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Milwaukee business tech hub expands to create more opportunities for communities of color

todayAugust 31, 2022 110 2

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There’s a continued push to keep talented young professional and creatives from leaving Milwaukee. Many initiatives, organizations and people are devoted to this, especially when it comes to creating safe spaces for Black and Brown people to thrive.

The Milky Way Tech Hub is one of these places.

Nadiyah Johnson started the Hub in 2017 to address the lack of diversity in technology in Milwaukee. The business accelerator provides resources, funding and networking to folks of all ages interested in tech – whether they’re looking for a job, building their startup or they have an app idea.

And, now, after years of successful growth, Johnson is ready to expand even more.

The goal is to redevelop the Milky Way Tech Hub’s current location in the Sherman Park neighborhood into a place with offices and spaces for co-working and events. HYFIN sat down with Johnson and real estate developer Oby Nwabuzor about the project and the need for this kind of tech hub in the city.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

HYFIN: So Nadiyah and Oby, I want you all to think about three words, three adjectives that describe the Tech Hub. I’m looking for a certain word. I won’t tell you what word I’m looking for. But just what words are you coming up with?

Nadiyah Johnson: That’s a good question. Okay. I would say, is it three words each? I’ve got to come up with three words and then Oby’s got to come up with three words?

HYFIN: Yes.

NJ: Okay.

HYFIN: Three words each.

NJ: Okay. I would say inclusive, equitable and… just opportunities. Abundance

HYFIN: Okay. What about you Oby?

ON: I was going to say inclusive, equitable and accessible.

HYFIN: Okay. I like that. The one word I was looking for, in addition to the words that you guys said was, “future”.

NJ: Oh yeah.

ON: Innovation, yes.

HYFIN: Because in the video that you all have online, where you’re talking about this new initiative that you both are starting and collaborating on, you talk about how tech is the future and how you all want that to go through Milwaukee as well. So can we discuss that?

NJ: Yeah, absolutely. Personally, I feel that it is so important for Black and Brown people to be in the field of technology, to have high representation because technology is now and the future and it’s impacting how we navigate society. And so if we are not there, if we’re not in the rooms where these artificial intelligence models, machinery models are being developed, we’re definitely going to find ourselves getting the short end of the stick. And I’m starting to even see examples of that now. And the work of the Milky Way Tech Hub is again, to ensure that as we are seeing technology advance so rapidly that we’re a part of the discussion, we’re a part of the innovation, so that we can benefit from all of the things that’s happening in the tech industry. We play a pretty passive role in terms of using social media, leveraging applications, but not necessarily knowing how to monetize our brilliance. And the reality is that if we think about our ancestors, they always envisioned the future, they always saw themselves in the future and we have to do the same and that means that we have to get ourselves in tech.

ON: Nadiyah’s spot on. And to add to that, when we talk about it from a larger perspective, STEM and STEAM, we’ve been left out of the picture. A lot of times we, Black and Brown people, are not the individuals who go into those career fields. So we’re also being left out of a piece of the pie. So we need to get in there because as tech is continuing to boom, that is going to tie into the spurring of economic growth and development. And we’ve got to make sure we have our hands in that. So we can look to building generational wealth for our communities.

The redesigned Milky Way Tech Hub. Courtesy: Envision Growth

HYFIN: And how does Milwaukee play into that? Because Milwaukee’s an urban city, a growing city, a space where there are young professionals who come here and hopefully stay here, especially if they’re interested in tech. So where does this city fit into that model and that vision that you all have right now?

NJ: What I’ve observed is that Milwaukee is full of young, brilliant, talented, innovative creatives. And that’s what you need in order to have a really great tech hub. What Milky Way Tech Hub specifically is doing is ensuring that there are safe spaces for Black and Brown people to thrive and to think big. So the goal is that Milwaukee will be the next Black tech Mecca. Right now Atlanta is taking the lead, D.C.

HYFIN: They’ve got the music, they’ve got tech.

NJ: Yes, but I think that there is definitely incredible potential here and in order for us to really realize that potential, there needs to be support. There needs to be infrastructure. There needs to be an ecosystem for Black and Brown people to realize their potential, to realize whatever dreams that they may have for their businesses, especially in the field of technology, which obviously covers all verticals, all industries.

