Women leaders drive Milwaukee economic development organizations

Cover Story

As the southeastern Wisconsin development renaissance continues, office towers, apartments, condos, commercial developments and arenas are being constructed. The projects have created hundreds of construction jobs and some will create jobs once they open.

A momentum has overtaken the city, and Milwaukee’s economic development leaders had a significant part to play in those efforts. At the same time, those leaders are advocating for residents of disadvantaged and disinvested communities to be included in the projects and for investment in those neighborhoods.

A unique group of women is pushing in the same direction to accomplish these goals throughout the area. Six powerful leaders are shaping Milwaukee’s job creation, business development and community revitalization aspirations at the helm of their organizations—often by working together.

Julia Taylor
Credit: Kat Schleicher Photography

Julia Taylor

President, Greater Milwaukee Committee

Julia Taylor is a titan of Milwaukee economic development. But it wasn’t always that way.

She got her start in an economically depressed Bay City, Michigan when she was appointed to a vacant common council seat and ended up chairing the economic development committee. In that role, Taylor says she learned about the municipal “Hail Marys” that are required when times are tough, and about the power of collaboration to accomplish goals.

Taylor was recruited to Milwaukee to lead the YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, which she ran for 16 years. There, she managed a $40 million budget and focused on economic development for women in the central city.

“It’s really about how do we grow the prosperity that’s happening downtown to create prosperity in these surrounding neighborhoods,” she said. “And how do we grow commercial corridors? How do we grow the business opportunity?”

She has continued her economic development work at the helm of the Greater Milwaukee Committee since 2002. Taylor has been instrumental in the formation of the Milwaukee 7 regional economic development partnership, BizStarts, Scale Up Milwaukee, Milwaukee’s water cluster and other initiatives to help businesses locate and grow in southeastern Wisconsin.

The Water Council has been a big win for the M7 region, even though the Reed Steet Yards business park next to the Global Water Center has not yet been filled, Taylor said, because it has spurred businesses like Rexnord Corp. to shift their attention to water technology. Ultimately, she hopes it will become a federal center of excellence and water technology research hub for the entire country.

Taylor also has been involved with the efforts to prepare the workforce for Foxconn Technology Group’s planned $10 billion factory in southeastern Wisconsin. The project could be transformational for the local economy, she said.

“The number of jobs that they’re talking about, if it is in the 10,000 range, that’s more than M7’s created in its 10 years of existence,” Taylor said. “We’ve been playing the game for a long time, and so I think we’re able to respond well to this opportunity compared to a region that has not collaborated, that doesn’t have something like M7.”

It takes time and patience to grow a local economy or create a new business hub, Taylor said. She described the Menomonee Valley as a “25-year overnight success story.”

The women involved in economic development in Milwaukee demonstrate the necessary patience and an ability to look at the broader strategy and interrelated system, she said. Taylor, 62, has mentored and collaborated with most all of them.

Her next collaborative project: MKE United, an initiative to form a shared, inclusive vision for greater downtown Milwaukee using one of her favorite tools, a strategic action agenda. Among the goals are creating neighborhood development and commercial corridors; improving transportation and mobility; and developing the economy and the workforce.

“There is not a single entity in the community that can do all this. That’s why it’s important to have strong partnerships,” Taylor said. “When you get everybody on board and you get fired up about the same vision, you can get so much done.”

Eve Hall

Eve Hall

President and chief executive officer, The Milwaukee Urban League

Eve Hall has a wealth of experience in education, government and nonprofit organizations.

She was tapped to lead the Milwaukee Urban League in February. Prior to the role, Hall had been the president and chief executive officer of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. She also was previously vice president of public affairs at Family Service of Milwaukee, director of Milwaukee Public Schools’ School to Work program and director of former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s Milwaukee office.

Hall’s passion has become employment, particularly for underserved groups. The Urban League advocates for African-Americans and other people of color to obtain economic self-reliance and social justice through a combination of education, economic development and employment.

