By Tom Still
MILWAUKEE – Most people who know Milwaukee are familiar with problems that deter the progress of its inner city: Violent crime, high incarceration rates for black males, a high incidence of teen pregnancy, low high school graduation rates; and a gnawing sense of frustration over what the future holds for people living in the nation’s most segregated metropolitan area.
The biggest obstacle of them all may be lack of economic opportunity.
Study after study has shown that unemployment rates for blacks in Wisconsin, and especially Milwaukee, are among the highest in the country. In a state where about 4% of the working-age population is without a job, 20% of the black population is unemployed — and the numbers are far worse in parts of Wisconsin’s largest city. Read the full Journal Sentinel article here.
There’s shared responsibility for that troubling fact, of course. Contributing factors include the city’s loss of manufacturing jobs over time, transportation barriers, the devaluing of education and a legacy of poor regional cooperation on issues large and small. (Think Denver, Colo., if you’re looking for a metro area that isn’t hung up on municipal boundaries when it comes to spurring economic growth.)
It may be unrealistic to believe major industry will flock back to Milwaukee’s most challenged neighborhoods absent good reasons to do so, but it’s not Pollyannaish to think a lot more can be done to build businesses and economic value from within.
Entrepreneurship is not just the province of biotechnology scientists and software coders. In fact, far more businesses are launched by people who are basically “Mom and Pop” in character — hair salons, cleaners, coffee shops, florists, bakeries and pet groomers, to name a few.
At a time when entrepreneurship rates in America are generally declining, an exception to the rule appears to be minority- and women-led start-ups. The Kauffman Foundation’s 2015 start-up index revealed significant changes in the makeup of entrepreneurship since 1996, with new business owners now 40% Asian, black or Latino compared with 23% two decades earlier.
Babson College’s Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, released this year, found that black business owners are creating businesses at a higher rate than their white counterparts and other minority groups.
Fortune Magazine reported in 2015 that the number of businesses owned by African-American women grew 322% nationally since 1997, making black females the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States.
The trick is keeping those businesses alive. The problems all entrepreneurs confront — access to capital, hiring the right people and learning the ropes of running a business — are more acute for people who might not have ready access to resources and mentors.
Organizations such as BizStarts Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp. are already helping with programs that mentor and support “Mom and Pop” entrepreneurs, especially women and minorities.
There are global examples of successful programs, as well. The Grameen Bank was launched in 2008 by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus to help lift women in developing nations out of poverty by offering microloans, training and support. The spectacular payback and non-default rates led to the founding of Grameen America, which has now invested about $485 million through projects in a dozen U.S. cities.
There are models for seeding a Grameen Bank-style fund in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature invested $25 million in the “Badger Fund of Funds” three years ago on the promise it would attract more angel and venture capital in hard-to-reach places in Wisconsin. It’s taken a while, but that fund has drawn sufficient private support and appears poised to invest in high-growth start-ups.
The same approach could work in urban neighborhoods where young companies might not be fast-growing gazelles, but they would provide jobs and economic stability at a fraction of the investment. Potential partners might include the state and private lenders who could stomach measured amounts of risk.
Most people want to work, not vandalize those businesses around them. Thousands aspire to own their own businesses but don’t really know how to go about doing so. Providing more opportunities for inner-city entrepreneurs can help produce a sense of hope that life will be better.