Business support cohort yields collaboration and growth opportunities

Small business owners can have a great product, service and talented ownership but still struggle to thrive without access to the right resources and technical assistance. A collaborative effort supported by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and partners has brought a group of businesses in historic Bronzeville together to share expertise, fill some of their needs and contribute to the revitalization of the community overall.

The ThriveOn Economic Opportunity Workgroup aims to improve equitable economic opportunities in collaboration with business and property owners and the Historic King Drive BID. It offers resources and real-life solutions to move the needle forward.   

Kermiath McClendon is impact investing manager for the Foundation, a co-founder of the ThriveOn Collaboration, which encompasses this workgroup and others.

We see ourselves as a conveyor, supporters, and workers behind the scenes to push the work the workgroup designs forward into fruition. Collaboration is vital in building thriving communities, and this workgroup is a prime example of how it can be done collectively for all,” McClendon said. We complement the philosophy and work being done at the ThriveOn King development.”

Groups like this are an extension of the Foundation’s commitment to increasing equitable economic opportunities in the region. To date beyond the building investment of ThriveOn King, it has committed $32 million to the ThriveOn Neighborhoods – Halyard Park, Harambee, and Brewers Hill.

In November 2022, the workgroup launched the Business Support Cohort for businesses in the Historic King Drive BID. 

The Foundation gave $30,000 to support the program along with The Business Council, which provided the remaining $85,000. 

Throughout last year, program managers – one for restaurants and one for services and retail – worked with business owners to find and identify their needs, connect them with subject matter experts and foster collaboration.

The Business Council managed the cohort, which consisted of 11 businesses. Businesses had to be established for at least one year to apply.

Really position businesses for growth and identifying ways for them to thrive on King Drive was the goal for The Business Council,” said Executive Director Marjorie Rucker. We worked with them on their businesses and things they needed individually…and I think I speak for the whole Economic Opportunity Workgroup – it was really about ensuring that collectively that needle moved in a positive direction for the businesses in the cohort as a whole.” 

Being a part of Black history

Dr. Shakkiah Curtis is the owner and founder of Spinn MKE, an indoor cycle studio with a focus on community, culture and hip-hop that aims to offer an affordable and accessible boutique fitness experience. It opened in 2022 at 309 W. Brown St. and in 2023, Curtis joined the cohort.

For Curtis, the goal isnt just to grow her business; its to be a part of Black history.

To see that same space that used to be a prominent space for wealthy Black people now being rebirthed and rebuilt was something that was close to my heart,” she said. To be able to come, in kind of a time where its not there but its being built and I could be a part of that history, I fought for it.”       

Spinn isnt the only new business on the block striving to be part of history. In recent years, King Drive has seen several new businesses pop up in what many are calling a revitalization of Bronzeville. 

“It’s actually a really interesting time, we’re seeing more people take risks and invest in themselves and in their passion. But it takes time, and any additional partner support is always needed.” Ray Hill, executive director of the Historic King Drive BID, said.

The BID served on the workgroup to ensure the surrounding businesses were kept up to date and that their interests were communicated. It operated as a support organization to the cohort.

“The direct technical assistance and the one-on-one engagement through the cohort has been helpful to businesses. It's offering what the BID has limited capacity to do,” Hill added. “Together we’ll see that translate in the district whether that is them getting a window repaired or having more funding options. It gives BID members additional opportunity for assistance to really strengthen their business from the inside out.”

Through the cohort, Curtis connected with an accountant and received help with her books and marketing.

Being able to be connected to marketing and being able to be connected to an accountant and being able to have this kind of internal infrastructure was the biggest for me,” Curtis said. To be around people who think like me, who support me and who could build a network with me…as a new business, thats vital.

Fostering collaboration

Curtis collaborated with other members on events including INPOWER Solutions, a strategy, marketing and technology firm, and HoneyBee Sage Wellness and Apothecary Café, 1819 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Alongside INPOWERs Healthy MKE initiative, Spinn offered free classes for community empowerment and individuals seeking sobriety and a chance to have a healthier body. 

Aziz Abdullah, a co-founder of INPOWER, said his team became more intentional about supporting different businesses. He noted that most of his team is vegetarian and began frequenting Pepperpot, 2215 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive., more after learning that while the vegetarian options arent listed on the menu, they are available. 

Community for us is everything,” Abdullah said. We believe where you live and play is where you should spend your money.” 

Martin Luther King Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit real estate development company, is a part of the ThriveOn Economic Opportunity Workgroup. Some of the businesses such as INPOWER are in MLK EDCs King Commerce Center, 2745 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

Nicole Robbins, executive director of MLK EDC, said the experience encouraged her to be more collaborative than she was before and highlighted the different needs businesses had. 

Even though people share the same geography, each individual business needed different issues addressed to maintain their presence and be operatable on King Drive,” Robbins said. We have a vested interest in seeing those companies stay on King Drive, and instead of just hearing about it through the grapevine, I wanted to be a part of the everyday impact.” 

Robbins offered consulting services and volunteered to spearhead a pilot project to offer tours of King Drive to drive up business. 

Taking the next steps

With phase one complete, the cohort plans to explore a buyers group in phase two as well as further opportunities for collaboration and technical assistance. Many of the original cohort businesses intend to join the next round.

Milwaukee has bred a history of competing against each other and working in silos,” Abdullah said. I think the more that we can operate in cohorts, even if we dont share everything but share some things, and build that collaborative spirit is where value can continue to increase.” 

Funding from the Foundation, The Business Council and Northwest Side Community Development Corporation for phase two totals $210,000

“We have a wealth of opportunity in the corridor, and we value the ThriveOn Business Support Workgroup for extending the work we are doing. We are uplifting our businesses to offer more positive experiences,” Hill said. “You can’t order that online. We want people to experience King Drive, not just come to it.”