“I think you have to have a passion about the quality of life for people,” Hall said. “If people don’t have a way to support themselves, then we will not have a viable, healthy and safe community.”

As she leads the next chapter for the Urban League, Hall wants to increase the organization’s capacity to help. Hall is working to build bridges to other organizations on jobs and the economy, while increasing the Urban League’s support to entrepreneurs.

The development renaissance in downtown Milwaukee is an opportunity to bring in a diverse workforce and provide opportunities for employment, she said. And Foxconn Technology Group’s facility would mean a big employment boom.

“I am interested in making sure that we’re part of the conversation, given that we have over 50 percent unemployment of African-American males,” she said. “We have got to take advantage of major initiatives or developments like this. With the statistics that we’re looking at in the Milwaukee area, this is an opportunity to see if this is another way we can address the unemployment gap.”

Hall places an emphasis on making sure everyone in a community wins. The more businesses are formed, the more jobs are created, and the more homes and products are purchased.

“We need to constantly find ways that all groups are able to participate in economic development opportunities and projects. (That) is going to be most critical in truly moving the needle,” Hall said.

Hall, who is African-American, is passionate about helping her own community access economic development opportunities. She yearns to see successful African-American professionals owning homes and being successful in education.

The chambers of color have an Ethnic Business Coalition to share resources and work together to increase their economic development presence and success. Hall said improved race relations are key to helping Milwaukee move forward.

“If every community wins or has access, we all win,” she said. “As wonderful as our country is, we’ve had some real challenges for underrepresented communities or communities of color to always have access and opportunity at the same level as non-minorities.”

The women leading Milwaukee’s economic development organizations may have the key to get things done, she said.

“As women, we tend to collaborate a little bit more,” Hall said. “Just by the nature of women being natural at nurturing and uniting and bringing families together, I believe that those natural traits as women spill over into our executive roles. In all due respect to men.”

Kristi Luzar
Credit: Kat Schleicher Photography

Kristi Luzar

Executive director, Urban Economic Development Association of Wisconsin Inc.

Of her career accomplishments, Kristi Luzar is most proud of the Take Root Milwaukee initiative, a program established in 2009 to make housing more affordable and accessible for Milwaukee families.

More than 40 housing counseling agencies, community organizations, neighborhood groups, realtors and lenders are involved in Take Root.

“It’s a great example of collaboration, it’s a good model, it’s hard work, and people are committed and engaged still,” Luzar said.

The program grew to include three other locations, in Denver, Chicago and south Florida. It aims to strengthen neighborhoods that have been impacted by foreclosures and abandoned homes, while helping residents become sustainable homeowners by providing access to renovation and purchase financing. In Milwaukee, Take Root is offered in Burnham Park, Layton Park and Silver City; Clarke Square; Harambee; Havenwoods; and Pulaski Park.

Helping residents avoid foreclosure and become homeowners is one part of UEDA’s mission. It also works to connect workers to jobs via transportation and boost entrepreneurship in urban areas. The membership organization specializes in collaboration: it helps bring economic and community development organizations together and train them to better serve their clients.

Milwaukee tends to be risk averse, but Luzar submits it could be more open to taking calculated risks, particularly when it comes to catalyzing economic development projects.

“There’s a real dynamic culture that’s happening in neighborhoods and everyday businesses that you just don’t see in the data that comes out,” she said. “You’ll only see that by having working relationships and being connected and engaged. Collaboration is absolutely critical and it’s hard work.”

Luzar, 41, completed a master’s in urban studies and nonprofit management at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and went to work for UEDA 11 years ago. Bill Johnson, the previous director, served as a mentor and soon pushed her in the direction of leadership.

Since 2006, Luzar has been running the statewide organization, which has a small staff and a $225,000 operating budget. She plans to grow the staff, membership and budget moving forward to increase UEDA’s impact outside Milwaukee.

To Luzar, there are two things that could help move economic development forward in Milwaukee: A regional transportation system and more support for entrepreneurship, particularly among people of color.

