It started with a party.
Khalif El-Amin invited some friends to a bar for his 25th birthday. Word got around: More than 350 people showed up.
Then there was the T-shirt. Khalif’s brother, Que El-Amin, designed a logo featuring a wreath wrapped around international currency symbols that served as the letters Y-E-S.
He printed it on a sweatshirt for himself. His cousins wanted one. Then his barber. Then strangers who followed him on Instagram.
Realizing they had a knack for making connections and spotting business opportunities, the Milwaukee brothers have turned their attention over the last five years to help students and young professionals in Milwaukee’s predominantly African-American urban core hone their technical and entrepreneurial skills.
Ultimately, they want Milwaukee to be a more inclusive city, especially in the business community.
Today, their Young Enterprising Society runs a handful of programs for students and young entrepreneurs in a part of the city that often gets overlooked.
“There’s tons of talent — great entrepreneurs,” Khalif said. “They just need to be in that environment that nurtures their ideas in the proper manner by supporting them with the right resources, tools, mentors to be successful.”
The brothers’ latest program, called The Blueprint, is backed by funding from the City of Milwaukee as well as Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and the Milwaukee Institute. It began in September with a business boot camp for 40 companies.
A dozen of those companies were then selected for the Cultivator, an eight-week training program led by the El-Amin brothers. Cultivator companies will pitch their businesses at the end of the program during Startup Milwaukee Week, bringing the budding entrepreneurs further into the city spotlight, starting at 4 p.m. Nov. 11 at Venue 42.
“Entrepreneurial communities and startup communities are built from the bottom up. It requires the entrepreneurs to build them,” said technology entrepreneur Greg Meier, who serves as a mentor to the Cultivator. “They’re not built from the top down. If you want to build an entrepreneurial community in Milwaukee or in the central city, you need the entrepreneurs like Que and Khalif to build it up.”
Helping companies grow
Tyeshia Coopwood has been trying to figure out where she fits in Milwaukee’s entrepreneurship community.
Coopwood, 31, founded her company, Potty Pearls LLC, in 2017. She broke even that first year selling a discreet odor eliminator. Potty Pearls started turning a profit this year.
Since September, Potty Pearls has been a part of the eight-week Cultivator program run by YES from its offices in the Century City Tower on North 27th Street.
With the guidance of Que, Khalif and the mentors who visit the Cultivator’s sessions each Saturday, Coopwood’s business is growing.
Potty Pearls ran a flash sale of its portable, fragrant pearls that eliminate toilet odors. Coopwood conducted a customer survey to find out their fragrance preferences and interest in subscriptions. She’s learned about growth hacking — an umbrella term used for strategies to acquire as many users or customers as possible with little investment. The biggest benefit of the Cultivator experience: collaborating with the other entrepreneurs.
There’s Nikia Johnson, who’s prototyping a logistics platform for small businesses, and Sekhere and Monte Eady, who connect students with startups looking to hire employees through Like Minds. And Anita Mogaka is planning a digital media platform to highlight excellence in the black community.
Coopwood, who grew up in Milwaukee’s central city, said the business owners share a vision of improving the city through entrepreneurship, creating manufacturing and technology companies.
“We don’t need another daycare or hair shop,” she said. “What we need is innovation. How can we disrupt what we normally do and think outside the box? Que and Khalif have really been onto something.”
Inspired by parents
As boys, Que and Khalif watched as their father ran his social services agency wearing a suit every day and as their mother worked as a mental health therapist.
The model of helping people every day stuck.
Que, 34, and Khalif, 32, took separate paths that led them to YES.
Que graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and started flipping houses. He ran a political campaign in Chicago. (The candidate lost.) He moved to Dallas to make a short film. Lately, he’s been involved in several development projects in Milwaukee, including redeveloping the Wildenberg Hotel.
Khalif joined his dad running seven different entities after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He served as the assistant to the CEO managing ideas and meetings as his father ran a daycare, foster care placement agency, group home and other businesses.
YES grew out of one of their brainstorming sessions about how to help people with their resources and network.
“We might bounce a thousand ideas off each other in a day; 10 might stick,” Khalif said. “We’re constantly brainstorming and making it work for us.”
It’s how the brothers started throwing parties that would help give kids free haircuts. Then educating thousands of students through YES’ STEAM program. Or how they started growing apple and pear trees in orchards in the city. And how the Cultivator program came about.
“All of it is taking what we know and spreading it,” Que said.
The brothers say they’re just building an economy from what’s available.
“Through entrepreneurship, we can improve employment and bridge that gap that’s serving as a roadblock — segregation,” Khalif said. “Entrepreneurship serves as an equalizer to level the playing field.”
“We’re not special,” Que said. “We saw needs and fought to fulfill those needs, and we need other people to step in and help.”
The brothers are now looking for additional funding to run another two sessions of The Blueprint next year, seeking a mix of cash and in-kind donations of a half-million dollars.
Sarah Hauer can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @HauerSarah and Twitter @SarahHauer.