By Tannette Johnson-Elie
For four decades, Curtiss (Curt) Harris has steadfastly fought for equal access for minority-owned businesses in the Milwaukee area. Today, he hopes technology will enable him to deliver an even bigger punch.
Harris has joined forces with his daughter, Lynn Harris Farmer, a former Fortune 50 executive, to launch a new digital directory to link consumers to black-owned businesses in the Milwaukee area. Dubbed, mkeblackbusiness.com, the site made its debut April 2015. The site now is being used by 1,000 local businesses and is followed by more than 3,000 people on social media.
“My daughter felt we had to become more current and put out something that’s web-based,” Harris said. “We decided to create a tool to help African American-owned businesses reach their consumers.”
Harris, 76, is president of Milwaukee Black Business, the parent company to mkeblackbusiness.com, while Harris Farmer is the start-up company’s CEO and chief marketing officer (CMO). Harris brings tried-and-true business know-how, while Harris Farmer represents a more contemporary, technology-based approach to business.
“The key is the partnership Curt and Lynn have. It’s a combination of old school and new age,” says Eric Von, talk show host for 860 WNOV-AM. “She couldn’t be a success in this kind of venture without the institutional knowledge that Curt brings, nor could he be successful without the modern-day technology that she brings.”
Harris was one of the first people Von met when he moved to Milwaukee from Washington, D.C. in 1991. He says Harris was just as adamant then about opportunities opening up for black business owners as he is today. Harris is a regular fill-in host on Von’s morning talk show.
“He’s a great reservoir of historical data. We think alike on a lot of the issues,” said Von, who also is managing partner for Von Communications, a public relations and communications firm.
Harris made his mark in Milwaukee as a business consultant and coordinator of minority participation on major Wisconsin projects such as Miller Park and Camp Randall in Madison. Most recently, he was the interim executive director of the African-American Chamber of Commerce, where he pushed for a more collaborative approach to serving the needs of black-owned businesses.
Harris views mkeblackbusiness.com as a continuation of his efforts to promote economic empowerment within Milwaukee’s black community and hopes he can leverage his experience, alongside technology, to promote black-owned businesses.
“I find myself asking the question, how do I leverage my history and make it current for what we’re trying to do for Milwaukee’s black businesses?” Harris said. “I’m trying to leverage who I know, what I know and the timing of what has happened to make Milwaukee’s black businesses successful.”
A graduate of North Division High School, Harris spent 40 years fighting to remove barriers to public and private-sector contracts for minority-owned businesses. His foray into economic development began soon after he was hired as a research director for the Boston Store in the 1966. Through his work, Harris became interested in helping the city’s minority-owned businesses and received the support of the Boston Store.
“Peter Scotese, who was chairman of the Boston Store in Milwaukee at the time, allowed me to do things with small business during my work hours as long as I got my work done for the store,” said Harris, who received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “I felt the black community needed to grow through the economic development process versus the social services process. I began advocating for minority-owned businesses.”
Long before computers were available, leaders of Harris’ generation took to the streets in protests of inequality; they pushed corporations to hire African Americans; and worked with political forces to help minority contractors get hired on public projects. They didn’t have the luxury of firing off an email or taking to social media, they picked up the phone, wrote letters and spent countless hours meeting with community activists and civic and political leaders to push for change. Their efforts were effective for the time.
But it’s a new day. Technology now is changing the game. Today’s more contemporary leaders are using technology to organize and draw attention to key issues affecting their communities.
Now, those like Harris, who long have been in the trenches, can amplify their voices thanks to technology and affect change in a way they never could before. For example, Harris hopes to provide information about contracting opportunities with local and state government agencies on the website that black-owned businesses can access.
Nevertheless, Harris initially was resistant to technology and never envisioned himself heading up a web-based venture.
“My three daughters bought my laptop, desktop, iPhone and iPad,” he said. “They forced my wife, Helen and I into technology. I’m obviously glad they did.”
Harris hopes more black-owned businesses in Milwaukee will follow his example and get online. After all, Harris realizes that he couldn’t continue to be the advocate he was back in the day if he weren’t willing to wage the battle on new turf – cyberspace. Many in Milwaukee like Von, of 860 WNOV, are glad he’s staying the course.
“He’s (Harris) had to adapt to the times,” said Von. “The website is an example of his growth and adaptation to this new age of technology that one must embrace today in order to advance black-owned businesses.”
Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for Milwaukee Black Business. She is a former reporter/columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a former contributing writer for the Milwaukee Business Journal. In addition to writing, Tannette is an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and an instructor for Marquette University’s summer Urban Journalism Workshop, a program that trains young minority students, primarily from Milwaukee, in multimedia news gathering. Find out more about Tanette at www.linkedin.com/in/tannettejohnsonelie
Images provided by Dennis McMurray of DLittleton Photography. www.littletonimage.com