Fireside chat recalls the origin of the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development
The first time the state of Wisconsin organized an event to help minority-owned businesses get acquainted with potential purchasers of their goods and services, it consisted of little more than a series of one-on-one sales calls in a handful of hotel rooms.
That was 40 years ago, in 1981.
This year, MARKETPLACE 2021, the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development, was a three-day event that included workshops, panel discussions, networking and an afternoon devoted to publicizing major public and private projects that will be seeking bidders. Split between live sessions at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee and virtual panel discussions streamed online, nearly 800 people were registered to attend and 80 exhibitors displayed their products and services.
In a fireside chat honoring the 40-year anniversary of the event, co-founders Bill Beckett and Robert Wynn reminisced about the early days of the program. They recalled how at the first conference, 15 to 20 business owners met with about 10 state government purchasing agents, and doughnuts and coffee were served.
To accomplish even that much, the state had to hire an employee to search for minority-owned businesses. Eligible entrepreneurs were recruited, screened and matched with potential buyers.
“We knocked on doors and did a dog-and-pony show to find people,” said Beckett, who was director of minority business development in what was then called the Wisconsin Department of Development. “You had an hour to make your pitch … It was an opportunity for a healthy exchange.” Beckett is currently president and CEO of CHRYSPAC, or Chrysalis Packaging and Assembly Corp., in Milwaukee.
The connections made at those meetings in 1981 resulted in less than $100,000 in sales over the next 12 months. “Not a lot by today’s standards, but at least a start,” Beckett said.
In a follow-up effort to boost business opportunities, Wynn—then a legislative analyst—worked with the state Legislature to establish the Minority Business Development Fund, an effort championed by then-State Sen. Gary George. Over the 15 years the fund existed, it issued $10 million in loans to minority-owned businesses and leveraged $70 million more from other sources, leading to the creation or retention of 2,800 jobs.
Wynn succeeded Beckett as director of minority business development in what became the Department of Commerce, and later served as financial education officer with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. Wynn is now president and founder of CLIMB USA, a Milwaukee nonprofit that provides financial education to youth and families of color.
Today, Wisconsin has more than 40,000 minority-owned businesses, or more than 9% of all businesses in the state, according to a UW Extension report. At MARKETPLACE in December, more than 400 individual meetings were held between minority entrepreneurs and potential business partners.
Wynn noted the changes in society that have accompanied the MARKETPLACE program’s growth. “Can you imagine today, a procurement officer and one person with them in a hotel room? That would never work. It’s good to know that we’ve come into the ballroom, rather than being in that environment,” he said.
MARKETPLACE is Wisconsin’s premier conference aimed at helping businesses plan for future growth by making connections with government agencies and major corporations. Open to all current and aspiring business owners, the conference is focused primarily on small, minority-owned, woman-owned, veteran-owned and LGBTQ-owned companies.
Jean Marie Thiel, president and CEO of Belonger Corp., the only woman- and American Indian-owned mechanical contracting firm in Wisconsin, said she has been attending MARKETPLACE since she founded her business in West Bend in 2000. She said the conference offers an opportunity to meet other business owners and to challenge herself to be a better entrepreneur.
“Sometimes I come down here just to reignite and get my sales pitch back and get my head dialed in,” she said. “Many times, I meet customers here for the first time.”
One of the first people Thiel met at her first MARKETPLACE gathering was Minoo Seifoddini, president and owner of Custom Service Plastics, a Lake Geneva business Seifoddini had just acquired in 2000. Since then, the plastics injection molding business has grown to become a company with more than 160 employees, operating in a 200,000-square-foot facility and serving customers on four continents.
“MARKETPLACE—you go and talk to people and learn from their experience. It really helped me, big time,” Seifoddini said. She said one thing she learned was that to succeed, her business would have to be flexible. It now serves clients in the agricultural, industrial, consumer products, electronics, medical and retail industries. “My advice to smaller companies: You have to diversify … Quality, delivery and put your heart into a job—that is it,” Seifoddini said.
Thiel said she has learned that business has to be conducted on a “person-by-person basis. People say business is not personal. Know what I say? The heck it ain’t. It’s as personal as it gets. It’s our whole livelihood. It’s our children’s livelihood. It’s our community.”
A crucial element for entrepreneurs is to make connections in order to serve their communities, said Nelson Soler, president and CEO of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Southeastern Wisconsin and president of the Multicultural Entrepreneurial Institute in Milwaukee. “What MARKETPLACE does is convene all of us, once a year, to share those differences, to raise our voices, to create contacts with governments or corporations and allow us, as entrepreneurs, to celebrate our passion, our purpose,” Soler said.
Wynn said experience and support are essential for minority business owners to succeed. “It’s very important in the private sector that people of color be elevated, supported and mentored—because that’s really where you get your experience that you can segue into your own business. Beyond that, you have access to capital but you also have to have access to the market. That’s where MARKETPLACE comes in,” he said.
Wynn called on conference attendees to extend their attention to youth entrepreneurs and give them opportunities to advance—“if we can really get our younger people to understand how to think and live in an economic way. So, I hope all of you will do more along those lines,” he said.