Courtesy: Envision Growth

HYFIN: And for both of you, I’m sure you have heard this from folks looking to get into tech — Black and Brown people. What are their concerns outside of it just not being accessible? Do they have any specific concerns that you hear often, where it’s “Milwaukee just isn’t giving it to me and I need your help”?

NJ: What I have been able to observe over the last, almost five years now, running the Milky Way Tech Hub is that it depends on who we’re talking about. The folks who are looking to get a job in tech, I think it’s just helping them to understand that you don’t have to be a genius in order to be in tech. Before I got into the field of computer science, I definitely was like, “Oh my goodness, how am I going to learn how to code? I have to be ultra smart.” And it’s not necessary for someone to be this rare genius in the community in order to thrive in technology. So helping to break down those initial barriers that we as a community have set up but then also I think, not having access to different resources or certifications. Still, so many jobs here in Wisconsin require a four-year degree and so part of the work of Milky Way Tech Hub is having conversations and working with our corporate members to say, what are some non-traditional routes that we can create, some non-traditional pathways that we can create, so that we can increase the representation of Black and Brown folks in your employee base?

And then from the entrepreneurship side, funding. That’s everywhere, Black people, Black women, I think get less than 1% of venture capital funding for their apps. So it really speaks to, “Okay, we try so hard to get the funding. We are good stewards of the capital, yet we don’t get as much as they do.” So funding and access to resources, for sure.

HYFIN: And Oby, you’re on the business side of this. So, from your perspective, how do you navigate this and what are you hearing?

ON: I think with innately how historically Milwaukee has been, from how we are geographically situated with our neighborhoods, it’s no shocker that we are very siloed. So being able to access certain things as a Black and Brown individual can be very difficult, especially if you’re not in the know in Milwaukee. Even if you are a native of Milwaukee, you still have to climb a few hills and it’s a little bit of a fight. So the goal is to make sure that individuals don’t need to fight, especially if you’re a native, that you have the access and you have the resources to be able to do what you need to do to thrive and strive, but to also be able to build wealth.

And essentially, this conversation also I hope, in what we’re doing, helps people re-envision the workforce and how we look at workforce development. Because in some cases, a four-year degree is unnecessary, if we want to be very transparent. It’s essentially a lot of things and a lot of ways for individuals to embark into the tech industry or tech as a whole, it’s just having a particular skill set. It doesn’t require you to have a four-year degree. So we need to also change the narrative around that when it comes to individuals embarking in careers in tech.

Courtesy: Envision Growth

HYFIN: Let’s talk about the specs of this building because I saw the video that was posted online and it’s very impressive. I know the current spot’s a little bit smaller, so this here is massive when we talk about scale. So let’s talk about the specs.

ON: Yeah definitely. So it’s a roughly 6,000 square foot building. Shout out to Yasmine Ogul who’s another woman of color, who did the renderings for the project. We tried to utilize as many diverse suppliers for this project, as much as we could, as that’s a passion and a mission of ours, to utilize the resources and the skill sets of Black and Brown folks. But a roughly 6,000 square foot building, coworking space, events space, dedicated desks, dedicated offices for individuals. We looked into the notion of mental health and what does breaking out of work during the day look like without having to go back home. So really incorporating spaces like that into the building. As we know, Sherman Park is such a beautiful neighborhood so being able to do a project that is positioned three blocks away from the Sherman Phoenix I think is a good way to continue to build upon the success of a neighborhood that needs to continue to grow and thrive, specifically where a lot of Black and Brown folks live.

So when we’re talking about accessibility, accessibility it’s right there. A lot of people don’t go to downtown. People like us have the privilege, actually of being able to access downtown on a day-to-day basis. There are Black and Brown folks who don’t even go past Walnut. So when we talk about that and we talk about some people, they don’t have transportation, this is a very, very specific location where we feel that it’s very accessible for anybody, not even just Black and Brown folks. It’s on a bus line and we’re welcoming to anybody who wants to be a part of the space.

