When the Currents told Wendy Baumann, chief visionary officer of the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation about this month’s focus on Economic Abundance, she responded with an enthusiastic “Great … Love the theme,” via her iPhone. Which makes perfect sense, since the corporation that she has guided for 20 years, WWBIC, has been all about nurturing, championing and achieving local economic abundance since its inception.
The enthusiasm is contagious at WWBIC, a statewide nonprofit organization that supports women and men who want to start their own business, grow an existing business, or create jobs for themselves and others. On a recent visit to their office, I got to meet a WWBIC client who was about to open his new BBQ venture at 4115 N 76 St., Larry’s Hoagies & Bar-B-Que Station. Larry had great news – the meat smoker for the restaurant had arrived, and was set to be installed and ready to roll for the business’s opening weekend. Minutes later, Larry’s small business consultant, WWBIC’s Athena Agoudemos, showed up on the scene and congratulated him heartily. Next came Mara Henningsen, vice president of client programs and services, who I was about to interview for this story. She told me Larry’s food is incredible – it got rave reviews at a big family event Mara hired him to cater.
Small business owners all over Wisconsin have used the valuable resources WWBIC provides to pursue their goals. Local clients include Purple Door Ice Cream, Coast In Bikes, Fresh Is Best, Melthouse Bistro and Lazy Susan, just to name a few. In 1987, WWBIC started in Milwaukee with a mission to provide opportunities for “individuals who face barriers of traditional means” to pursue “their dreams and economic well-being, providing business education, one-on-one business technical assistance, financial capability programming, and access to fair and responsible capital.”
“Our niche is really strong,” Henningsen explains. “Yes, WWBIC is a CDFI (community development financial institution) in that we provide micro and small business loans to people under served by traditional financial institutions.” But they are different from most CDFIs, since they also offer financial education and technical assistance to their clients. WWBIC is also a Women’s Business Center offering business education classes and “technical assistance provided one-on-one to clients by staff members.” Each loan recipient, for example, is assigned their own small business consultant to work with them throughout the life of the loan.
WWBIC is a CDFI funded by the federal, state and local governments, as well as earned revenue and donated revenue. The organization offers four major services: 1) access to capital/lending; 2) business education; 3) business technical assistance, and 4) financial capability education programs (classes on budgeting, building wealth at any income level, repairing one’s credit, and more). They also work with partners to provide individual development accounts – matched saving accounts for acquisition of an asset, including the purchase of a home.
Henningsen stresses that WWBIC is “noncompetitive to banks with a community focus,” but instead is “able to come in and help folks that banks may view as high-risk. We are a ‘life happens’ lender in that we can help people that have, say, low collateral or poor credit. We can also work with people who have bankruptcy for a viable reason.
“We are putting dreams to work, although we’re not guaranteeing that the dreams will work,” Henningsen admits. Nevertheless, since WWBIC has instituted the small business consultants into their model, they have shrunk their loan default rate to a mere 2%.
“We want clients to outgrow us,” Henningsen laughs, “We really do! And it’s happened.”
To illustrate the point, Henningsen proudly gives the example of WWBIC client GSI General Inc., a building restoration and remodeling company that did about $1.4 million worth of business in 2013.
Over the past 15 years, WWBIC has expanded with physical offices in Madison, Racine and Kenosha. Their Milwaukee office is gearing up to move from their old location at 2745 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive into the Schlitz Park River Center building (1555 N. River Center Drive). The WWBIC-owned Coffee With A Conscience, a café that sells fair trade, organic coffee as well as unique local products made by WWBIC clients and Wisconsin-owned businesses, is located in Schlitz Park as well, and in 2013 opened a second location in the 411 Building (411 E. Wisconsin Ave.). All CWAC profits support the mission of WWBIC’s work.
“We’ve seen exponential growth” in the last two years, according to Henningsen, because they have “the right players in the ballfield.” Not only have they been souping up support staff in the form of a pool of around 200 volunteers (bankers, lawyers, graphic artists, marketing pros, etc.) from around the state, they have been expanding their focus to Spanish speakers and deep bicultural backgrounds.
“Our team is a huge aspect of our growth,” Henningsen reiterates. “We now have four physical offices, and those over the last few years have expanded to include folks on the ground in rural communities around the state. The answer to local problems is local people, so we went with that kind of a model, putting people on the ground, living and working in those communities, from those communities, that can provide the kind of services we do in our offices.”
WWBIC Helps Riverwest Business
Riverwest resident Martha Kipcek (see Neighbor Spotlight, page 6) is one local businesswoman who benefitted from WWBIC’s help.
“I was a client of WWBIC,” she recalls, “but back in 2002. I was a dazed single mother trying to put together a game plan for supporting my family. I turned to food as my strategy and WWBIC as my guide to entrepreneurism. The class was excellent. 16 weeks for three hours every Monday night. It was intense but provided the steep learning curve I needed to make it as an entrepreneur. Start Smart was the name of the class. It helped me launch a small catering business and be successful enough to provide the sole support for my family of four.
“In the ensuing years, I morphed into a sustainable good food activist and have suggested the class to dozens of people wanting to launch their small business, whether in the food industry or not. We are lucky to have an organization like WWBIC in our backyard. They offer tremendous support to our community. Thank you for shining the spotlight on WWBIC.”
Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation 2745 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive Milwaukee, WI 53212
414-263-5450 Office Hours: Monday – Friday, 8:30am – 5:00pm Or by appointment wwbic.com
by Vince Bushell
Our economy operates on the scarcity principle. Concentration of wealth among the few is a topic in the news. From the middle to the bottom of the economic classes, we are being told that we are losing ground. Less and less and less every year. Less of what? Money of course. It is scarce and hard to get. Our economy may be improving but not for the middle to bottom of the scale.
Maybe it is time to change how we look at this issue. Instead of focusing on what is wrong let us focus on what strengths we have as citizens and a community. Who is making a difference? Who can help smooth the path to a more secure and satisfying life in Riverwest and Milwaukee?
What and who and where are the agents of economic abundance in Milwaukee?
In this issue we will show some success stories and some agencies that offer opportunities for citizens to move toward prosperity and economic security. This focus is on the small. The very small scale. Start up businesses by young and old entrepreneurs, places to go for assistance in creating a business plan, getting a loan, managing staff etc. are the focus of this issue.
And I mean small. Business that start with the founders only or a few hires. We are not talking about 600 employees. We know that these larger corporations play a role in employment here, but small businesses offer not only jobs to thousands in Milwaukee, they also offer the ability for people to have more control of their lives and often increased satisfaction.
I am not promising easy. But never doubt that in a room full of citizens there is a remarkable amount of assets. It represents an untapped economic abundant future. And maybe economic abundance means being satisfied with less rather than more. A tomato from the backyard always tastes the best. A home that you own built by Habitat for Humanity can be a castle.
And for those who have struggled with alcohol, drug abuse and depression, a way forward on that small scale by organizations like Serenity Inn (see story p. 11), offers a new life that recognizes the true needs of the individual and the dangers that too much can bring.
A number of years back Woodland Pattern brought Wendell Berry to speak in Riverwest. His philosophy had a profound affect on me. I always thought it was good enough to just care and offer help in the community. But Berry said you don’t have a neighborhood unless you have commerce near your door. And the people that run these stores and shops and bars, live in that neighborhood. That active small scale commerce builds community. And if you don’t believe that just spend a few hours in the Riverwest Co-op and Cafe. It’s the buzz.
Want to learn more? Attend the following conversation.