Could Defining Milwaukee’s “Cool” Factor Entice Young Techies?

A lot of cities would kill to have an Epic Systems in their backyard—a giant software company and talent magnet that has lured skilled young people to the rural outskirts of Madison, WI, who would otherwise have gone to Silicon Valley or some other coastal tech hotbed.

Milwaukee, Madison’s neighbor 80 miles to the east, is arguably one of those jealous cities. The Milwaukee metropolitan area has long been an industrial manufacturing powerhouse, and has tried over the past few years to diversify its economy for the 21st century and create new clusters around sectors like water technology and advanced power and energy. The Milwaukee area is home to a number of big corporations—including Harley-Davidson, Johnson Controls, ManpowerGroup, and Kohl’s—but none that are well known for attracting young techies in droves in the way that Epic has done.

So, as Milwaukee tries to build up a viable tech startup community, what can it do to ensure the necessary talent is there to sustain it?

The city can start by doing a better job of telling its story. That was one of the takeaways from a panel of young professionals who spoke Wednesday morning during the weekly 1 Million Cups startup networking event held at the Ward 4 co-working space.

“We do a bad job marketing the city,” argued Ian Abston, founder of Newaukee, a Milwaukee company that organizes events and programs to connect young professionals and other residents, and encourage them to find ways to improve the city.

The city has Visit Milwaukee, a tourism and marketing organization that Abston said is mostly focused on “heads and beds”—attracting visitors and convincing conventions and business conferences to host their events here. Milwaukee lacks a group focused on shaping the city’s message and identity, Abston said, in the way that Austin, TX, for example, has successfully built a unified brand around things like “Keep Austin Weird” and South by Southwest.

Millennials are choosing where to live based on a city’s “vibe” and culture, Abston said. For Milwaukee to successfully attract young people, it needs to do a better job of highlighting what sets it apart. “What is the stuff that makes Milwaukee weird and cool?” Abston asked the audience. “We need to tell that story, rather than just the brats and beer.”

There are examples of young people spurning the coasts for Milwaukee. Maria Santacaterina, a member experience manager with Ward 4 tenant Bright Cellars, said her company hired someone who turned down a Silicon Valley job offer.

Bright Cellars was founded last year in Boston but relocated to Wisconsin when it participated in the Gener8tor startup accelerator in Madison earlier this year. It ended up making Milwaukee its permanent home, partly because of lower business costs and a lower cost of living, as well as the culture of support for local startups, Santacaterina said. (Bright Cellars is also operating in the same space as two of its investors, Gener8tor and CSA Partners, which runs Ward 4.)

One of Santacaterina’s selling points to potential hires who are also considering jobs in bigger coastal cities is that it can be easier to stand out in a place like Milwaukee. In Silicon Valley, software engineers, for example, might get “drowned out in the crowd,” she said.

“My challenge is getting people to see the value” of Milwaukee, Santacaterina said. “We see it. We believe in it.”

Matt Cordio, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Startup Milwaukee and The Commons, reminded the audience that there are plenty of young people in the area—the Milwaukee region is home to 22 colleges and universities that serve more than 183,000 students, he said. He wants to debunk the “perception that Milwaukee is not a college town,” which is a common description of Madison.

The challenge, Cordio said, is convincing those young people to stay here—and getting “more entrepreneurs to step up and build things.”

Jeff Engel is a senior editor at Xconomy. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @JeffEngelXcon

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