‘It’s About Servant Leadership For Me’: Meet Joanne Johnson-Sabir, The Powerhouse Who’s Humbly Aiming To Make Milwaukee A Black Business Ecosystem

‘It’s About Servant Leadership For Me’: Meet Joanne Johnson-Sabir, The Powerhouse Who’s Humbly Aiming To Make Milwaukee A Black Business Ecosystem

April 18, 2022

Do you know what it means to let your spirit lead you?

Joanne Sabir can tell you. The Milwaukee-based social entrepreneur says she always listened to her intuition to help answer the question of how to create systemic change in her community. This investment in others came about early for Sabir, having an interest in studying social work while pursuing entrepreneurship in college. 

While attending Clark Atlanta University, she launched an event business that she says was aimed at bringing joyful experiences to her student peers. It was while running it that she had her first taste of what it took to be a true business leader: perseverance. 

“It was called Spitfire Productions—and what I did with that business was fail forward, and fast,” she said half-jokingly.  The company would work with record labels to bring artists to the campus for concerts. While planning an event one year, she experienced significant logistical challenges that, if equipped with the proper resources could’ve been avoided. 

That’s when she realized she wanted to help other aspiring entrepreneurs to avoid the pitfalls she had early in her journey. Over the next several years, she said she worked to build a community to help realize her vision of creating a business ecosystem for her city. 

“Over time I learned that if I was to endeavor to do anything that would have great impact, I couldn’t go alone.”  

Alongside her husband, she started to lay that foundation by launching multiple businesses in their community, but perhaps she’s now best known for co-developing the Sherman Phoenix, an entrepreneurial and wellness hub that opened in 2018. 

The building itself has a story that ties into Sabir’s mission of spiritual and economic revitalization. The home for the hub was previously damaged by fire in 2016 during a civil unrest demonstration prompted by the fatal shooting of a local police officer. Sabir and Kaufmann decided to use the building as a symbol of transformation—it now houses nearly 30 Black-owned businesses. 

Additionally, Sabir is working as a strategic advisor with American Family Insurance to help small business owners grow. 

“American Family Insurance has an investment arm and I manage our portfolio of social and corporate impact,” she explained. I joined them because we were speaking the right language of ensuring there was a holistic approach to making critical investments in the community.”

For the past two years, Sabir has worked to expand their investment portfolio to funnel funds and opportunities to small businesses that probably would’ve been overlooked otherwise. She says that’s all a part of her divine plan. 

“It’s about reconciliation and community empowerment for me–without that, what do we really have?” 

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