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How Forward 48 Is Connecting The Next Generation Of Milwaukee Leaders To Inspire Community-Wide Progress With Ian Abston, Thelma Sias, And Fiesha Lynn Bell

How Forward 48 Is Connecting The Next Generation Of Milwaukee Leaders To Inspire Community-Wide Progress With Ian Abston, Thelma Sias, And Fiesha Lynn Bell

Learning from your own mistakes is a tough but necessary part of personal growth. Whether it’s in business or your personal life, recognizing when you’ve…

Learning from your own mistakes is a tough but necessary part of personal growth. Whether it’s in business or your personal life, recognizing when you’ve made a mistake and course-correcting for next time a situation arises is a critical part of continuous improvement.

But how do we apply that principle broadly to learn as a community? How can we apply this at the leadership level to make sure the next generation doesn’t make the same mistakes as the previous one? Forward 48 is here to help us do just that.

In this episode, Richie sits down with Ian Abston, Thelma Sias, and Fiesha Lynn Bell to talk all things Forward 48.

In addition to telling the story of how Forward 48 came about, they’ll cover how Milwaukee can better retain top talent, develop its young leaders, and grow as a city from a social, cultural, and economic standpoint.

They also discuss the importance of inclusion when it comes to leadership and how Forward 48 is cultivating the next generation of leaders from a variety of ages, genders, ethnic backgrounds, and perspectives.

Listen to the podcast here

We are going to learn about a new program that’s doing great things for the city. Forward 48. It focuses on retaining top talent in Milwaukee. It’s the second cohort of 48 emerging leaders wrapped up in. We are going to talk about Milwaukee. What we can do better to retain top talent, develop leaders grow as a city and how this program came about. I have got two amazing guests and one other one joining me, the amazing ones. We got Thelma Sias and Fiesha Lynn Bell. We are also stuck with Ian Abston.

For those of you who don’t know, Thelma is the former VP of Local Affairs at We Energies. In February 2017, she has been with the HistoryMakers for the Library of Congress and was later honored by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation with the Doug Jansen Leadership Award. She is also a lifetime achievement award recipient from our friends over at the Milwaukee Business Journal and serves on the boards of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee Children’s Hospital, African American Women’s Project, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, and as an advisor to Forward 48. That was a short intro too. You’ve done quite a bit. Welcome to the show.

Thank you very much. I have appreciated the opportunity of leadership and involvement I have had in Milwaukee. I’m excited about a project that’s getting future leaders ready to pass the baton of leadership for them to do some new kinds and better things that I have been able to do.

We are honored to have you here. We also have Fiesha Lynn Bell. She’s the Associate Director of Major Gifts at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and a member of the Business Journals 2021, 40 under 40 class. Congratulations. She’s a leadership board member of Milwaukee Urban League for young professionals. Fiesha, thanks for coming. Welcome to the show.

Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here and I’m such a proud member of Forward 48. It is such an honor to learn from mentors and civic leaders like Thelma Sias and so many others. It’s a real treat.

We are looking forward to learning more about your involvement and journey. I have got Ian Abston. For those of you who do not know him, he founded the Hoan Group. He started this Forward 48 thing with Hostad, a friend of the show. A lot of people don’t know what else he does and what he does for a living. I was his roommate for a few years.

I’m still trying to figure that out. He is very well connected. He’s a friend of Chris Stegman, a friend of the show. The last time Ian was on, we did spend the first ten minutes talking about Chris Stegman. How he’s an Ironman Champion, how he was a man about town, the one running the Journal Sentinel and how he once got denied entrance at Jo-Cats, but we will not be talking about any of that.

Can we talk about who ran the Journal Sentinel?

Chris Stegman. We miss you. He’s out in the Salt Lake City area. He’s the Chief Revenue Officer at Salt Lake Times. Chris Stegman, we hope you are doing well and he might be coming to town for Summer Fest. Watch out, Milwaukee. Diving in. Ian, Forward 48, how did this all come about?

Thanks for having us. Forward 48 started right about the pandemic hit. We were hoping it was going to be an in-person experience, but we identified an opportunity that what do young leaders in Milwaukee do to accelerate their careers? Everybody wants 40 under 40. Fiesha is a well-known name in the community right now, but there’s a big gap before 40 under 40.

