Black business owners from Madison and Milwaukee met with lawmakers at the state Capitol on Wednesday to discuss ways the state can better serve black communities.
The event, organized by Rep. Jason Fields, D-Milwaukee, brought business owners face to face with legislators from committees that oversee workforce and economic development, urban revitalization, financial institutions and the state budget.
Lawmakers fielded questions about access to loans, mentorship opportunities and how the state can facilitate connections with investors.
Black business owners face "a different kind of adversity" than their white counterparts, said Milele Chikasa Anana, publisher of Madison's Umoja Magazine.
Ruben Hopkins, chairman and CEO of the Wisconsin Black Chamber of Commerce, noted that many people in the room on Tuesday were first-generation business owners.
"If you're not at the table, you are probably on the menu. It's imperative you come to things like this," Fields said to the group.
Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said more needs to be done to inform black business owners of what resources are available to them. She also argued in favor of strengthening chambers of commerce.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, said as a former small business owner, she has been blown away by what she has learned in office that would have made her more successful in business.
Johnson said more access to microgrants and opportunities to borrow money would be helpful, along with a program to have successful business owners mentor newcomers.
"The other thing is we need to strengthen our communities," Johnson said, "so those individuals living in our communities can afford to be our customers."
Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, serves as chairman of the Assembly Committee on Jobs and the Economy. He said lawmakers need to increase funding for schools and for science and technology efforts, to put people on a path to success at an early age.
He encouraged business owners to reach out to lawmakers, especially if they aren't receiving information or help from state agencies.
"We work for you. If you're having an issue, we want to hear from you guys so we can go and fight on your behalf," Neylon said.
"A lot of times, black folks are not invited into those spaces," Madison said. "That they put themselves out there to hear us is important."
Future events should include more discussion about technology and how to support millennials entering the business world, Madison said. She would also like to see a more comprehensive agenda from black business leaders and from legislators, she said.
Lawmakers also need to be more cognizant of disparities when they craft policies, Madison said.
"If we really truly want to talk about equity then legislators have to force themselves to also think about who’s missing," Madison said. "Immediately, right at the inception of the conversation or idea, who’s missing, who’s not here."