As a Black woman born, raised and educated in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I know firsthand the barriers that are too often presented due to a lack of representation in spaces of influence. The problem of representation becomes especially damaging in organizations that have the resources to shape the landscape of the city. I founded the Milky Way Tech Hub in 2017 as an effort to make Milwaukee a renowned tech hub that centers on Black people. I believe Milwaukee’s tech and innovation ecosystem can play a huge role in shaping the city’s future where every resident has access to resources and opportunities that the field of technology can afford them.
It’s no secret that success in the tech and innovation industry generally requires social and financial capital. It’s important to recognize the wealth and funding gaps in this country are reflected in who is in charge and who directs capital. This systematically puts Black and brown people at a disadvantage. So what’s the solution?
Invest in Black Tech Hubs
Black-owned tech and innovation hubs across the nation have been chronically underfunded, underestimated and underappreciated. Milwaukee is in a unique position to spearhead a different narrative and lead as an example for other cities. The city houses the headquarters of several budding Black-led innovation/tech-based organizations. Through corporate and community partnerships, a new model has begun to take shape.
Urban Futures Center is an initiative led by American Family Insurance that aims to honor these organizations through allyship, resources and funding. This model is rooted in the acknowledgment and amplification of the impact of Black-led organizations such as Sherman Phoenix, Young Enterprising Society, Journey House and Milky Way Tech Hub. These organizations are grounded in community and are dedicated to building power within the neighborhoods most impacted by the racial disparities.
Collectively, the group has reached over 2,000 students and dozens of Black and brown startup founders through our STEM and entrepreneurship programs. These programs have now started to attract national talent to the city. Sherman Phoenix has been featured in NBC, Forbes and New York Times for housing 40 Black-owned businesses in its entrepreneurship hub, YES has awarded hundreds of thousands to startups and Milky Way Tech Hub has the fastest growing community of Black founders and tech professionals of any tech hub in Wisconsin with $100,000s invested in founders.
The time of Black-owned tech hubs having to do more with less is coming to an end. Initiatives like American Family’s Urban Futures Center create space, opportunities and funding avenues for these community-based organizations.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion
Over the last two years, we have seen countless corporate players making commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The natural instinct of large companies is to create a department where DEI lives in order to show their commitment. The drawback with that model is it usually misses the grassroots community entities that already exist and are doing the work. This is not to say that partnership cannot be generative; it is to say that it should not duplicate or erase what exists.
American Family Insurance is showcasing a model for true corporate allyship. Their investment model has served as a bridge by resourcing Black leadership with direct ties to the community, especially in Milwaukee. This has helped to find, develop and retain talent. We can incubate new businesses, provide educational opportunities and build pride in the community that we love.
What is most exciting is that this corporate allyship is scalable locally and can be replicated nationally. Urban Futures Center has started to replicate the work in Milwaukee in different cities across the nation. Programs such as the STEAM & Dream Summit bring together local organizations to activate, amplify and invest in the city’s Black and brown-led organizations.
STEAM & Dream programming went national last year through partnerships that featured architecture and hip-hop curricula in Atlanta and DC. Since its inception, STEAM & Dream has carried out a multitude of programming ranging from fundamentals of coding to Venture Capital Academy. Its national presence is now taking the form of city summits led by another Black-led organization, Connect Business Consulting, which aims to showcase Urban Futures Center in Atlanta, Chicago and Phoenix.
Numerous reports have named Wisconsin the worst place to be Black in this country, with Milwaukee leading the way in incarceration, the wealth gap and the education gap. This is due to a strategic divestment that has happened over generations and it must be addressed through deep and purposeful investment from the public and private sectors.
This narrative is changing as new strategic partnerships begin to take shape. The Urban Futures model works so well because it is steeped in the belief that those entrenched in communities are closest to the solutions for those communities. Corporate-led efforts that move without being led by community often fall flat. The work of Urban Futures Center is a great example of what happens when investments are coupled with trust in the community, and Black and brown-led organizations are given the opportunity to lead. Community autonomy is the key to scalable and sustainable impact.
Increased investments in Black-led tech hubs with a critical equity lens sets us on a path in the right direction. The technology industry continues to rapidly and persistently change how we navigate society. We must move with the same level of urgency and commitment to using the technology industry as a vehicle to decrease racial disparities. This begins with putting Black and brown people in the driver’s seat.