When you get that award, you are known. You’ve been identified as someone in your company and you’ve been elevated and it’s tremendous. However, there’s an entire opportunity that we were missing in Milwaukee prior to that. Back when I first started in Milwaukee, a couple of organizations and leadership groups had started but had lost a little bit of momentum.

There’s a great opportunity in Milwaukee to relaunch something, to find the best of the best in Milwaukee and get them connected. That was the idea that started Forward 48. As we created this concept, we went back and played with it a few times, and Thelma was clearly one of the first persons who wanted to say, “We need the best of the best of leaders to go behind the scenes and share the knowledge that you are not reading about always in the business journal or at rotary lunches the stuff that you are not generally willing to share.” We thought privacy was paramount. We make sure everybody signs a confidentiality agreement. Whatever happens in Forward 48 stays there. Hopefully, we can create a bench in Milwaukee of people that are being elevated and being ready.

I forgot to mention, I give you credit for lighting the Hoan Bridge. On a serious note, you told me part of the reason you started this was just the learning curve of trying to get something done in the city and not knowing how things happened and the struggle that you and Hostad had. On a serious note, if anyone wants to go back and read that episode with Ian and Hostad. It is a very good episode. You have got to get their ratings up in every way possible, but do you want to touch on that at all?

Getting things done in Milwaukee is hard regardless of how young, old, where you come from. It’s hard. It is a conservative community, at least. We asked a lot of leaders, “What do you think about this bridge lighting?” You are not asking for money. You are asking for vetting your idea. They all loved it. When you jumped in and you launched it, all of a sudden, you are playing the game. We realized we didn’t know the rules. We didn’t know the leaders. We didn’t know what rings to kiss.

We were out there stranded. There was no playbook. We needed to understand what the playbook was and we understood no one had written it down because these are things that we keep with us. In Wisconsin, oftentimes, what happens is an executive will leave the workforce and they will part-time in Florida or Phoenix. Thelma, where do you live in?

We have a second home in Charlotte, North Carolina.

You still have your home here often. A lot of executives leave and slowly get on engaged with the community. The civic and philanthropic community and a lot of that knowledge leave with them. We realized there was no playbook and there was nobody pulling the curtain back and we needed to do that. There’s no better person to start doing that. Thelma, even while she was still involved with We Energies day-to-day, she always says what’s on her mind. That’s the information that our generation needs to get so we understand if we are going to enact change. This is what your generation ran up against and that’s what we need to be ready for.

I want to applaud in, we need more of Ian and Fiesha kinds of leadership in this community. It has been built on an old paradigm of the Boys Club. Now more than ever before, the Boys Club has to become the people club that includes a variety of diversity. Age, gender, ethnic backgrounds and perspectives as well. What this initiative is doing is letting those of us that have had the experience of leadership in a variety of ways, stand before future generations of leaders and tell them the lessons we learn and be honest about the mistakes we made.

Being willing to help push out the idea of how we think and process and engage people. Among the things that are difficult to do in the city, some of that, as I have looked over after 30 years of working, it’s both difficult, but it’s fear about change and change is going to come and happen whether we like it or not.

We have the responsibility to engage the process of change and be willing to have the courage every day to know that we can do better than what we are doing now. There is no reason for this city to still be battling the issue of racial injustice. The issue of police brutality, the issue of poverty, and the fact that there are men, women, and children that are homeless.

We are smarter than that. We have too many educational institutions that have produced some of the greatest minds there has to be, but we have to be open to the process of change and change will come. Whether we like it ready for it or not, and we all should be proud of the work we do at leadership, but we all must be willing to open up and pass the baton of leadership on to the next generation, like young people like yourself. You are the ones.

You got involved in this. Did Ian just come to you or how did this initially come about from your perspective and what’s your involvement been with the group?

When Ian makes the phone call, I met him and from day one, when I met him, I saw an incredibly talented young guy approaches purchasing things a little different than some people would want him to. He’s smart, committed, open and inclusive. He includes other people in the process. When he came to me to talk about it, my first thought was, “I’m getting in trouble again.” This time I have a curly-haired young guy leading me around in this.

