Megan Diaz-Ricks was raised by an entrepreneurial mother. Her parents opened a restaurant in Middleton three years ago. But Diaz-Ricks didn’t grow up wanting to be a small business owner herself.
“Seeing my parents go through it may have been a deterrent,” Diaz-Ricks said with a laugh. “It took until they opened their own restaurant that I was thinking, ‘I want to support small businesses in some way.’”
Diaz-Ricks does just that in her new role as director of economic development at Common Wealth Development, a local nonprofit providing affordable housing, small business support and workforce development programs.
She oversees Common Wealth’s adult and youth workforce development programs, as well as its two business incubators: Main Street Industries and Madison Enterprise Center. And she still works in her family’s restaurant, Lupe's Taqueria in Middleton, three days a week.
Madison Enterprise Center, a partnership with Madison Gas & Electric, is a first-stage, accelerated business incubator where businesses stay for up to a few years. Main Street Industries is a second-stage incubator with no time limit. Common Wealth connects businesses with existing resources for entrepreneurs around Madison, like the Doyenne Group.
Old Sugar Distillery, Potter’s Crackers and Giant Jones Brewing are “three big names that everyone knows, but they may not know that they’re in Common Wealth’s business incubators,” Diaz-Ricks said.
“We have the space,” she said. “We create affordable commercial space on the isthmus, which is very hard to find.”
That incubator rent revenue contributes to Common Wealth’s budget, lessening their reliance on grants to provide programming, she said.
Diaz-Ricks recently sat down with the Cap Times to talk about her role.
My first association with Common Wealth is affordable housing, not economic development. Is that a common perception?
What we have is a gem in our economic development. It started out that way. The Willy Street-area corridor was in a decline in the ’70s and early ’80s, so the neighborhood came together and said, “Hey, we want to create robust opportunities for folks that live here. What does that look like?” They knew that that meant creating space for small businesses, but also affordable housing.
We renovated a lot of different spaces that were vacant, and a lot of them were in very poor shape. A lot of small businesses grew out of that.
Is there one area of this new job that you're most excited to dig into?
Definitely the business incubation. My mom has been a small business entrepreneur since I can remember. Her family owned the first Mexican restaurant in Whitewater, Wisconsin. They opened that up, I believe it was in the early ’70s. My mom worked there her whole life, and kind of knew that that's what she wanted to do, was to be a small business entrepreneur.
Seeing her grow and thrive and build her own small business really inspired me. This is their livelihood, this is their life. They put everything they have into this business every day, and it's not easy. The hours are not standard hours; you're there at all times of day.
You told Madison365 that you want to see more woman-owned businesses and people of color in the incubators. Do you have any initial ideas of how to accomplish that?
I think that a lot of folks have a viable business but they don't know it. Also (there’s) social capital. Who has the capacity to fail, basically? Who can just start a business and be okay with failing, that may have a social safety net or resources to help them if they were to lose this revenue stream? I would say that it looks mainly male, mainly white, maybe folks who have resources, so middle to upper-middle class folks. A lot of entrepreneurs of color don't necessarily have that support or social capital, or capital in general.
I’ve started to have conversations with folks who are already doing this type of work, (like) Gina Podesta from Synergy Coworking. She has given me some great insight about what's going on, and what I can do to help folks, to make sure that I'm keeping an eye out for people who may be ready to have conversations about, what does it look like if we move your business out of your house?
Businesses are going to fail. They are. One idea is not going to work, but another one might and that's OK, that's 100% OK.
I saw that with my mom. She had a business that failed, but now she has a thriving business and that really makes me proud. But if she didn't have the support, what would have happened after she failed? Would she have not even tried again?
A year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished?
Definitely connecting more with economic groups who support our small business entrepreneurs of color and women. I would say having a plan in place for our 5-year vision, our 10-year vision, what does Common Wealth look like?
Historically the programs haven't intersected as much as they could. We didn't really tap into that potential. We have small business incubators with the goal of job growth creation, and then we also have adults who are transitioning into the workforce. We have youth and we want to help them with employability skills. All of those things have such great potential to connect and to work together.
How can laypeople help this cause?
I would love folks to support our small businesses, because these small businesses support our programming. It's really hard out here for small business owners and if you decide not to buy from a chain retailer, and you buy from one of our small business owners instead, that can make such a huge difference.
It's not only supporting them in their business, it's also supporting a whole umbrella of work that's trying to change the trajectory of so many different people's lives in Madison. You're helping us to get folks affordable housing and support them while they're in there, so we don't see them returning to possibly being homeless or eviction.