Public Policy Forum Blog

Supporting entrepreneurship in Milwaukee

The inaugural Milwaukee Startup Week took place the first week of November, bringing entrepreneurs together to learn from one another. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Wisconsin was recently ranked last in the nation for startup activity by the Kauffman Foundation. The Milwaukee metro area didn’t fare much better, edging out only Pittsburgh to take second-to-last among metro areas nationally. 

Many local and state leaders were quick to point to other, more positive measures of our economy and to the progress we are making to encourage entrepreneurship. Indeed, these rankings struck us as somewhat surprising considering the activities of BizStartsGener8torScale Up MilwaukeeWard 4WWBIC, and others. No matter how well we are doing overall, we believe there may be an opportunity to increase entrepreneurship activity in Milwaukee that we seem to be overlooking.

Milwaukee’s inner city is home to a hidden scene of unregistered businesses (i.e. businesses operating in the informal, cash-based economy) with potential for growth. Such businesses include the family that works together to cater small community events, the father who repairs cars out of his garage, or the individual who alters clothing out of their home.

There may be an opportunity for the organizations that support entrepreneurship in Milwaukee to help bring these inner city startups into the fold. They may not be high-tech, bright, and shiny enterprises run by people who fit the mold of the young, bespectacled person who is hip to the latest trends. But the people who run them are as entrepreneurial as they come. The opportunity is right in front of us to help them strengthen and grow their businesses and eventually get them registered.

The good news is we already have the organizations in place to do the work, including some that have been created recently. The challenge is that many of those organizations have relatively small budgets and thus limited capacity. One of the key findings from our 2011 report, Assembling the Parts, was that in metro Milwaukee “the budgets of organizations dedicated to entrepreneurship and start-up companies – and the tools available to support those efforts – appear lacking when compared to the resources available to those focused on business attraction and business/real estate financing.”

At the time, BizStarts and WWBIC (which focuses on women and minority-owned businesses and already does outreach to informal, inner-city businesses) were two of the only organizations active on the local startup scene. Five years later, new organizations have popped up that are helping to increase local entrepreneurial activity.

An important question is whether these organizations have the combined capacity to expand their focus to central city startups and whether the region’s political and business leadership has the collective interest to do so.

Joe Peterangelo