people where they are, we thought, was really important.”
Owner Rev. Harold Turner used the WWBIC loan to purchase the 40-year-old newspaper from former owner Lynda Jackson Conyers, with plans to grow its print shop.
In addition to publishing a weekly community paper, the Times also provides printing services to small businesses in the neighborhood, with products including obituaries, church bulletins, business cards and invoices. In its early days, the Milwaukee Times primarily published church-related news and it went on to grow its scope of coverage.
Turner, who worked for 50 years as a pastor and has worked in insurance, brings many existing relationships with area funeral homes to the business. He said he plans to make investments in equipment to expand the printing business and possibly hire one or two additional employees. The business currently has four employees.
“We will go beyond the ordinary and continuously make it No. 1,” Turner said of the newspaper. “… We will bring it to life.”