From day one, when he made the ask, as I said to him, “I’m willing to use all of my resources. I will give you all of the knowledge piece that I have, but I want to make sure that when I walk into the room and look around, I want to see people who look like me.” Often in the city, we start out with process change. We selectively put only a few people in that are different. We can’t change this community without being courageous enough to include all of the people for change. Once he met those requirements, I was open to rolling my sleeves up and doing everything I could to be supportive of it.

How far do you think we have to go? You are a very successful Black woman who’s done a lot of things in Milwaukee. It’s a very segregated city, a White male-dominated business community for a long time. How critical is this for the future and how far do you think we have to go until we are in a place where we want to be?

I have been fortunate from the background perspective of my mother and father. My parents both are deceased now, the late Roosevelt and Pauline Sias. I was born and raised in rural Mississippi on a farm. My mother and father said early on to us, “Every person you meet, treat them with the same dignity and respect you so desire.”

I have had some opportunities across the country and here in Milwaukee because of some forward-thinkers about change and engaging people in the process of change. I’m not going to deny sitting here, deny we have work to do. There are still too many people that are uncomfortable with that change. We have work to do that it’s not enough to look around a room and say, “I have one Black. I have one woman. I have one person with an alternative lifestyle. I have one Hispanic person.”

No. We don’t count other people, so why are we still counting the one scenario? The other piece of work we’d have to do is stepping forward and being honest that we need to do the work. We’ve all got to look with our own eyes and see and verbalize with our mouth the truth of what’s there.

We do have an issue of racism in the city. We do have an issue of having and have not. To say that it doesn’t exist. Yes, there has been progress made. There was a lot of cheering. I was in Charlotte at the time of the NBA championship. Everyone wanted the Bucks to win. Everyone was willing to get tickets, stand outside and cheer in all of the playoff games. However, the other part of this truth is the young Black men we were cheering on to win the NBA championship on that team or the same ones that had to march in the streets of the city for the Black Lives Matter piece. What we want and what we see, we were willing to be excited after about 50 years to win this championship. We shouldn’t take fricking 50 years to win the championship of fairness, respect, and dignity for all people in the city. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Fiesha, what’s your story and how’d you get involved with Forward 48?

I got involved because Greg Wesley was one of the instructors for the first cohort, which is the cohort that I am a part of. When you have people like Greg Wesley, Dr. Mitchell, and Thelma Sias as instructors, you don’t say no to an opportunity to have a candid conversation with seasoned leaders who have lived a lifetime of professional and community experiences.

As Thelma stated, they are passing the baton and they are telling us all about the opportunities, their lessons learned and their mistakes. The reality is that we don’t have to make the same mistakes. We don’t have to recreate a playbook. They have already done the work. We need to pick it up and keep going. That’s why I joined Forward 48. That was one of the biggest reasons.

The other reason is because Ian has this unique gift of creating these experiences and bringing people together from different backgrounds who are diverse and from different sectors and bringing them together. This was unique because it’s taking people from all walks of life with different backgrounds and professional settings, putting them in the same Zoom room, and letting them talk about their opportunities.

We got to hear from the civic leaders, but then we got to go into these great sessions led by Joe and talk about where we were each at. That was big because I have been in the corporate sector, but I’m also in the nonprofit sector, and those two sectors very rarely get to interact. Having the opportunity to get to interact with different people from different sectors, who all had the same vision, we want an equitable thriving region for everyone. We all have these civic roles and they put us in the same room and we got to talk about our opportunities. That’s why I do Forward 48.

That is rare corporate civic nonprofit worlds coming together. Is that a big problem on why it’s so hard to get things done here?

It’s not that it’s a big problem. It’s an opportunity because most corporate leaders in these communities serve on a number of the nonprofits. There’s not a corporate leader in this community that hasn’t been on the United Way board, is still on the United Way board or runs a campaign to contribute to the United Way campaign.

