Sabrina Madison is stepping up to help others

Moving forward in business
Sabrina Madison is stepping up to help others
Sabrina Madison

Boy is it fun to watch someone you admire and respect chase a dream and begin living it. Pay attention to the entrepreneurial community and you’ll see a lot of it. I started following the community organizing work of Sabrina Madison, aka Heymiss Progress, back when she launched Conversation Mixtapes in 2013. Mixtapes is a forum for black women and men to openly discuss their lives and relationships–often threatened by poverty, mass incarceration of black men, employment barriers and income inequalities. Madison knew she had tapped into an unhealthy and unproductive state of mind in our community. She had felt it in her own life. Her idea was to build bridges and bonds to better understand what black families are up against. Conversations led to connections. Connections led to healing.

She was raised by a single mother in Milwaukee, and three of her brothers are in prison. She started working at 14 years old, gave birth to a beautiful boy, Savance, just shy of her 16th birthday, and soon found herself yearning for a fresh start and a safer place to raise her son. So she moved to Madison, took a job at Madison College and began building a life and career. Things weren’t easy from day one. Racial disparities were more than newspaper headlines to Madison and Savance, now 21; they were everyday realities at home, at school and at work.

And then came the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri. Months later, 19-year-old Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a white police officer in her own backyard. Savance’s backyard. She joined other black women in conversations about the experience of raising black boys in a world that fears them.

Meanwhile, she stayed busy at her day job, built her reputation as a voice for change through Mixtapes and motivational speaking, but couldn’t shake the urge to help other black women find their own voices, earn a living and be successful.

“My own frustrations about going into business for myself led me to hear the frustrations of other black women,” says Madison.

Feelings of anxiety and isolation had been dogging her in the workplace, in her downtown co-working space and at networking events. As happened so many times before, Madison found herself interacting with the same handful of black women, or alone in a room full of people who didn’t look like her. Frustration met inspiration, and she scribbled down the idea for a leadership conference by and for black women.

Months later, she enrolled in UpStart, a free 11-week entrepreneurial program for women and people of color developed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and taught by instructors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Small Business Development Center. She honed her business plan for Heymiss Progress, LLC, quit her day job in March and put on the First Annual Black Women’s Leadership Conference in May in downtown Madison. More than 15 vendors came calling. The daylong event sold out in eight days, with 125 women redefining their power, as Madison puts it, “with useful strategies to help you move forward in your personal and professional goals.”

Sessions included financial planning, health and wellness, employment and navigating workplace politics, impactful leadership and a keynote speech by Gail Ford, a motivational speaker and interim assistant director of the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence, or PEOPLE, at UW-Madison.

The dates are set for the 2017 conference (May 19 and 20), and Madison’s plate is full of projects she is producing under the Heymiss Progress brand. The leadership conference will hit the road to reach women around the state. Her inaugural Black Business Expo in July was a success with the aim of supporting and growing black-owned businesses through marketing and outreach. A membership club will feature empowerment workshops and a “Boardroom Series” will expose members to leadership and power throughout the city. She also writes an online column and a podcast is in the works in collaboration with media partner Madison365.

“I’ve been strategic in that we are going to get our needs met through this work,” says Madison. “I just have to make sure black women are successful.”

Paving her own way to success is a start. I asked Madison how she will judge her successes.

“Where these women are in five years–their outcomes,” she tells me. “My goal is to have more black women in positions of power–happier and thriving.”