Notre Dame professor Michael Morris speaks at the first session of the BizStarts Institute Community Bootcamp for Entrepreneurs at the St. Ann Center Bucyrus Campus on Saturday. The program hopes to help low-income entrepreneurs move their businesses forward. (Photo: submitted photo)

Building a business from the ground up is a challenge for anyone, but especially for people in poverty. A new program is helping low-income entrepreneurs make their dreams a reality — and improve Milwaukee neighborhoods at the same time. 

On Saturday, 25 people went to the first BizStarts Institute Community Bootcamp for Entrepreneurs at the St. Ann Center’s Bucyrus Campus, 2450 W. North Ave. Another 109 watched online. 

For the next five weeks, they’ll spend several hours each Saturday learning about tools and concepts, and talking with local entrepreneurs in different subject areas about how they were able to get over different obstacles.  

The program will help businesses with the basics such as accounting and with attaining “micro credit” and additional sources of revenue if securing traditional bank loans is a challenge.  

Michael Morris, a professor of social entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Notre Dame, is working with local business development group BizStarts to facilitate the program. He said it’s designed to help entrepreneurs looking to smaller-scale services or products, such as cleaning and landscaping or T-shirts and bracelets.  

“These are businesses that are ignored,” he said. “All the entrepreneur training programs are trying to create the next Uber.” 

Morris said they understand some of these entrepreneurs are also juggling financial decisions such as paying the rent versus paying a medical bill. 

“If some clown walks in and says ‘Write a three-year business plan,’ you go, ‘I can’t think three years out, I’m trying to think two weeks out,’” Morris said. “What we’re trying to do is take that situation of disadvantage and give you the tools so you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey.” 

After the six-week program sessions are over, the 25 people who attended in person will work with a local business mentor who’ll connect them with other businesses or help find solutions to problems. They will also be set up with “student consultants” from Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who will help them create a website, social media profiles and import their business records into QuickBooks.  

The formula is simple: Once these entrepreneurs get their business off the ground, they’ll ideally hire people in their neighborhood — which will improve the quality of the neighborhood.  

“If we can start one of these businesses in the worst parts of Milwaukee, there’s spillover benefits. Crime will stabilize. Kids will stay in school longer,” Morris said. “It’s not just the business, the business brings the neighborhood together.” 

Morris said he has helped launch similar programs in South Bend, Indiana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Gainesville, Florida.

“It’s not about color, it’s about poverty and disadvantage,” Morris said. “If you start a business you’ve got a lot going against you … if you’re coming from disadvantage, you have even more against you, you face more obstacles.” 

Many businesses look to have a diverse group of workers, but more should focus on having diverse suppliers, Patrick Snyder, BizStarts executive director, said.

“The reality is, if the businesses in Milwaukee really want diversity, they need to start buying and letting people of color be their vendors,” he said. “And these companies are the start of that.”

The program will also track the businesses for the next three years to accumulate information on what is working or what needs to be improved.  

“If you ask the question ‘how many poor people in Milwaukee started a business in the last year?’ Nobody knows, there’s no data,” Morris said.

Collecting data will help answer that question, and provide “insights on best practices and the things that work,” Morris said. 

Snyder said when he sees low-income businessmen and women trying to make their operation work, he thinks of his mother, an Italian immigrant who knew how to cut hair but didn’t know English and could only find work sweeping in barber shops. 

His mom quit sweeping, he said, and created her own small chain of barber shops in senior living centers.

“Instead of making $2.74 an hour … she was making $1,000 a day,” Snyder said. “When I see these people in the neighborhoods, I see her. I see that type of opportunity.”  

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