There’s not a nonprofit leader in this community that doesn’t reach out to corporate leaders. In all of those pieces, building the relationships to make change happen is what’s important to do. When Fiesha talks about their cohort, the bond of friendship and relationship building they have made when they are in the room and they are sorting out difficult issues. Now they going to pick up the phone and call each other and say, “What do you think about this? Who else should we be talking to about this?” This is how we build the capacity to get to the outcome that we want to have.

This is how we create the conversations because we are all in these boardrooms, and then we go back to our day jobs, but then we are not accomplishing something anything and we look back in twenty years and education is still in the same state that it’s in. It’s bringing us together like this much earlier in our careers and service careers and having us create that conversation earlier on instead of waiting down the line.

Thelma, to your point, that already exists. There is a lot of collaboration, but oftentimes when you look at the boards, it’s often your president or your CEO that is sitting on your GMC board. A lot of the boards are making an impact. What would happen if we connect? When you sit in your first board meeting, you are saying hi to people that you are meeting for the first time.

What would happen if we connected Fiesha, before she comes to mayor the city in the year 2035, and we connected her with a group of people who love Milwaukee as much as she does? Connects them at a young age and she now has fifteen years of relationships built up with that cohort before she even sets in the boardroom for the first time because right now, the model is you are 50 years old, you are the president, and now you have to start building relationships. We can do a lot better than that.

Not only that, Ian. The truth of the matter is people select and encourage and nominate people to serve on both corporate boards and nonprofit boards based on who they know. If you only know six people, when you need to know 26 people who have all of these different kinds of experiences and their stories and needs are different to help frame decision-making.

That’s one of the things with the United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. United Way has done an extraordinary job of building a model where there is the board of directors of United Way, but the ability to bring in develop young leadership. Have them involved in committees and projects. This is the thing we must do not because we are building and directing a campaign to raise money, but we are getting people involved, volunteering and giving back to a community so that more and more people see the reality.

Sometimes people think about, for example, the Central City of Milwaukee. It’s the place where there is no success and everyone’s a failure and everyone lives in a jock house and no one wants to do anything. I have said it over and over again, and I will say it again here. There are some extraordinarily talented men and women every day that are getting up and leaving out of the Central City and making this community great.

There are extraordinary people in the Central City that are standing out at bus stops, moms and dads watching their kids be put on a bus to go someplace for quality education. There are people every day in this community like Thelma A. Sias. I’m on 17th and Walnut. I’m down in my hood. I have a clear perspective about the quality of people. Everyone’s not bad. Everyone is not in a situation because of their ZIP code because that’s what the report says. They can’t read and write and want.

They are people who want the best for their kids. They live in the Central City of Milwaukee. There are some extreme talents that have come out of the Central City of Milwaukee to be great leaders in this community. We have a responsibility to unlock these doors so they all can walk in and have a successful opportunity.

For those people in the city who want to see this inclusive future, which a lot of people do, they will say they want to see it. Not everyone takes action and moves towards it, but I would say the majority of people are not against that. What advice would you give to those people who are looking to get involved and make an impact? Maybe it’s a young professional new to Milwaukee. Maybe it’s someone in their mid-30s settling down to their career. What action items can people do to make the city a better place and get us there?

Before I answer your broad question, I am going to say this. I do feel that people all want that. We all want a more inclusive and thriving region. We all want that, but people don’t not want to take action. They don’t know how. I am a transplant to Milwaukee. I’m originally from Indianapolis and it takes time to come into a city and get yourself acclimated.

When you hear things in the news like it’s the most segregated city in the country, every place that you walk into, you can count how many people that look like you. You have to get involved into programs like Forward 48 and a number of other leadership programs and initiatives. A lot of those initiatives have a civic component built into it, where you have the opportunity to volunteer and connect with community and be connected with nonprofits.

There are a number of nonprofits here in Milwaukee, and they do a lot of great work. I work at the foundation. I talk to them every single day, but in order to get connected, you have to step yourself out there and build those relationships with individuals in your community. I will never say that it is hard because it does exist. Do we have some of the opportunities that some of the bigger cities that we are often compared to?