The Milky Way Tech Hub sits at 38th and Fond du Lac – just a few blocks from the Sherman Phoenix. Right now, the lower level holds two businesses, the Cynthia Johnson Insurance Agency and Nadiyah’s Jet Constellations. Both Nadiyah and Oby say they want this building to become a home for ideas and collaboration. Construction is on-going and is set to happen in two phases. The first phase – the multi-purpose and event space — is targeted for completion by the end of this year.

HYFIN: When we talk about the Sherman Park community, Black and Brown folks are there, it’s a little diverse, but it’s primarily Black people who live in that community. So why stay in the Sherman Park community? And then how do you plan to build out or what’s the goal of building out from there?

NJ: I think it’s important to be entrenched in community. I think that the main purpose of the Milky Way Tech Hub is to leverage technology as a vehicle, to uplift residents of the city of Milwaukee. So this is not a super corporate-centric organization. We love our corporate members, but importantly, we’re a community-based organization. And in order to leverage technology as this tool or a vehicle to uplift our communities, we have to be in community. And I personally believe that the solutions to some of our heaviest problems in our communities have to be brought about from the folks who live in community. And that’s why I was not interested in looking at a building downtown, as Oby mentioned, or in the outskirts or where other tech hubs are, because it doesn’t make sense for us to be away from community while trying to serve them.

And I’ll share a quick story. We’re in the neighborhood, we’re not adjacent to other large corporations, we’re adjacent to houses. There are houses on the same block and so I’ve seen young people come home from school or wherever they were coming and knock on our door, just asking, “What is this?” We have pictures of Einstein or words that are inspiring to our communities and I’m able to share about what a tech hub actually is. And so that is a good example of the importance of having representation of black and brown engineers and stem professionals in the heart of the city.

ON: Everything that Nadiyah said is so true and to even add power to what she’s already saying and what we’ve already said, is that the building has also been in her family. So when we talk about generational wealth and legacy, and we have a habit of selling what we own and just doing away with it and then moving into other communities and building in other communities versus building right here in our own homes, in our backyards, in our neighborhoods. And that is where the true essence of community and wealth building starts, right where we live, on our blocks, in our communities, in our backyards.

Courtesy: Envision Growth

HYFIN: And that’s that empowerment piece too. It goes beyond just tech or goes beyond just that idea. And you feel it within, and then the community, the neighborhood blossoms from there.

NJ: Our existence, I think, is a good example of the goals that we’re trying to expand on. So Black, woman, tech, it’s a very rare combo. And so we want to continue to expand on that. And again, it just doesn’t make sense to do so in communities where we are not highly represented.

HYFIN: And you two are two young professional, Black women making things happen in Milwaukee. I see the smiles on your faces. People cannot, but I see them. How does that make you feel, knowing that you all are making an impact?

NJ: It’s exciting. The progress that we’ve made is inspiring, for sure. I’ll speak for myself, when you first asked the question, “Three words to describe Milky Way Tech Hub?” I wanted to say, “Black Girl Magic,” Cause that’s for me, that’s three words. That’s what me and Oby bring! It feels good to trailblaze in this way, especially in the realm of technology. And my hope personally, is just to inspire next generations. I think that as we build as a community, we have to start thinking more of what is the next generation going to look like? And so I’m already looking for women to mentor. Who’s coming next? Who’s running Milky Way Tech Hub next? And building them up.

ON: Everything that Nadiyah said, once again, is just truly a project out of love. I would even say a company out of love. The Milky Way, the mission, the social impact arm, out of love. It is for us, by us to the tee and really being entrenched in this work and really being a sole believer that Milwaukee has what it takes to be the next D.C. or Atlanta is really what continues to fuel this work day by day, because we’re both very busy women. We have a lot going on. We’re both in school, going back for terminal degrees. So, with all that’s going on, we still find a way to get this work done. And we still find a way to still keep the vision in front of us. And that’s what continues to push us. So, God is good.

NJ: God is good.

To learn more about The Milky Way Tech Hub, click here.

To learn more about The Milky Way Tech Hub expansion, click here.

To learn more about Envision Growth, click here.

Written by: Kim Shine

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