The Commons aims to keep it here by pairing promising students with professionals to solve real-life business problems.
Chandler Luhowskyj wasn’t sold on Milwaukee. In 2017, entering his fourth year at UW-Milwaukee, the Minneapolis native was already planning to leave, thinking there was nothing for him in southeastern Wisconsin.
Then he found The Commons.
“It was completely unexpected,” recalls Luhowskyj, who is still a Milwaukeean and plans to remain one. He’s now director of operations at Urban Misfit Ventures, a local marketing firm.
The Commons, which brands itself as a “skills accelerator” for college students of all fields of study, was formed by the Greater Milwaukee Committee in 2014.
The GMC’s Innovation Subcommittee had long been searching for a sustainable program to develop talent in Milwaukee. Maggie Dauss, one of The Commons’ three co-founders, says that some of their past ideas had been productive in the short term, but none had proven to be “sticky.”
“What’s going to help grow the economy here are companies that are innovative, and a startup culture,” says Michael Hostad, another of the three founders.
To achieve that, The Commons’ work is twofold: keeping talent in Milwaukee, and making Milwaukee more talented. “For a student who is on the fence about staying in Wisconsin … we want to be able to show them the opportunities that exist here,” says Hostad.
Here’s how The Commons works: Every semester, two “cohorts” form with dozens of students from nearly 20 Wisconsin colleges. They meet weekly at the Ward 4 co-working space in Westown’s Pritzlaff Building.
During each session, professionals from different area companies – including the likes of Sargento, Kohl’s and Briggs & Stratton – mentor students by giving them challenges they actually face in the workplace. Last fall, West Bend Mutual Insurance asked its cohort to figure out how to recruit new commercial underwriters – the people who draft insurance policies for non-residential real estate properties. It’s the kind of assignment The Commons encourages its pupils to get lost in.
Through this type of skills-based training, the learners aren’t dealing with the drab hypotheticals and word problems of Economics 101. For them, working with multiple businesses, nonprofits and/or startups per semester feels like doing several high-profile internships in only five months. Co-founder Joe Poeschl tells The Commons participants: “Creative brainstorming is a muscle you need to work out. You get better at it the more you do it.”
Learning how to solve problems often supersedes solving the problems directly. “They throw you in deep with small-business owners and large corporations,” Luhowskyj says. “It’s more hands-on. … It’s immersive.”
During a round of brainstorming one Friday in September, a student suggests that West Bend offer adult internships to find nontraditional candidates for job openings. West Bend HR partner Steve Doman immediately scribbles the idea in a notepad.
“It’s a very different way of thinking,” Doman says of the millennial/Gen Z mindset. Through just a few Commons sessions, he admits he has already thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” several times. Moments like that have encouraged over 50 private entities to sponsor The Commons, offering them not just access to young, talented minds but also leadership opportunities for employees like Doman.
Dauss, Hostad and Poeschl credit their collective “talent ecosystem” for allowing The Commons to grow so quickly. Dauss brought nonprofit connections. Hostad covered education; at UWM, he befriended and worked under Chancellor Michael Lovell, who is now Marquette’s president and was instrumental in forming The Commons. And Poeschl knows startups inside and out.
“Milwaukee is an amazingly accessible city. There are leaders who are willing to have a cup of coffee with you,” Hostad says. “Students just didn’t know how to access that network.”
By proving themselves in The Commons, graduates can land jobs in town, fulfilling the GMC’s goal of plugging the city’s brain drain. Luhowskyj got his job at Urban Misfit through a handshake at a Commons-hosted luncheon. Milwaukee School of Engineering student Sabrina Stangler landed her current software engineering internship through networking that started in The Commons. Katrina Hightower, a UWM grad, became a systems engineer for Kohl’s after taking a Commons-organized trip to New York City.
Looking ahead, Hostad says the “plan is to go deep in Milwaukee.” He wants to encourage a pipeline from local high schools directly into Wisconsin colleges in order to keep students’ sought-after skills here.
“I didn’t know Milwaukee companies were big into new ideas,” Hightower says. “The Commons is bringing in young people to help Milwaukee achieve what it can be, to help it thrive.”
Building Civic Engagement
IN FEBRUARY, The Commons, in partnership with NEWaukee and Startup Milwaukee, will launch a new program called Co:Lab, which aims to inspire and improve community engagement. Seventeen young professionals will be invited to take part.
By the Numbers
Students who have gone through The Commons since it was founded in 2014
Mentors from more than 50 businesses and nonprofits that have participated
2.0 or 4.0
GPAs don’t matter; The Commons purposefully accepts students with a range of past achievements.
Decline in enrollment in the University of Wisconsin System in 2019
This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.
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