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The Commons: Holding on to Milwaukee's best and brightest

If you've got your finger on Milwaukee's pulse, you've heard of The Commons by now. And if you can't seem to find Milwaukee's pulse, I'm here to help you out. (But first, call 911 and start CPR.)

The Commons is an insanely cool collaboration that sits between three very important Milwaukee worlds – those being startup, corporate and higher education. It was born from an initiative by The Greater Milwaukee Committee focused on innovation and talent in the area, and to say it's been a hit wouldn't quite do it justice. At the core of their program offerings is the Entrepreneurial Skills Accelerator, an internship that encompasses what The Commons is all about.

The idea is simple: take students from local universities and give them real-world problems to solve. They're placed on small teams and given the opportunity to tackle projects from innovative local companies like Sartori Cheese, Briggs & Stratton, ManpowerGroup, Northwestern Mutual, Betty Brinn Children's Museum and so many more.

The students also have the chance to bring their own startup idea to the mix and build a team with other participants to develop valuable skills – customer discovery, market segmentation and branding, to name a few. Along the way, they're given a guiding hand from The Commons' Mentor Network of over 550 local professionals.

The students congregate at Ward4 – a co-working space in Pritzlaff building that screams, "YOU'RE IN A RAD STARTUP SPACE!" – and work their butts off after school hours for an entire semester, eventually revealing their hard work on what The Commons has dubbed Demo Day. Brilliant ideas are revealed to an eager audience of professionals and peers alike, and the event typically takes place at a sweet venue; past Demo Days have taken place at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee's stage and The Historic We Energies auditorium.

Through the Skills Accelerator, everyone in the region wins. Students apply their skills in a completely new environment, universities give their students a unique outside-the-classroom experience, local corporations receive innovative new ideas and form relationships with perspective future employees, and startups gain momentum as ideas grow. All this time, The Commons students are learning valuable design thinking techniques, giving and receiving feedback, and thinking like innovative entrepreneurs.

This year's Demo Day is taking place right at Ward4, and you should totally go. It's your chance to see what this batch of talented, motivated students worked toward all semester, and Briggs & Stratton CEO Todd Teske will be kicking things off with a keynote. The event is on Tuesday, April 23 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Go network with rad people, learn about The Commons experience and get psyched on all the cool stuff happening in Milwaukee. RSVP and check out the full details here!

The Skills Accelerator is incredibly innovative and impressive, but it's just the tip of The Commons iceberg. A few years after its inception, the folks at The Commons cooked up a more intensive summer program called the Innovation Fellows. It was designed to be, as they put it, "the most insane internship they could think of." As an Innovation Fellow, a select group of The Commons alumni are given the chance to work as paid Innovation Consultants, reporting directly to C-level executives of large companies like Briggs & Stratton and ManpowerGroup by the end of the experience.

The whole time, The Commons rolls out the red carpet and shows their Fellows some of Milwaukee's coolest workplaces, giving students the chance to sit down and chat one-on-one with some of the area's best startup minds. Companies like PK Ware, RokkinCat, Penrod, Rev Pop and GoGeddit Marketing and Media have been on the bill in years past.

As The Commons continues full steam ahead, they've found what's possibly their true sweet spot – and I'm paraphrasing Program Director Joe Poeschl here – acting as the grease between the big gears of Milwaukee's corporate and higher education communities. Hosting events like their Education Summit, The Commons gathers education and corporate professionals alike to guide conversations about the future of our region. They're vital conversations in helping Wisconsin continue its forward momentum.

Recently, The Commons rolled out their Intrapreneurship Skills Accelerator, a program similar to their student offering, but for rising leaders within larger organizations. Companies like Rockwell Automation, Kohl's and Sartori Cheese have already participated, and with great results – the Accelerator lasts seven to eight weeks and involves employees of all levels and from all departments, bringing out great ideas from everywhere within the organization. Perhaps most importantly, it gives employees a voice and an opportunity to lead.

If you'd like to learn more about The Commons and hear more from Joe Poeschl, I'd invite you to check out this episode of The GoGedders Podcast.On the episode, Joe sits down with Richie Burke to talk about the program's start, success and inspiring future.

To help tell the story, Joe brought along Joshua Shefner, a successful young entrepreneur. He's the founder of Blue Mangoes, a dried fruit startup that's already become an international presence. I could write a whole 'nother article on Josh's operation – it's focused on sustainability, environmentally-conscious sourcing, and giving back to the communities that produce the fruit – but I'll let Josh explain in the episode. He'll be able to do it better than I can.

Lastly, you'll hear from Me. (Hello OnMilwaukee reader, I'm Gabe. Nice to meet you!) While I'm typically on the other side of the mic as "Producer Gabe" – you'll get that reference if you're a FoodCrush listener – I joined the conversation for once. I'm an alum of The Commons, and after going through the Skills Accelerator and being asked to return as an Innovation Fellow, I had a lot of good things to say about the organization and its people (if you couldn't tell). Plus, my experience at The Commons landed me my current spot on the GGMM roster.

(P.S.: Sorry if I sound a little overexcited on the episode — those lights really made my heart rate go up.)

You can listen in here, and if you have any suggestions for topics or guests you'd like to hear on the show, drop Richie a line at

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