By Dylan Deprey
As Lilo Allen was finishing her last year of college, she found out her mother was sick. She needed a way to make money from home. She took her childhood passion of jewelry making and put up rest of her financial aid to fund Papyrus & Charms.
Her Afrocentric “culturally conscious handmade goods” connected with festival goers across Milwaukee. After several years of consistent growth, she wanted a space to sell year-round. She tapped into the Pop-Up MKE program, which allowed small business owners to test their business model for 30 days in a temporary space.
The storefront sat next to the Black Holocaust Museum on North and Vel Philips. After Allen’s 30 days, Tiffany Miller’s unique adornments boutique, Flyblooms, moved in. The next month, it was Tomira White’s custom clothing and eyewear boutique, Distinctive Designs by Tomira.
Allen, Miller and White were also participating in the RISE MKE entrepreneurial program hosted by the African American Chamber of Commerce of WI (AACCW). They were a part of the first cohort to complete the program.
As a collective idea for their original space was already in the works, the three partnered during the program and eventually swept on the final “Pitch Night.” Along with artist, Jasmine Barmore, they officially formed the Bronzeville Collective.
The Bronzeville Collective is just one of the many minority-owned small businesses that have participated in the RISE MKE program since 2018. From candle making and catering, to marketing and aesthetics, RISE MKE is geared toward helping small businesses build growth and sustainability. Their curriculum goes through branding, marketing, financial planning and basic goal setting.
“The program really takes them and their small business through the whole gamut, from start to sustainability,” said Ossie Kendrix, AACCW President and CEO.
Businesses are grouped in cohorts of 15. They are then separated into business ventures in-the-works and existing businesses. The first several weeks are for gauging the participant’s mentality going into owning a business.
“Some people thought it was kind of rude, but I thought it was appropriate to test if people were cut out to be a business owner,” Allen said. ““Towards the end of it, some people realized they had to go back to the drawing board and refocus.”
RISE emphasizes on setting small businesses on the path for success from the jump. Whether it is tips on keeping personal and business finances separated, to the easily digestible Hip-Hop related references, RISE ensures small businesses a greater chance to grow and sustain.
RISE has a partnership with SCORE to provide mentors to give entrepreneurs an added edge in creating their business plan. At the mid-way point, participants work with business mentors and life coaches to get a real-life, first person experience in entrepreneurship.
Allen said it was amazing that RISE made it possible to work with mentors that were mostly black women and men, who had been in business for a while.
“It was important to see people in our community already doing things that we wanted to do, and have business coaches that we aspired to be like,” Allen said.
The participants work towards Pitch Night, which is a Shark Tank style event that allows the entrepreneurs to pitch their business plan to an audience and a panel of judges. First and second place is allotted a cash prize as well as prizes for best table display.
Allen said Pitch Night prepped them to sell their dreams in a way everybody can feel the way they do about their business.
“Sometimes as a business owner, you love your business because you love it, but the hard part is focusing on why other people should love it,” Allen said.
She said the investors were asking some tough feedback questions, but it pushed them to set the tone as the first cohort going through the program.
“It was also really dope having the entire community there because it didn’t feel like negative pressure, it was really supportive,” Allen said.
Tomira White of Distinctive Designs by Tomira said the program brought together the Bronzeville Collective, but it also created solid relationships after the program.
“My networks grew and our classmates became friends,” White said. “We’re like business buddies and we consult with each other and meet.”
Jona Moore, RISE MKE Executive Director, said of the 33 participants that went through the program, 31 businesses were women. Since the first two cohorts have gone thorough, 26 businesses were still growing and sustainable, which included Lush Popcorn and Vibez Creative Art Space in the Sherman Phoenix.
“There have been a lot of broad businesses that have come through the program,” Moore said. “Even if you don’t know what you’ll get from the program, you should still apply because it will more than likely propel you to where you’re trying to go.”
RISE MKE is accepting applications for the next two cohorts in February and March. The deadline is December 31st. Applicants will be notified in early January. Visit risemke.org to apply and for more information.