“One thing that really holds this region back when you look comparatively across the country is a lack of regional funding and the lack of a regional transit authority,” Luzar said. “For us, job growth right now is outside of the county.”

Luzar’s next project is addressing the challenges people with disabilities face in finding and keeping work and housing, and escaping the cycle of poverty.

“When you think about economic development…the percent of people that live in poverty who have disabilities is really high,” she said, emphasizing the need for economic inclusion of those with disabilities.

Wendy Baumann
Credit: Kat Schleicher Photography

Wendy Baumann

President and chief visionary officer, Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp.

When a young Wendy Baumann joined the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, the organization had 13 members and focused most of its energy on planning the Mexican Independence Day parade.

She lobbied for the chamber to do more commerce, and the members made her executive director. When Baumann left about two years later, the chamber had grown to 218 members, had more funding and sponsorships, provided resources to help businesses grow and had a higher profile in the community. And she loved that the work had meaning to her.

“That was my first taste of ‘I think there’s something here,’” Baumann said. “I still feel that that economic development piece is not the panacea, but a major solution for social ills, for hardship, for inequality, for many things. If you have the money, you are empowered. You can provide for yourself and your family, you can provide for infrastructure in a community, you can provide for good schools…you can plan for the future.”

After a one-year stint in the private sector—she hated it—Baumann was director of small business development at Milwaukee Area Technical College for five years before she became executive director of Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. She’s been in the role 24 years.

WWBIC is a nonprofit that lends to entrepreneurs in Wisconsin who want to start or expand a business but face barriers in accessing traditional financing or resources. Under Baumann’s leadership, WWBIC has grown from a $200,000 budget with a staff of two, to a $5.7 million organization with a staff of 50, four regional offices, and three rural satellite offices. It has a $16 million loan portfolio and has lent about $60 million since its inception 30 years ago.

“You’ve got to celebrate the wins. It’s doorfront by doorfront, job by job and keep celebrating those pieces,” Baumann said.

She also helped launch Milwaukee as a Kiva city, providing area entrepreneurs access to microloans, and assisted with the creation of the Milwaukee Public Market.

Milwaukee has evolved over the years to put more support behind entrepreneurs, but more could still be done, Baumann said.

“We need more perceived risky capital in the heart of Milwaukee,” she said. “If you have the jobs more within a community, it’s better.”

WWBIC recently collaborated with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce and LISC to go after a national grant, Baumann said. The women leaders of the organizations matched their schedules while traveling and found time for a 6 a.m. phone call to finish the application.

“I think that stick-to-it-ness, I’m not saying men are not that way but I think women, when they have that right passion and that right piece, will stick to it and persevere,” she said.

Moving Milwaukee’s economy forward will require collaboration like that, as well as transparency, Baumann said.

“You’ve got to eat the dinosaur one bite at a time,” she said. “I go back to having a vision and having a plan or an outline around that vision.”

May yer Thao
Credit: Kat Schleicher Photography

May yer Thao

Executive director, Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce

May yer Thao was recruited to the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce in May 2014 to work in grants administration.

By the end of 2014, the executive director of the chamber had resigned and Thao was tapped to keep the organization afloat. In May 2015, she was officially named executive director.

“It was quite the journey. It was obviously very challenging not having anyone else there outside of board members to provide that kind of guidance and assistance,” Thao said. “When you’re in that position, you just do what it takes.”

Thao, 40, took it in stride, and was able to grow the chamber’s profile and community outreach throughout the state while distributing the most loans in its history during the 18 months she was running it on her own. Now, she has added three other employees and a satellite office in Wausau, a booming community for Hmong entrepreneurs.

“I always had an interest in community development in general,” Thao said. “All of my personal volunteer time was always doing community development work. From community development, really the core of that is economic development in order to elevate underserved communities such as Hmong and southeast Asian groups.”

