Ossie Kendrix believes relocating his organization to Bronzeville will provide a boost to the African-American business community it serves.
Ossie Kendrix didn’t have to go far – 13 floors, to be exact – when he left his job as deputy state director for Sen. Tammy Baldwin to take the reins of the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin. “I accepted a salary cut and packed up my one box and moved downstairs,” explains Kendrix.
And he’s not done moving. Since becoming president and CEO in April 2017, Kendrix has been devising plans to relocate the chamber from its current home on the sixth floor of a West Wisconsin Avenue office tower. The new location on North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Bronzeville is expected to open in July and have more working area than chamber’s current 1,300-square-foot office. That’ll make it better able to serve its roughly 225 members.
“I want to move this organization to the neighborhood, where it can be at ground level,” Kendrix says. “My vision is that it will be a hub for entrepreneurs. I’m optimistic that our increased space will allow us to have all of our workshops in-house. Right now, they are all spread out because we just don’t have the space here.”
Kendrix was part of Gov. Tony Evers’ transition team – on the Personnel Advisory Council – and also has worked at Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin and the city of Milwaukee’s Office of Small Business Development. At the chamber, he took over for Eve Hall, who now leads the Milwaukee Urban League.
“Milwaukee needs a vibrant African-American business community, and Ossie Kendrix has an important role to play,” says Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “He brings a sense of community to his role. I am impressed with his ground-up approach to building the organization.”
A Milwaukee native who resides in Halyard Park, Kendrix, 43, knows he has his work cut out for him.
He wants to boost the chamber’s focus on advocacy and support through industry-specific networking events and workshops and by growing a revolving loan fund and expanding a critical entrepreneurial leadership training program called RISE.
He talks of “an investment fund for entrepreneurs”; another priority is convincing business owners to pursue opportunities in e-commerce. “You have to diversify your revenue streams,” Kendrix says. “Not everyone is going to walk through your doors.”
One of the most significant challenges for small businesses owned by African-Americans is access to capital, Kendrix says. “There are often barriers,” he explains. “It could be credit challenges or tax challenges or not having a financial model. We have the technical assistance that can support them and eliminate those barriers.”
When asked about the racial disparity that plagues Milwaukee and its impact on the African-American business community, Kendrix says he “tries not to read into that as much.” Instead, he shifts the conversation to ways the chamber is working to create opportunities for minority business owners. He points to a partnership between the chamber, the Urban League and Local Initiatives Support Corp. that led to the launch of RISE, which serves as a business accelerator for entrepreneurs in underserved neighborhoods and whose aim includes helping to revitalize vacant city-owned storefronts.
Kendrix insists he’s committed to the chamber but readily admits that he doesn’t expect his time there to last more than three to five years. “When you make an impact and have a healthy exit and engage the transition to the next leader, to me that speaks to providing opportunity and being open to the fact that you can get complacent. I don’t ever want to get complacent for an organization that needs the services that we provide.”
Wanda Montgomery, director of community partnerships at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and chair of the chamber’s board, calls Kendrix a “rising executive in our community.”
“I don’t know how long he’ll be at the chamber, but I think we’ll get the best out of him while he’s here,” Montgomery says.
AACCW by the numbers
Share of annual budget from membership dues. Major funders include Bader Philanthropies and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.
Approximate amount raised by the chamber’s signature fundraiser, the Breakfast of Champions