Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Milwaukee bustled with African American-owned businesses. But a combination of changing demographics and concentrated poverty dimmed the community’s once-bright glow of entrepreneurship.
In 2012, African Americans made up 22% of all business owners in Milwaukee County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Recently, the city’s African American entrepreneurs have stimulated new growth with the establishment of the Bronzeville Collective and Sherman Phoenix.
Individual entrepreneurs also have realized the need to create a support network for their peers to make Milwaukee a home of more profitable, diverse business districts.
We asked these four black businesswomen how they got their start:
Artists can’t make money.
Jasmine Wyatt was not willing to let that stereotype or – as an African American woman – others define her.
She won the Scholastic Arts and Writing Award in high school, graduated from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and began selling her artwork, which is a mix of home and office decor murals, drawings, screen prints, woodcuts, sewn pieces and digital art and design.
The young woman who once faced the cliché of the starving artist now shares a storefront in the Bronzeville Collective with fellow business owners Lilo Allen of Papyrus and Charms, Tiffany Miller of Flyblooms and Tomira White of Distinctive Designs.
Wyatt’s pieces range from $10 to $25,000.
It wasn’t easy. Wyatt, 30, said she struggled to promote and market herself and maintain a healthy work-life balance.
She also created opportunities beyond the classic art gallery by creating accent pieces, designing logos and supplying original art in unusual spaces.
“Be authentic in the art and have your own style,” she said. “Stay true to who you are and your business. Also, connect and build with the community. A lot of times, it’s who you know.”
Latasha Langdon, 41, has been striving to be a who-you-know resource for Milwaukee youth since 2009.
Growing up in a household with a strong support system, she worked as a project manager in IT and volunteered with youth in her spare time. There, she noticed a persistent need for the type of supports she had grown up with.
Ten years ago, she decided to turn her volunteer work into a business.
Langdon leads workshops, such as her “I am who I am, this is me” workshop that helps youth raise their self-esteem, and her “It’s my time, what do I do with it?” workshop that helps students with time management.
In her entrepreneur-focused workshop, Langdon said she works with students to figure out what they’re good at and then develop a plan, so they can turn their passion into a career – something she was able to do using her corporate background and the help of mentors such as Radonna Rogers.
This year, 40 to 45 students have gone through her workshops in 10 weeks.
“Plan, network (and) don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable,” she said. “One of the things I tell youth is to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because that’s where you grow.”
Rahshenia Patrick has become an expert in a topic that makes some women squirm – literally.
Like many other women, Patrick knew firsthand the difficulties of maintaining feminine hygiene through pH imbalances, birth control side effects, irregular menstruation and bloating.
So she was thrilled when she came across Yoni steams, a chemical-free, non-invasive option that produced relief from those issues.
Her first thought was how she could help other women experience that same relief.
Patrick became a certified womb wellness facilitator and Yoni steam practitioner, and has provided steams for more than 400 women since April of last year.
The blend of herbs depends on the client’s needs – cleansing, disinfecting, cooling or gentle steam. For a gentle blend, for example, she uses chamomile, tangerine peel, mugwort, parsley, peppermint, cornsilk and astragalus. Clients then sit over a blend of the herbs, which are boiled in water allowing the steam to rise.
Patrick said starting a business took a lot of trial and error, so she guides other women through the pitfalls of entrepreneurship, such as how to start out of pocket and avoid loans the way she did.
She also conducts seminars for young women on proper hygiene.
“Be willing to be coachable,” she said. “There will be people who will pour into you and people who want to see you fail. You’re going to need to remember your why. It helps to give motivation because things are going to go wrong; it’s inevitable.”
This 31-year-old Milwaukee native didn’t start out wanting to own her own business; in 2016, she was just a bride who wanted her wedding stationery designed just so – and quickly realized she wasn’t alone.
Six of McMurtry’s friends became brides in the same year and they asked her to design their wedding stationery.
Their trust and positive feedback led McMurtry to start a business.
In the beginning, McMurtry had to pay for all of her materials out of pocket and go through the ups and downs of branding and promotion.
Now the self-described perfectionist works from home, has a website and has made a name for herself incorporating color and style trends into her designs.
McMurtry specializes in wedding merchandise – invitations, save the date cards and acrylic signs – as well as personal stationery, journals, planners, notebooks and notepads.
She said she gets the most compliments on her intricate designs, quality binding and ability to empathize with the pressures of being a bride.
“If you want to start a business, I would definitely tell you to just start it. Don’t allow the fact that you don’t have the funding deter you from starting,” she said. “(Be) patient. (Be) content with where you are. (Be) open with making mistakes. You won’t always get it right, but the key is to learn from those mistakes.”