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Some leaders believe "thinking outside of the box" is an important tool for economic growth that helps to create new products, processes and services. While Milwaukee's history is steeped in innovation, today the state ranks low in the generation of new ideas and products.Project Milwaukee: Innovation - How Do We Compete? examines the status of innovation here, its value and the factors that are laying the groundwork for the city's future success. We'll talk with entrepreneurs, investors, educators and others about Milwaukee's assets and challenges. And, we'll learn about some of the big ideas coming out of Milwaukee.

Project Milwaukee: The Commons Fosters Innovative Skills in College Students

Nicole Beilke
The Commons groups college students and gives each a challenge

In order for companies and communities to thrive these days, they must innovate. A program in Milwaukee nurtures talent among college students with hopes of keeping them here. It’s called The Commons.

On a recent Tuesday night, small groups of students are scattered throughout Ward4, the old Pritzloff warehouse just across the river from the Third Ward.

As you move close to one group, you can hear them talking about developing a product to help people with anxiety.

Credit Nicole Beilke
Ward4 provides the setting for innovative collaboration.

This is how The Commons works. The program accepts local college students studying business, engineering, marketing and design. It puts them into groups – with mentors and gives each a task – either to take on a corporate challenge or develop a start-up company.

"We think of ourselves as an entrepreneurial skills accelerator,” says co-founder and former health care executive Dave Zachman, "so we're not about starting companies. Will some companies form and grow? Unequivocally. But it’s not a metric by which we want to measure ourselves. We think of it as the art of entrepreneurship: collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity.”

Those are skills the founders thought were missing in the college classroom, so they created The Commons to foster an innovative skill set.

A longer-term goal, according to Zachman, is to keep future graduates in the Milwaukee market. “What we’re most proud of is the anecdotal stories of students who are not from Wisconsin who have said, 'I didn’t realize what an innovative place this was; I'm not going to go back home after school for a job. I'm going to stay here in Wisconsin,'” he says.

Joe Poeschl, another co-founder and member of Startup Milwaukee, says the strategy is to weave students into a net.

"We have 22 academic institutions that, when you draw a line between each one of them, creates this nice little web. When you mix in all of our mentors that are here - they’re investors, they’re industry experts and all of our corporate partners, this creates another layer,” Poeschl says.

Monique Francis is part of this semester’s cohort. She’s thrilled about getting to know professionals in industry.

“It was a huge opportunity to be picked up by Manpower to work on their corporate challenge. They’re doing all that they can to make us ready for employment. They are definitely really looking forward to trying to help get us all some sort of opportunities. In my particular case, I'm definitely getting the connections and if I want to place in Manpower, I may even have that,” Francis says.

Co-founder Poeschl also hopes its students will grab the attention of corporations not in Milwaukee, yet.

“We create an economic ecosystem that is so vibrant and robust and growing quickly then we certainly are going to attract the attention large outside corporations to set up headquarters here because they see that talent here,” Poeschl says.

It’s 9:30 p.m. and this evening's workshop has been over for about a half hour, yet a few students are still engaged in thoughtful discussions. The leaders of The Commons joke about how hard it is to kick these students out at the end of each night. It’s another skill employers may covet - persistence.

{Other co-founders of The Commons include Matthew Cordio of Startup Milwaukee, Charles Ries of Marquette University and Michael Hostad of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, as part of its Innovation in Milwaukee or MiKE program.} 

Nicole Beilke is a journalism major at UWM. She is also studying for a certificate in Digital Arts and Culture. Nicole has reported on topics such as art and activism in Milwaukee, including these pieces for Media Milwaukee: UW-Milwaukee Students Join Tony Robinson Protests and The UW-Milwaukee Grad Behind the Collectivo Coffee Skull.
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