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Conference spotlights diverse businesses, strategies for success

February 29, 2024
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2023 Marketplace business panel discussion

MARKETPLACE business panel discussion moderated by Michael Ward, Vice President of Business & Community Development, WEDC

A celebration of business diversity. Guideposts to entrepreneurial success. The tools, connections, and inspiration to create a more inclusive state business climate. MARKETPLACE Wisconsin offered all this and more at the annual conference gathering in December in downtown Milwaukee.

“The 42 years that this event has been taking place might seem like a long time when viewed against a single lifetime,” Milwaukee Common Council President José Pérez said in his conference remarks. “But when seen in the broader perspective of the struggle for inclusion and equality, it’s barely a minute.”

Pérez told more than 600 people at the Baird Center that the WEDC-hosted conference has helped open doors to people of color who have too often been excluded from a chance at prosperity.

“No economy will thrive when created by only one set of hands and only one viewpoint,” Pérez added.

Attendees took advantage of sessions offering insights for unlocking export growth, building relationships with lenders, accessing financing for small business, leveraging e-commerce, attaining a variety of business certifications, building capacity among Disadvantaged Business Enterprises in subcontracting, maximizing success for entrepreneurs of color, mentoring, and using the Wisconsin Diverse Enterprise Network and WEDC’s SizeUpWI to grow business prospects.

The conference, open to all current and prospective business owners, connected attendees with resources—including one-on-one matchmaking meetings with federal, state, and local governments and potential corporate partners.  It  also gave business owners a chance to share practical tips on achieving success, remaining persistent, and managing through growth.

Business owners advised newcomers to seek out expertise and advice. Fanni Xie, owner of the Asian pop culture-inspired bubble tea shop Uni Uni in Appleton, urged small businesses to recognize needs that are outside their wheelhouse. She shared how, in her business, she worked to leverage government program and nonprofit support through various chambers of commerce.

“The most common misconception of growing a business is that you can do it by yourself,” she said. “In order to grow, you need the resources, the expertise, the contractors—and you need the experts that have knowledge that may be out of your scope.”

Alegra Fowler, owner of Sweetgrass Behavioral Health in Shawano, spoke about how she worked to learn the intricacies of insurance reimbursement as her business grew. She urged business owners to be patient.

“Don’t let imposter syndrome prevent you from achieving your dream,” Fowler said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I was always asking questions in the beginning—and there are no dumb questions.”

Quinn Long, owner of Clearcut Solutions, a Wauwatosa-based concrete cutting business, advised that business owners attend to work0life balance and narrow their focus before expanding to new areas.

“Before you start a business, make sure that you have a good foundation of life. I separate home and business to remain happy,” Long said. “Once you become a business owner, it’s important in the beginning to stay in your lane and don’t go outside of what your services are.”

Efrain Lara, owner of Milwaukee Pallets, also stressed the importance of family life and setting personal priorities.

“A lot of people value money, but the real value is inside yourself, ” Lara said. “Be happy—that’s success.”

Xie also stressed the importance of developing employees. For example, a barista at her shop was skilled in graphic arts, so Xie put her to work designing materials for the business to help build the woman’s portfolio. That woman went on to own her own deli.

“Part of leadership is creating leadership,” said Xie, who also helps local artists by including their work in her store. “I have a social work background, and I’m trying to combine the two and help the community grow.”

The conference also recognized businesses and leaders with the annual MARKETPLACE Governor’s Awards. Winners included:

Minority Business Enterprise: Abaxent LLC, Pewaukee

Woman-Owned Business Enterprise: Oh Snap! By Shell Photography, Glendale

Disabled Veteran-Owned Business: Camo Crew Junk Removal, Butler

Best Workplace: Vendi Advertising, La Crosse

Diverse Business Champion of the Year: Anisha Jackson, American Family Business Group, Madison

CEO of the Year: Rashi Arora Khosla, MARS Solutions Group, Waukesha

Governor Tony Evers ran down a wide-ranging list of business programs that his administration has implemented.

They include the Main Street Bounceback Program, $128 million in Workforce Innovation Grants, establishment of a $50 million Wisconsin Investment Fund to help startups access capital, and $60 million in funding for diverse chambers of commerce and community development financial institutions.

“Our state, small businesses, and the diverse business community have an incredible influence in making sure we have a strong economy in the state of Wisconsin and that it works for everyone,” Evers told conference luncheon attendees.

WEDC Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes pointed to the potential economic power of underrepresented entrepreneurs. For example, she said that if Wisconsin had as many women-owned businesses as those owned by men, the state would have more than 108,000 new businesses, adding $4.2 billion in new payroll. If people of color owned businesses at the same rate as non-minority-owned business, Wisconsin would have an extra 47,000 businesses, adding $4.2 billion in payroll, she noted.

“We’re working to build an economy for all,” said Hughes. “The perspective and skills that diverse entrepreneurs and employees bring make Wisconsin more prosperous for all.”

MARKETPLACE, the Governor’s Conference on Diverse Business Development, drew 770 attendees, 85 exhibitors, and 38 buying organizations. 635 one-on-one meetings between buyers and potential suppliers or contractors took place during the 2023 conference, and the associated Contracting Academy event drew 121 participants.

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