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$75M in grants could help businesses in underserved Milwaukee communities

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Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce
Members of the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce after Governor Tony Ever's press conference on October 5th announcing the available grants. From left to right: Chimeng Yang (HWCC Vice President), Terrence Moore (HWCC Business Development Coordinator), Maysee Herr (HWCC Executive Director), Gov. Evers, Ger Thao (HWCC Operations Manager), Yuli Her (HWCC Business Development Coordinator) and Jim Lee (HWCC Marketing Coordinator)

Earlier this month, Governor Tony Evers announced $75 million in grants will be allocated for businesses in underserved communities. This funding from the American Rescue Plan Act is meant to help those communities rebound from the economic hardships caused by the pandemic.

Of this money, approximately $37.5 million will go to small businesses through community development funds. The other portion will go to chambers of commerce for underserved communities.

Businesses owned by people of color have struggled throughout the pandemic, some did not qualify for federal loans. The pandemic has also amplified the inequities in business creation.

Chambers of commerce have long-served as resources for making business dreams come true in an inequitable system. Maysee Herr is the executive director of the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce. She explains how the federal aid money will help out.

"Our chambers could broaden our capacity to be able to help [business owners]. Because a lot of our chambers — our ethnic chambers, our ethnic and diverse chambers — are working on shoestring budgets," says Herr. "We do it well, but we could certainly do it much better. And we want to be able to reach even more people."

The Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce takes a different approach to supporting local businesses, compared to traditional banks. The organization focuses on each individual new business owner and looks at their character references and borrowing history, rather than focusing on one criteria, like a credit score.

"We provide technical assistance, networking opportunities, resources, connections — if we need to do that for clients — and other members who come to us," says Herr. "But we also provide lending dollars."

From Herr's perspective, following up with businesses, providing opportunities for training, as well as lessons on investment are the first steps to support and sustain underserved communities.

"These dollars are going to help not only us, but help [businesses] to be able to to not only survive, but thrive and then sustain [themselves] beyond that," Herr says. "We're just thrilled to be able to have that opportunity to be a part of that [success] story."

Mallory Cheng joined WUWM as a producer for Lake Effect in 2021.
Kobe Brown is WUWM's Eric Von fellow.
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