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“Deep down, I know I can change:” Fatma Letifi looks to diversify the retail sector in Green Bay’s Broadway district

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This story first appeared in the Blueprint365 Magazine. Click here to request a copy.

The Broadway district in downtown Green Bay is home to more than 150 businesses, mostly in the retail sector. On Broadway, Inc exists to serve and promote the Broadway District as Green Bay’s cultural core for entrepreneurs, creatives, residents, and visitors to engage and succeed in a welcoming environment.

This year, the organization has intentionally leaned into that word welcoming, setting aside $300,000 for microgrants to help diverse businesses establish themselves and grow in the district, and hiring its first-ever diverse business assistance manager to support those businesses.

Fatma Letifi is the one filling that role. When she joined the organization in October 2023, she already had a couple years of experience in microcredit and microgrants in her native Tunisia. But, in her mind, her job with On Broadway will go far beyond signing checks.

“I was a science girl,” she says of what she thought her career path would be. Her love of science and math, she thought, might lead to a professional career in health care.

“And then, in my last year of high school, I was too confident, and I didn’t study so hard,” she says, and didn’t score well enough on the exams to get into the medical track in higher education. So she pivoted to something where she could still lean on her math skills.

“I chose business, because in my mind that was the only (other) thing that’s related to math,” she says. “I like numbers.”

She went on to earn a degree in business management, working at an internship in logistics in the meantime. After graduating, she went on to work for two years in microcredit. In 2019, she landed a scholarship to come to Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. She intended to work toward a second degree in digital marketing, but had to go back to Tunisia when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. 

She tried going back to school again there, this time in logistics.

“I didn’t like it. I studied maybe three days or something,” she says. “I was not convinced anymore to study something that I don’t like. I already have my degree and I’m doing this one just for passion. That’s the reason I was like, ‘I think I need to go back to the United States again.’”

And she did just that, returning to NWTC in 2021. She joined On Broadway shortly after finishing her studies there. Her primary responsibility is to administer the Diverse Business Assistance program, but On Broadway wants to both fund and support minority-owned businesses.

Letifi says she’s spent a lot of her first few months just networking and engaging the community, and finding out what barriers people of color face, asking specifically what keeps them from being more involved in the downtown business community. 

“Some of them said language barrier,” Letifi relates. “I know that some members of the Somali community and some of the Latino community and there is a Hmong community (who) always, want to be a part of our events here, but they still have the language barrier. They want someone that can work with them inclusively and inform them about what’s going on and kind of support them and be a translator.”

Others highlighted financial barriers – which the DBA microgrants will help mitigate. But it’s important that the money come with some additional support, Letifi says.

“Usually it’s so hard to open your own place, not having the resources,” she says. “We are going to provide them with mentorship sessions, some technical assistance, just to make them feel that they are supported here. If they have any issue budgeting, any issue for marketing, any issue for how I’m going to start this business.”

Another major initiative is a retail incubator, which Letifi hopes to open this summer with a handful of vendors, who will be able to start small with little overhead and little risk, and then move on to their own full-fledged shops. (See page 36 for our story on a similar project in the food service sector.) The incubator will provide not only a retail location, but some visibility for businesses owned by people of color.

“The main reason is to provide more opportunities for people of color, and all people actually, to be included here in the Broadway district and give them the chance to show a lot of diversity happening in the Broadway district,” Letifi says. “We know that we have a lot of diversity here, but somehow it’s not showing. It’s not showing to the public that we really have a lot of communities here. We have Hmong community, we have a Latino community, a Somali community, we have a lot of communities to be honest. We would like to show them that we want everyone to be included. And that’s the reason for the DBA actually, just to give them more grants to help them and to support them either to start their own business or expand their business here.”

Letifi is optimistic that she can bring out and highlight that diversity because there’s already a significant community ready to pitch in.

“I was doing a lot of networking here, I was meeting with a lot of people that have the same goal that I have right now, supporting all the people here, supporting people of color or minorities. All of them said they are willing to help to build this inclusive community in Broadway district,” she says, specifically calling out the Color Bold Business Association, We All Rise and the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, which has committed to supporting diverse business owners in recent years.

With the support of that community, Letifi sees a bright future for the Broadway district.

“Right now, when I’m walking around, I don’t see a lot of diversity. But the idea that I have in my mind, in five years, I can see a lot of changes, starting from the small businesses owners here on Broadway, and having people of color included more,” she says. “Deep down, I know that I can change, I can do some stuff. I need time. I need some people around me.”