Being a leader in today’s world requires challenging the status quo.
That’s the perspective of a few Milwaukee women who haven’t been afraid to shake things up, even in the face of adversity.
Julie Granger, Nadiyah Johnson, Gina Stilp and Denise Thomas have all made decisions throughout their careers that took some courage, helping shape the leaders they are today.
They will discuss their experiences and lessons learned as panelists at BizTimes Media’s Women in Business event during the annual BizExpo, which will take place virtually on Aug. 19. BizTimes podcast partner and contributing columnist Beth Ridley, chief executive officer of The Brimful Life, will moderate the discussion.
Johnson recently left her full-time job as technical product manager at GE Healthcare after four years to pursue another endeavor. She’s the founder of Jet Constellations, a Milwaukee-based software company that’s on a mission to transform Milwaukee into a tech hub representative of the city’s diverse population.
Through its social impact arm, the Milky Way Tech Hub, the company recently launched a $50 million venture capital fund focused on providing capital to early-stage tech companies, with an emphasis on attracting startups led by people of color to Milwaukee.
Although the effort has been met with local support, it has sparked plenty of questions from skeptics.[caption id="attachment_510408" align="alignright" width="300"] Nadiyah Johnson[/caption]
“The $50 million raise of a tech fund should not be a huge shock to a city that’s working to transform into a tech hub,” Johnson said. “I believe some of the doubt and shock is rooted in the fact that I don’t look like any fund manager that Milwaukee’s seen.”
But that hasn’t deterred her.
“We understand we can’t transform Milwaukee into a tech hub without acknowledging current narratives that exist,” said Johnson, citing issues of racial and economic disparity.
Denise Thomas made a similar leap out of the corporate world three years ago to start her own coaching and consulting business, The Effective Communication Coach LLC. Her clients are some of the region’s top firms, including Northwestern Mutual, ManpowerGroup and Associated Bank.
As was the case for many small businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Thomas to rethink her brand, which had been built on the energy she brought to in-person sessions with clients, she said. Thomas had to figure out how to offer the same value virtually.
The ability to sustain a business as a woman and as a Black woman, Thomas said, is something she has to both embrace and navigate each day.[caption id="attachment_510403" align="alignright" width="300"] Denise Thomas[/caption]
“My reality as a Black woman … definitely impacts how and why I show up as a consultant in a very saturated industry that does not have a lot of successful consultants who look like me,” said Thomas.
Part of that means doing business only with companies who prioritize diversity, inclusion and equity as core values.
That’s a space Julie Granger knows well.
As executive vice president at the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, she leads the Region of Choice initiative, which has goals of increasing diverse management in the region by 25% and diverse employment in the region by 15% by 2025.
Granger believes it’s the most important work the local business community can be doing right now.
“The economic disparities between white people and people of color in Milwaukee are profound,” she said. “If we do not close the gaps in employment, advancement, educational attainment and wealth creation, we will never reach our potential as a region.”[caption id="attachment_510406" align="alignright" width="300"] Julie Granger[/caption]
Working for MMAC for 25 years, Granger says she has witnessed Milwaukee’s evolution and that’s kept her engaged and eager to do more, she said.
Looking back on times in her career when she chose to speak up, ask difficult questions or bring a different perspective, Granger says she has found being authentic helped build trust with higher-ups and peers.
For Gina Stilp, some of the most valuable lessons came early in her career, serving as director of development at New Orleans Habitat for Humanity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“That experience taught me the value of leaning into challenging circumstances and accepting that the most rewarding work is messy,” she said.
Now, as executive director of the Zilber Family Foundation in Milwaukee, rendering aid is a central part of the job.[caption id="attachment_510405" align="alignright" width="300"] Gina Stilp[/caption]
ZFF recently granted $3 million in emergency funding to essential nonprofit organizations as they respond to COVID-19.
Stilp said the pandemic has prompted the organization to reimagine how it operates, delivers services and deploys capital. Specifically, it’s taking the time to listen to community-based partners and incorporate that feedback into its grant-making process.
“We believe that the people and organizations most proximate to the problems we’re trying to solve have to be part of our reimagined solutions,” she said.