Featured The Hustle

“It’s kind of now or never.” Pandemic, remote work give rise to Ambition Center, Milwaukee’s newest Black-owned coworking space

Marcell Jackson

On a Saturday afternoon in early March, Marcell Jackson is giving a tour of Ambition Center MKE to entrepreneurs Kayla Lewis Allen and Usher Williams. They’ve arrived early to set up for a workshop at the one-and-a-half year old co-working space on the north side of Milwaukee. 

The event is part of the center’s “Collaboration Corner,” a peer-to-peer learning opportunity for the business and entrepreneurial community. Allen, co-founder of Madison-based Full Circle Television, is the day’s featured speaker. The title of the workshop on building brand pillars and targeting your audience is “Build A Community and Boost Your Sell.” Williams, who owns Usher Williams Photography, is here to shoot photos and videos of both the session and the space. He’ll use it to create digital marketing content for the Ambition Center, as well as to build his professional portfolio.

“Throughout the building you’ll see a lot of orange,” says Jackson, a cybersecurity technical project manager, social entrepreneur, educator, and the founder of Ambition Center. “Orange is the color of ambition and innovation so we’re playing off the psychology of people.”

While he readily admits that orange is not his favorite color, Jackson’s resume shows no shortage of either ambition or innovation. A Milwaukee native, Jackson is a 2012 graduate of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, one of 100-plus Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) throughout the country. Jackson works virtually, and after co-working at a few other spaces in Milwaukee without finding the right fit, he decided to look for a space of his own.

“I actually had this idea back in high school,” he says. “You see business parks with all these businesses on the outside. I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if they were all inside.”

And then, life happened—college, followed by a career that enabled him to work from home while also nurturing his self-described “complete extrovert” personality in other ways.

“I like talking to people, meeting people, shaking hands,” he says. 

But once the pandemic hit and the work-from-home order was put in place, “I was not my most productive,” says Jackson. “My wife and I had a dedicated space to work, but I was reading stories of people working in their closets or taking meetings in the bathroom because that’s the only quiet space.”

It was during the first year of the pandemic that Jackson, feeling restless and a sense of lowered productivity, began thinking about that old idea of building an indoor space where businesses intersect, interact, even collaborate.  

“If I’m feeling this, the rest of the world is feeling this,” he says. “While working from home has its perks—I love the option—it’s not always the best thing. So I was like, it’s kind of now or never to really get this dream off the shelf.”

With support from Riverworks, a community revitalization and development agency that ran a co-working space called The Vibe just five blocks away from what is now the Ambition Center until it was shut down during the pandemic, he found a building, signed a lease and opened up in the fall of 2021. His wife Rashidah Butler-Jackson served as Ambition Center’s original community manager. The current community manager is Michelle K.

Since opening, Jackson has worked to create a warm and friendly collaborative space that’s rich in resources, mentorship, career coaching and strategic connections. In addition to event and office space with month-to-month leasing, a $100 membership includes free event admission, wi-fi, parking, printing, coffee, kitchenette access and mailing services. The center offers $25 day passes for anyone interested in testing out the space before committing to a membership. 

Ambition Center is now the fourth Black-owned co-working space in the city and the only Black-owned co-working space in the nation to open in 2021. In its first year of operation, the 3,300-square-foot facility served 1,600 BIPOC professionals in person and remotely, helped establish eight businesses on the north side of Milwaukee, hosted more than 50 events, and helped secure $60,000 in grant funding for its members, 

“In the Black community, we need systems to facilitate growth by design (like HBCUs) rather than supporting systems designed to prevent it,” Jackson writes on Ambition Center’s website. “As organizations and companies work to make Milwaukee a region of choice and redefine Milwaukee as a top-ranking city for African Americans, we need more Black-owned workspaces in the city.” 

As Jackson guides Allen and Williams through the center—a flexible event space/meeting room for up to 30 people, a podcast and content creation studio, a conference room, five private offices, three cubicles, and an open, shared desk space—he talks about building a community of people and organizations that are attracted to the kind of vibe he’s worked hard to cultivate. 

Usher Williams.

“Creative professionals need spaces to create,” he says. “Typical co-working spaces can get a little stuffy so I wanted to make sure creative energy continues to flow.”

As the tour winds down and Jackson begins to talk more informally to Allen and Williams, he shares the stories of how he met both entrepreneurs. Allen was a high-school classmate. When he heard about the Full Circle TV brand she was building with her husband Marcus over in Madison, he invited her to conduct a workshop. Starting with an online relationship series the couple launched in 2019, Allen has built a strong social media following, released a third season of “Relationship Goals” and a line of merchandise, hosted social events and couple’s retreats, and even led a tour to Egypt last fall that attracted participants from around the world. 

Not surprisingly, Jackson and Williams met at Sherman Phoenix Marketplace, a Mecca for entrepreneurs of color and a bustling community hub for cultural activities and private and public events. More than 25 small businesses offer products and services, including food and drink, hair and beauty, wellness, clothing, art and makers, business services and more. The two exchanged business cards and started following each other on social media. When Williams saw the workshop posting, he decided to check it out. 

A senior at Rufus King High School, Williams learned how to shoot video at church. When his uncle, who was running the camera one Sunday, had to leave for an emergency, Williams volunteered to step in. 

“The next Sunday I stuck around and it was kind of fun,” says Williams. “The next Sunday and the next. The fourth Sunday my boss mentor asked if I wanted a job. I tried to use those Sundays as training for about a year, got familiar with the cameras, software, did my own research and it just elevated from there.”

Williams plans to attend the HBCU Florida A&M in the fall while continuing to pursue his passion for still photography, videography, and digital content creation.

Kayla Lewis Allen.

As Allen busies herself with the last-minute set-up for the workshop, connecting her laptop to the big screen behind her and to the attendees joining the conversation remotely, a steady stream of in-person attendees trickles in through the front door and into the meeting room. Williams makes his entrance, camera in hand, and captures the first of many images of the workshop and the center.  

Allen welcomes the crowd and quickly creates a disarming, friendly and fun rapport with the participants. Those who’ve joined in person include a pair of young men working on a youth clothing line, a candle designer, a filmmaker, a card game maker, a graphic designer and a tech start-up consultant. Soon the mood is less business and more brain storm, as Allen encourages the entrepreneurs to share their ideas, goals and challenges. The session is equal parts instruction, therapy, and cheering each other on, offering advice and insights of their own to each other and to Allen, a skilled listener and leader. 

“I love that,” Allen says genuinely, whenever a great idea or success story emerges from the conversation. 

When asked what his own plans are for his entrepreneurial endeavor moving forward, Jackson says he’s still busy proving out his business model.  

“Right now, I’m really just focusing on growing the center, growing the brand, and growing awareness,” he says. 

And it’s working. When he goes out in the community, attending events and networking, sporting Ambition Center MKE merchandise, more and more hands go up when he asks if folks have heard of his business.

Say Jackson: “I think we’re headed in the right direction.” 

Ambition Center MKE is open seven days a week. For memberships, hosting your event or meeting at the facility, booking the podcast lounge and content creation studio, or corporate partnerships and sponsorships, visit ambitioncentermke.org