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Filling a void for black-owned businesses

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With a successful first year under its belt, the Heymiss Progress Expo and Job Fair is back for round two on Saturday, July 22, at Madison College because, as its founder Sabrina “Heymiss Progress” Madison explains, there’s still a lot of work to be done to increase local opportunities for black business owners.

“It’s necessary because if we/I don’t create it, who will?” Madison asks. “I’ve been in Madison since around 2007 and there hasn’t been anything close to what I’ve been able to create for black entrepreneurs. From the history I’ve collected from black residents who have been here for 20-plus years, I’ve learned that in the past there was some sort of craft fair put on around the holidays, but it’s never been where the city comes together and shops with 60-plus vendors who are black entrepreneurs.

“It’s also necessary because there has to be an outlet for those who want to support these entrepreneurs to be able to do so,” Madison continues. “For example, the expo attracts attendees from many different backgrounds. We get politicians, teachers, college students, police officers, and journalists who shop at the expo. How would those people be able to learn about local black entrepreneurs and spend dollars with them if we/I didn’t create these spaces?”

If that sounds like a bit of a rallying cry, well, it is.

According to Madison, more of the people who hold power in the Greater Madison area have to decide that the black community is valuable and begin to make real financial investments in its future. “There are many black people in the community working to create opportunities but what’s lacking is real investment. What happens is that people become burned out and move on.”

Black business boosters

That the Heymiss Progress Expo and Job Fair is already the largest African-American consumer tradeshow in Wisconsin after only one year says something about the room to grow in this space.

Last year’s event was held at the Urban League of Greater Madison and brought in 44 vendors and more than 500 attendees on a rain-soaked day. This year Madison is expecting more than 2,000 attendees at the new Madison College location, which will host 60 vendors and job fair featuring more than 40 employers from across Dane County.

Last year, “we kept hearing over and over, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Madison’ — even from long-time Madisonians,” says Madison. “The overall response from the attendees and vendors was, ‘When is the next one and please keep me posted!’ The vendors gained the exposure they were seeking and were able to gain customers who went on to become regular, returning customers. For some of the entrepreneurs they’ve shared that they didn’t think they’d be able to actually make as much as they did in sales before the July expo. So for the vendors and attendees, the inaugural event was a success.”

It’s one more reason Madison says events like the expo are necessary because they do what other non-black-lead events do for primarily white entrepreneurs — they provide exposure to the larger community, and access to resources and mentors who can help them grow.

Part of the problem is identifying how many black entrepreneurs are even operating in Dane County. Madison says it’s not an easy number to pin down.

“From my work alone, I can say that we’ve gone from 44 to 80 identified black entrepreneurs,” she notes. “This includes an artist who has gained through the expo and other events the ability to leave her full-time job for part-time hours and is now earning enough to grow her business. It also includes my helping to produce at least six to 10 more UpStart graduates and at least 10 vendors who take part in other events and will be interviewed for the upcoming market-ready program offered through the city of Madison.” (UpStart is a free entrepreneurship program for women and people of color that is supported by Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation).

Madison is helping resolve some of this confusion by creating the Heymiss Progress Center for Entrepreneurship and Leadership, set to launch this fall. “It will bring my work together under one space and I’ll better be able to leverage resources to serve black men, women, and families in the Greater Madison area. We’ve already got WARF’s UpStart program on board to help secure the space at 100state, which will allow me to help in onboarding UpStart students and getting them connected to the 100state community where I’m now located.”


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