Sabrina Madison working to launch accelerator program to help black women change the face of leadership

Women make 85 cents for every dollar a man makes — white women, that is.
illustration of a black woman

Women make 85 cents for every dollar a man makes — white women, that is. Here in Dane County, according to a 2016 report, the comparable figure for black women is 57 cents.

Nationwide, black women remain woefully underrepresented in corporate leadership positions, and not one Fortune 500 CEO is a black woman. Of the $424.7 billion in tech venture capital funding distributed since 2009, 0.0006% went to black female founders.

None of this is news to Sabrina Madison, founder of the Progress Center for Black Women and the annual Black Women’s Leadership Conference. But she also knows things are changing elsewhere. While Wisconsin’s racial disparities remain wide across financial, health, education and social measures, black female entrepreneurship is on the rise in the United States.

According to a 2017 Nielsen report, black women represent one of the fastest-growing segments of entrepreneurial growth and spending power. They have majority ownership of more than 1.5 million businesses nationwide, up 66.9% between 2007 and 2012. Spending by black people, led by black women, is projected to reach a record $1.5 trillion by 2021.

Madison wants to capture that trajectory here at home, but she says leadership training requires a nuanced approach.

“You can’t really say, ‘you should be more assertive in the workplace,’ ” Madison says. “When we’re more assertive in the workplace, we look like ‘Angry Black Lady.’ When a black woman walks into that conversation, we’re dealing with a different power dynamic. We’re dealing with historical racism. We’re dealing with not being considered leaders. And at 57 cents, a higher starting pay may look very different for me [than] someone who doesn’t look like me.”

Enter AMBITION, an accelerator program for black women to be launched this year at the Progress Center, where Madison already works one-on-one with black female entrepreneurs and provides a coworking space, plus networking and educational opportunities. With help from Dane County UW–Extension, Madison designed AMBITION’s 12-part curriculum based on her experiences as a past graduate of UpStart (WARF’s accelerator program for women and people of color), her award-winning leadership conferences and black business expos, and her professional career in Dane County workplaces — many of which she describes as toxic.

“Part of how AMBITION came about is because I was frustrated as hell with how many of my own friends in my network were leaving,” she says. “Many were folks who had master’s degrees from the UW but could not for the life of them find jobs here in the area. And so they would leave — I mean, brilliant-ass women — and I didn’t blame them. So I said we’ve got to do something to help black women get the skills they need to be successful in the workplace, but also partner with employers to say, ‘Let us help you create a workplace that’s not so toxic so black women can thrive.’ ”

In addition to traditional accelerator topics, such as funding and financial planning, AMBITION cohorts discuss navigating microaggressions in the workplace and strategies for protecting mental health. Eventually, Madison plans to package the training program for any business that wants to improve its workspace and develop black female leadership — and have it taught by AMBITION graduates.

“I started thinking about permanency and legacy,” says Madison, who’s earned a reputation as a leader who makes things happen. Her ultimate goal is to provide a permanent space for the Progress Center that exponentially creates other leaders who look like her. So when Madisonians want to dine at a black-owned restaurant or hire a black female content expert, their choices will be overwhelming. And when black children see black female entrepreneurs everywhere they look, they will see for themselves how to bank on that brilliance.

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.