Milwaukee’s RISE program aims to give black entrepreneurs a leg up

Milwaukee’s RISE program aims to give black entrepreneurs a leg up

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The African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin (AACCW) “champion[s] the growth and sustainability of African American owned businesses by providing access to capital, education and advocacy through capacity building and strategic partnerships.”

Since 1993, the AACCW has been supporting and encouraging African American entrepreneurs through several different avenues. They are a Kiva Loan Trustee organization, they offer a Revolving Loan Program, and they offer two different entrepreneurial program tracks, the SPUR program and the RISE program.

Last week, I sat down with Ossie Kendrix, AACCW’s President, and Jona Moore, AACCW’s Program Manager, to talk about the RISE program and the impact that it has had on Milwaukee’s African American entrepreneurs. The RISE program is a 14-week entrepreneurship accelerator program that “supports both start up businesses and established businesses to understand and build their companies in Milwaukee” says Moore.

Two facilitators, also local entrepreneurs, run the 14-week program, following a curriculum similar to the MORTAR program out of Cincinnati, Ohio. This curriculum covers topics such as finance, marketing, branding, pitching, and building a business plan. Depending on the topic of the workshop, local consultants are brought in to take a deeper dive into each subject.

Each RISE participant also gets one-on-one coaching to allow each entrepreneur to evaluate work-life balance, to look at the “why” behind their businesses, and to assess what change each entrepreneur is trying to make with their businesses. The individual coaching aspect is a big part of the RISE program, Moore points out, as a business has a better chance of being sustainable when the individual running the business has support systems in place.

Toward the end of the program, RISE entrepreneurs participate in Pitch Night, an event open to the public. Each business is tasked with creating a table display to showcase their business and what they have learned throughout the program. Then, pre-selected entrepreneurs pitch their business to a panel of judges who listen to each pitch, ask questions, and evaluate each business plan. Four prizes totaling $5,000 are given out at each Pitch Night: two audience choice table display awards, and first and second place pitch awards given by the judging panel.

After the 14-week program, the supports put in place through the RISE program don’t just disappear. Kendrix and Moore have worked to put together a RISE alumni group that participants can opt into once they’ve graduated. The alumni group offers quarterly workshops to continue to support the entrepreneurs, focusing on topics such as customer service, sustainability, and growth. Kendrix notes that the RISE participants become like a family and the alumni program helps them to continue to support one another.

Kendrix and Moore also look to past RISE participants for their programmatic needs. Cohort two alum, Tomira White, owner and head chef of Delicious Bites, provides the food for weekly RISE classes.

Three cohorts of RISE participants have already graduated. These three cohorts represent 33 individual businesses, 25 of which are currently up and running, and 31 of which are owned and operated by women. Two additional cohorts are set to begin classes within the next month.

Cohorts four and five have received 53 applications for less than 30 spots. The majority of applicants are African American women, which Kendrix says fits the national trend. “African American women are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs… [so it is not a surprise that] the majority of RISE applicants are African American women.”

When asked about success stories from the RISE program, Moore and Kendrix referenced several examples:

  • Joyce’s House, owned and operated by Mercedez Butts, started out in the RISE program as an idea, but through the program, Butts learned about what it meant to be a for-profit versus and non-profit and how to work with local and state leaders to receive funding and be a part of the feeder program for those battling addiction. Joyce’s House officially opened in late 2019.
  • The Bronzeville Collective MKE, co-created by Lilo Allen, Tiffany Miller, Tomira White, and Jasmine Barmore (Allen, Miller, and White were a part of the RISE program), the Bronzeville Collective “spoke to meeting a need relative to creatives and makers where collaboration exists” says Kendrix. After their lease with the building was up through the Pop-Up MKE program, the group worked with the building landlord to stay in the space.
  • VIBEZ Creative Arts Space, owned and operated by Chrishella Roche, offers a space for people to get creative and often collaborates with other RISE participants to pair creative projects and catering needs with their businesses, like Lush Popcorn and Sensational Flames.

The RISE program has already made significant impact in the City of Milwaukee and the AACCW shows no signs of stopping. Their goal is to have four cohorts of RISE participants in 2020 and they plan to open the doors of their new location this spring.

When asked what their favorite part of their job is, Kendrix stated that he loves “leaving a lasting footprint in economic development and working with impact entrepreneurs.” Moore shares similar sentiments stating, “This is a new role for me, but I love learning about economic development and supporting and experiencing the progress of entrepreneurs.”

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