By Anna Lardinois
He’s a dad, and a high school basketball coach, and the interim director for his family business, as well as one half of the duo changing the landscape for Wisconsin entrepreneurs. And that’s just for starters.
Meet Khalif El-Amin.
El-Amin, along with his older brother Que, founded the Young Enterprising Society in 2012. Commonly known as Y.E.S., the organization uses the symbols for the yen, euro, and dollar to spell its name, a nod to the goal of growing into an international force for change. After 10 years, the men are well on their way, growing from a grassroots incubator of Milwaukee entrepreneurial talent into an impactful force in the Wisconsin ecosystem.
At the onset, it was a loosely formed social group for BIPOC professionals in Milwaukee. The friends would gather at bars and restaurants where the clientele was typically white to push against the invisible barriers that keep the city one of the nation’s most segregated. Before long, the group organized acts of service, like offering free haircuts to those in need. In time, the organization was partnering with schools to expand STEAM education and providing support to emerging entrepreneurs.
All of these efforts are focused on the same goal: expanding opportunity in Milwaukee to make it a more prosperous city for all of its residents.
The younger El-Amin brother appears to be equal parts humble and charismatic. One doesn’t have to talk with the business leader for more than a handful of minutes to understand how he’s been able to garner both public and private support for his ambitious projects.
When asked how he manages to balance the demands of his busy life, he characteristically acknowledges the efforts of others.
“I’ve got a very strong support system, and over the years, I’ve figured out what’s a priority at the moment,” he said. “It’s not just me. I can’t take credit for it. It’s all a team. I surround myself around really solid people whose values, goals, visions and work ethic are in line with what I have. We have a common goal, and we all work toward it.”
Hard work, and the pursuit of excellence, are the cornerstones for all of the work done by Y.E.S. El-Amin credits his parents for his drive and desire for social change. Both of his parents spent their professional careers serving and elevating Milwaukee — his mother, Amatullah Umrani, as a therapist, and his father, Saleem El-Amin as the founder of New Horizon Center, Inc.
“My dad’s been in the social service field for over 50 years now. So, it was just something that I just saw growing up,” he said. “I grew up at the group home seeing how my dad interacted with his staff, with the youth, with other business leaders in the field, and seeing how my mom interacted with her clients. I’d see them just work their tail off every day, not making any excuses, and providing for me and my siblings. They definitely laid a very solid foundation. I was able to see that work ethic at a very young age. And it’s something that I just saw as being normal. I’m seeing what they’re doing. I’m like, ‘okay, I got to get my stuff together, too.’”
And he did. When asked how many businesses Y.E.S. helped launch, he said, “well, officially through The Blueprint, we graduated 66 companies, but before that, we were working with youth and other entrepreneurs. So that’s a good question. If I had to take a rough estimate, I would probably say it’s anywhere between probably 200 and 250 over those 10 years.”
The group’s Blueprint accelerator has expanded into Green Bay and Madison, and there are plans to add additional cities.
While celebrating the expansion, El-Amin acknowledges there is still work to do in Milwaukee. When considering how to move the city forward, El-Amin stated, “A lot of it starts with the mindset just allowing people to think bigger, just have that vision initially and then once they have the vision, giving them the proper resources to access the exposure to those necessary resources.”
He continued, “Obviously capital is huge. And then we need to have that champion from Milwaukee. I don’t feel like we have that. If you look at say, Toronto or something, you have Dallas or you have those persons or people that you can look at as an example. And I feel like in Milwaukee, we do have them, but I don’t think that we amplify those stories enough.”
Like most in the entrepreneur ecosystem, the Y.E.S. team hopes to graduate a company that reaches unicorn status. For now, El-Amin is keeping a watchful eye on Blueprint graduate, Tip a ScRxipt and its CEO, Chad Johnson. The company made headlines in 2021 when it became Gateway Capital’s first investment. He thinks Johnson may be the champion story Milwaukee needs to boost the startup scene.
“But I think it needs to be seen that there are entrepreneurs, there are business leaders, there are community leaders that are doing great things, that have businesses that have scaled.”
Despite the obstacles, the El-Amin brothers are focused on growth.
“We try to be as strategic as possible,” he said. “We take it on because we are going to keep a certain standard. We don’t want to be watered down or do 10 things at 80% and we can do eight things at 100%. It’s just one of those things where we just constantly in communication. If there is a void that needs to be filled, ‘Can we do it? Can we not? Who could help, who can we partner with?’ It’s been very strategic in our planning and then obviously in execution, implementation.”
He continued: “For us to continue to grow and provide the necessary resources throughout, that’s huge. And then it just speaks volumes to what’s needed. These entrepreneurs, they want this teaching, they want these resources, they want this training, but they don’t have access to get it.”
The next few months will be busy for the Young Enterprising Society. In addition to their expansion around the state, they will again host the Summerfest Tech Pitch Competition.
Y.E.S. plans for a future in a changing Milwaukee. Reflecting on the culture, he said, “there’s been a lot more open conversations and collaboration, support and partnerships where I think people are starting to open their minds more. I think now it’s very genuine, authentic, and people just want to see Milwaukee as a city grow. There’s a ton of talent. We don’t want the brain drain to go to Texas, Atlanta, or the coasts. Let’s keep it here. Let’s home grow it.
Let’s show the rest of the nation that we have the same talent, people that we can be proud of, too. That’s been something that we can continue to work towards. It’s not perfect, and I don’t think it ever will be, but it’s definitely gotten better.”
Thanks to Blueprint and other Y.E.S. efforts, BIPOC entrepreneurship is on the rise. The El-Amin brothers have made a tremendous impact on Milwaukee, but they’ve only just begun.