Startup scene in Milwaukee gaining diversity

Milwaukee’s startup and tech community is steadily becoming more diverse as people from various backgrounds find their place in the metro area’s evolving economy.

That’s according to Elmer Moore Jr., executive director of Scale Up Milwaukee, an organization working to foster growth in the area’s business ecosystem. Since moving to Wisconsin in 2013, he says he’s seen some major changes.

“There was a time that you’d go into a room where the conversation was around entrepreneurship, startups or tech, and that room was… the friendly way to say it is homogenous,” Moore said in a recent interview.

Moore, an African American, says these conversations were dominated by men who looked, dressed and spoke the same. But over time, more new voices from different cultures have been introduced.

“We’re starting to see that room diversify,” he said. “Diversity is a function of really capitalizing on different backgrounds and ideas to make better companies, better businesses and better innovation, frankly.”

Moore is one of the co-chairs for the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference, an annual event held by the Wisconsin Technology Council. This year’s two-day conference takes place today and tomorrow at Venue42 in Milwaukee.

Aside from his duties as co-chair, Moore will be speaking on three different panels about local resources for entrepreneurs, diversity and inclusion, and other topics.

“So I’m excited to see a room with some color; I’m excited to see a room with some gender diversity,” he told “I’m excited to go into rooms where people recognize that technology means more than coding.”

Before coming to the state, Moore was associate dean of admissions heading multicultural student recruitment at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. In the past six years, Moore says he’s seen Milwaukee evolving in a number of ways. For one, he says the way people talk about entrepreneurship has shifted, from a somewhat abstract perspective, to a more concrete, hands-on approach.

He also says entrepreneurs in the area are getting more comfortable with talking about failure and starting to accept that not every startup idea will pan out. And he adds that Milwaukee is waking up to the role it plays in the larger global community.

“We’ve got a real stake in the ground around some specific technologies, some capacities. We are better than a lot of other cities, counties, states and countries in some industries, and we’re getting louder and prouder about that,” he said. “That’s one thing I’ve loved seeing change.”

Moore says entrepreneurs need more local case studies of business success rather than trying to simply emulate the success of people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

“There’s a few luminaries that we use as case studies when we talk about business. … The challenge of that is when we look at these really big bets they made, these outrageous innovations were frankly small bets,” he said. “These companies are astronomically well-resourced.”

For startup leaders in Milwaukee, he says better examples can be set closer to home.

“We need an example of a neighbor or a college classmate, or a high school classmate, or someone across the highway who we can look to, and say, ‘Oh my gosh, they started in their kitchen, or their garage, or they started in the lab, and look at where they are now,’” he said. “We are increasing the number of stories we can tell about that.”

Going into this summer, Scale Up Milwaukee is preparing to launch the sixth cohort of its Growth Accelerator program. Moore says the group will be announcing participating startups soon, along with details for an upcoming launch party.

“When I hear folks in the kinds of businesses that we don’t often talk about in startup world, who are aspiring to tremendous startup-level growth, that’s awesome,” he said. “That’s what we’re working on, what we’re celebrating right now.”

Listen to a recent podcast with Moore:

See details on the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference:

–By Alex Moe