Last time we had a Leap Day, I was a copy editor at Reader’s Digest. And since then—even without a day dedicated to jumping—I have leapt and landed in the urban ag world, and oh my gosh has it been worth it.
All over this blog, week after week, we watch women leaping toward their dreams. We see some going for it fast and laying the bricks of their path as they go. Others experiment, test and explore before making moves that alter their lives…and careers…and bank accounts. And no matter the preparation, each woman learns about herself, the world, and her vast potential as she dreams big and turns her ideas into reality.
I can be spontaneous, but career-wise I’m pretty firmly in the latter camp. Before I left my stable gig for what started as a part-time job at my beloved Victory Garden Initiative, I took classes, saved money, drew out all sorts of little maps about my potential professional path, read a lot, researched and discerned what might happen if this turned out to not be the right fit. So when I got a call actually offering me a job at my dream nonprofit, it all coalesced into a YES.
Now if only we could use some of that happy energy to also make the case that we all get Leap Day off and/or get paid a little extra for working that one bonus day. Or, you know, get some free yoga or something. But I digress.
We chose to feature Angela Damiani this week in particular because she also left a stable spot to start an organization that now enables others to leap themselves. A former journalist, salesperson and PR pro, Angela is now president of Newaukee, a Milwaukee social architecture firm.
People with Panache: How did you and your co-creators Jeremy Fojut and Ian Abston get Newaukee started?
Angela Damiani: I actually met my business partner Jeremy because he asked me to write a press release for free for an event he had created. Eventually he and I started doing ART Milwaukee experiences together, which is the organization I started originally. I said no to that press release, but now I do all sorts of things with him seven years later.
ART Milwaukee and Newaukee started around the same time. (Editor’s Note: And they eventually merged.) Ian started Newaukee events, then the three of us got connected and, at first, hosted events because we were curious about different parts of town. We wanted to explore different combinations of people, different mediums of art that we hadn’t found being presented.
In summer 2011, we discovered Lakeshore State Park. We decided to host a fundraiser for an organization affiliated with the park and call it the Urban Island Beach Party. We thought it would be close friends, and we’d pull up with trunks of beer, have a buddy play acoustic guitar—and like 3,000 people came.
Luckily nothing bad happened. We had no bathrooms, no power, no lights. Our friend was playing music, and we had our car headlights lighting him up. It was spectacular. It was the thing that made us want to quit our jobs and do this full time. So we did.
We didn’t really have a set business model in mind. Prior to that, the stuff we created was all free. We had a subscription to notifications, and we had free events, that was the premise of it. We knew it needed to stay free, and we were super insistent about that. We were trying to inspire civic engagement, whatever that means to you, whether that’s around the arts, networking, a political issue. We wanted to be intentional about welcoming others and bring a sense of invitation.
But we had to figure out how to pay for everything—now it was our livelihood.
PWP: Right. Figuring out how to support three people is a lot!
AD: We realized along the way that the products we were making—whether public art or creation of public space—were not the things we needed to sell. It was the process of creating them that could be implemented as a service for all sorts of businesses, whether it was getting a business in front of a unique audience to sell their things or—what’s been more lucrative—companies looking to expose their employer brand in a unique way. We’re a social enterprise, which means companies pay us as a for-profit business to enact these services for them. And it means we can give everything away for free.
PWP: Why Milwaukee? What keeps you here?
AD: It has a lot to do with Newaukee. I feel like I have created a mechanism that satiates my curiosity on a personal level. Even better than that, it’s helped others find what they love and change what they do in the city.
I don’t know if other cities have the exact combination of resources and willingness and access that Milwaukee has. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I know there are places where we could make more money or things would move even faster, but I love that it’s unfinished. It’s not a story that’s already written. I can be part of shaping that narrative, but it’s not so itty-bitty small that I’m the only lamplighter.
PWP: Can you describe a moment where you took a step back and thought whoa—that you really were making an impact?
AD: The Night Market on Wisconsin Ave. was a really big one because we had such a tremendous amount of resistance to its set up: “No one will ever come down Wisconsin Ave.” “Doing something safe and family-friendly at night won’t work.” “Retail is dead in that area. No one will buy anything there.”
Part of our passion for this corridor of the city is that we’ve officed here. Having an office helped us formalize our business, and we’re in love with the narrative of the Grand Avenue. (Editor’s Note: The Grand Avenue Mall on Wisconsin Ave. is an aging but promise-filled downtown Milwaukee shopping center. After a sharp decline during the recession, it’s now becoming a hub of revitalization as start-ups and small businesses take over storefronts once filled with shops.) We really do believe in the future of Wisconsin Ave. We were insistent on the Night Market.
It was really successful the first year, and I felt really proud of it—one of the most diverse events I’ve ever seen in the city in race, socioeconomic status, age. Everyone feels like they belong; it’s each of theirs equally. My initial goal was to keep it at its original level of success, and last year the first night had 10,000 people. In the Business Journal the next morning, there was a little article buried inside that highlighted companies moving their corporate headquarters downtown because of creative placemaking efforts like the Night Market. I don’t even know if the editors of the Journal would remember that tiny thing, but it felt like this moment of redemption and excitement.
That’s the point. We’re really shifting how people believe in this space, giving them renewed purpose, enthusiasm and connection.
PWP: With Ian moving on a few months ago, what changed?
AD: With such a small team, we lost 20 percent of our workforce. As co-founder, I realized that our business was primarily based in each of our minds. His departure forced us to formalize and document in a way we hadn’t prior. Now we know what we’re capable of.
And we realized that any of us could step out and Newaukee could continue to exist, our mission could be fulfilled and it’s not dependent on one of us—what a relief. It won’t fold or buckle when things change, which they will.
It still feels like we’re at the beginning, except I feel more sure-footed.
PWP: And I imagine this question will yield a Newaukee-related answer, but what do you, Angela, find most fulfilling?
AD: That has changed along the way. I would say right now I have a really, really deep appreciation for the fact that I get to work with my very best friends every day. We’re in this real sweet spot where the staff has been with us a couple years, everyone is brilliant and every day is a fountain of joy and laughter.
This moment feels like the sweetest, most amazing thing. Everyone that works with us does so because it’s in alignment with their inner and outer purpose. It’s so gratifying to work beside people who are totally fulfilled by doing this same work.
Want to get involved?
- Follow Newaukee on your preferred social media: Instagram. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. LinkedIn. & more!
- Show up to their events – they’re all free!
- Give feedback on their ideas mechanism. (From Angela: “Most of our programs come from other people saying ‘Hey, look at this!’ It’s not just us devising new things ourselves. We’re open to hearing what we should take on next.”)
[Photos by Alysse and Newaukee.]
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