Our cover story, “Whip-smart and Gutsy,” spotlights 12 successful entrepreneurs who have made their mark in Milwaukee’s business world, while the article “A Dream Deferred” focuses on residents of inner-city ZIP code 53206, a community hobbled by poverty and dismissed by many as an urban wasteland.
Two tales with a contrasting cast of characters. Yet, if you read closely, you’ll see common themes emerge.
For her research, freelance writer Jon Anne Willow examined around 30 startups and interviewed their founders. As she narrowed her list, the stories began to resonate.
“Writing this stirred up so much,” says Willow, an entrepreneur herself. “All the hopes and fears, and the countless hours, dollars, laughter and tears invested in reaching for a dream.”
Two new partners quit high-paying jobs at Microsoft, for instance, throwing their luck to the wind to start a high-tech firm in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point. Others sold their homes or moved in with their parents to get a solid financial foothold as they launched a new company.
“No matter what their business,” says Willow, “each has the guts to put it all on the line, to stare fear in the face, and to refuse to fail.”
Meanwhile, freelancer Barbara Miner spent months exploring 53206, chronicling the stories of people and places in words and pictures. As she made her introductions, she heard complaints from residents about how they are represented by the media and the public at large.
“They don’t like the stereotypes,” Miner says, “because it lumps together and labels everyone in 53206 as symbols of all that is wrong with African-American neighborhoods. They wish the media and the white community would understand that they are people trying, just like everyone else, to have a decent life.”
It can’t be ignored that, by and large, many of the profiled entrepreneurs have had certain privileges: easier access to a college education, support from business incubators, financial backing from families for their startup companies.
Most residents of 53206 haven’t been as fortunate. Shaken to the core by the 2008 recession, their neighborhoods have been hurt by forces beyond their control – loss of blue-collar jobs, drug-related violence, the foreclosure crisis.
If there is evidence of a divide between the haves and have-nots, it is striking in 53206, where more than one out of three working-age males are unemployed, and two out of three children live in poverty. The disparity manifests in the lack of confidence in the future.
Yet, as I read these stories, I see commonalities between the neighbors of 53206 and the new entrepreneurs – a sense of dignity, pride in who they are and purpose in what they do, whether designing an online avatar for health-care clinics or filling prescriptions at a corner pharmacy, operating a global tea company or running a neighborhood bar.
In her reporting, Miner visited North Division High School, where, coincidentally, one class was studying 53206 as part of a geography unit. When she asked the classmates what they would like people to know about them, one student said this: “Notice that we are here, that, like you, we are human, and we deserve the same things you want.”
Recognition, respect, a chance to succeed. Things we all desire, and, yes, deserve.