At the end of 2016, HWCC had created more than 250 jobs through its loans. It has given about 45 loans totaling $925,000 since it was formed in 2003, and has leveraged another $9 million in financing from other lenders for its businesses.

HWCC got into economic development when it formed its revolving loan fund program in 2006, and has about $500,000 in the fund pool, as well as a microloan program.

The organization this fall is launching a partnership with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and Kiva for a $50,000 matching loan fund.

But Thao wants to do more. As a Hmong-American herself, she strives to be as impactful as possible in her community.

HWCC has worked closely with Wendy Baumannn and the WWBIC on participatory loans, cross referrals and best practices.

“It’s very empowering, especially for individuals such as myself, who are still very new to economic development,” Thao said. “It’s great to have that role model and mentorship from those who have been in this playing field much longer.

“As women leaders, I think we are very community oriented and we are very open to collaboration and we’ve been able to participate in different grant applications together, understanding full well where … our strengths are and where our weaknesses are.”

Milwaukee has many chambers of commerce, some for minority groups such as the Hmong ethnic community. But having fewer chambers is not going to work at this stage, Thao said.

“At this point in time in Milwaukee, we still need all these organizations but we need us to work more closely together,” she said. “We’ve been so segregated, and so the community that each of us serves have not received the resources to move these specific communities forward. Until I can really help build a bridge to access more mainstream resources, the Hmong Chamber is still needed and still relevant.”

Donsia Strong Hill
Credit: Troy Freund Photography

Donsia Strong Hill

Executive director, LISC Milwaukee

Donsia Strong Hill moved away from Wisconsin for a few years, but decided to move back last year to be closer to family and have an impact in the community she knew so well.

A finance lawyer, Strong Hill was familiar with LISC and its financing resources for neighborhood improvement. The organization has traditionally focused on housing, but now is adding small business lending and entrepreneurship support.

“We have pivoted somewhat from the historic work we’ve done to become more involved in economic development and workforce training,” she said.

Strong Hill has had a storied career, serving as a senior policy analyst for The White House, a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy and a Wisconsin cabinet secretary. When she set her sights on community development, she went back to school to learn how to run a nonprofit, completing a master’s in public administration at Harvard University.

“I think it’s the work I’ve been training my whole life to do, frankly,” Strong Hill said. “Community development is simply providing the community the opportunity to decide, by engaging them, what they want to be able to happen in their community.”

She believes many of the ills afflicting Milwaukee and the disinvestment in some of its neighborhoods can be seen in the lack of jobs and small businesses.

“In the absence of real attention and funding and investment in those areas, I don’t think you will find a single neighborhood that has been revitalized without strong entrepreneurship and strong workforce development,” Strong Hill said.

Collaboration and initiative among economic development organizations are key, she said. Milwaukee’s economic development leaders work well together.

“Everybody’s very collaborative, we really want to see the work done, we want it to be successful and it doesn’t matter to us who gets credit,” she said. “Understanding where those strengths are keeps us from having to reinvent the wheel and means that we’re able to move forward more quickly and effectively in our endeavors.”

Together, LISC, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. and the Milwaukee Urban League last year received a $30,000 planning grant from The Kresge Foundation to complete commercial corridor work. They’re using it as an opportunity to break down silos in the sector.

And LISC in August invested $5 million into the new $11.1 million Wisconsin Business Opportunity Fund to leverage the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Association’s new market tax credits. The funds will go toward small business loans for construction, equipment purchases and other hard assets.

Strong Hill expressed her desire for LISC to be helpful in any way possible on the Foxconn Technology Group project.

“We would be very supportive of working with the state and the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to ensure that there is appropriate, safe, affordable housing for the workforce,” she said. “Additionally, to the extent that we can support the efforts, the needs around workforce development, we’re prepared to assist there as well.”

Of all the work she has done in her career, Strong Hill said LISC has been the most rewarding.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not without satisfaction,” she said. “That satisfaction is what drives me to get up every day and get back at it.” 

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