We are not quite yet, but we are getting there. They do exist, but you have to be open to it. The actions is everything from doing a cleanup and how you do your part. It’s to volunteer to read to kids on a national reading or book day, go to a social event, and learn about the great work that maybe the Greater Milwaukee Foundation is doing. It’s going to be a happy hour and learning more about the people in the business community who are already doing the work or joining a program like this and getting that baton handed to you. At some point, all of these leaders, like the Thelma Sias, may decide they want to spend the rest of their days on the beach drinking Mai Tais.

It’s important that we are all prepared and have that ready for us. If we don’t take these action steps now and deeply engage in whatever that means for us, whether it’s an organization, a program, volunteering, or whatever that looks like, we won’t be in a position to be ready to take these leadership roles as they begin to come down the pipeline.

For me, leadership is defined in a variety of ways. It’s the big thing like the leadership that entails and being CEO of a major corporation. It’s the leadership that’s entailed when you are the president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club or United Way or president of colleges and universities, but it’s also the leadership of you, the individual. It can be as small as the ability every day to pick up the phone and call and check on someone in your neighborhood or some friend that you know.

It’s something as small as with all of the Black Lives Matter protests that went on, but whether you chose to be in the streets to protest or you chose to pick up a phone and call a friend. An African-American male or female and say, “I see all of this going on. I want to let you know that you have my support, whether I’m in the streets or not. I want to know how you are doing and all of it.”

That was a huge period of unrest in our community. I applaud the fact that I saw the protest happen all over the world of Milwaukee. I applaud the fact that the leadership of the Bucks organization, those players, came down and walked along with. I don’t want anyone to think this leadership piece is all about, “I must only be connected to a certain thing.” It takes leadership to get up every day and decide that I’m going to buy a case of macaroni or cereal and take it to Feeding America, a hunger task force, to give. It takes leadership to be able to say, “I know that the issue of domestic violence is serious in this community.”

I’m going to stop and join a peace center and leave a box of hats and gloves for the women and children that live there. It takes leadership to be able to say, “I don’t have a solution for the issue of homelessness.” United Way does an incredible initiative at Marquette University where we give haircuts, feed and call homeless people.

This city is the size of such that it’s not difficult to get involved. The first place for you to decide where to get involved, what do you care about? What matters to you? When did you talk to members of your family to see what the critical issues that matter are? Quality of life matters to me, being one of eleven children, with the honor of being born and raised with both of my parents. Quality and access to education are critical to me as a young girl growing up in Mississippi who was told what she couldn’t have because of her skin color.

The ability to have access. I grew up at a time when I couldn’t walk in this place or that place because the sign said White only or colored only. The quality of that is significant for me and the ability to look at how do we assure quality health care. I have a nephew that’s autistic and he’s in a small rural community that doesn’t have a children’s hospital.

A children’s hospital came to me and asked me to serve on the foundation board. Even though I was busy, I made way because this is important to me. Access to quality healthcare. Now that we have had the experience of the pandemic, we all can see where the holes are in our community. Where’s our courage to step into figuring out how do we fix that hole in our community?

Sorry, Richard, I’m going to take your spot for a second here. Two quick questions. First of all, how often do you get asked to be on boards and how often are you being asked to be on boards?

I will tell you and you mentioned it earlier. I did not start getting asked to be on boards until 40 under 40.

That’s what I hear all the time, and that was a lot of people experienced. Visibility.

Visibility, recognition and the checkmark. You get a good checkmark. You are a 40 and under leader in the business genre for sure. You’ve cleared your okay mark. I get often asked to serve on nonprofit boards, but I haven’t been asked to serve on a corporate board that pays fee and give stuff. There are choices people make.

I have said that I’m not taking on any other nonprofit boards. If you are interested, you are looking for talent, I’m coming to Forward 48. I’m going to Women of Influence and others because I am adamant about passing this baton on to future leaders of this community. The powerful thing Forward 48 is doing, in addition to all of this other great work, is exposing this leadership of the future to those that have been in the room and continue to be in the room making decisions and giving the opportunities. It’s building relationships with each other and with the CEO types that and leaders that are guest lecturers in the process.

We have got to flip this leadership page over. I want to say even though we have a playbook, I encourage you all to read our playbook, but anytime you go in the playbook and see something that doesn’t make sense, pull that page out and put a new page in. There are some things we didn’t do well. We still are struggling with the issue of access for women and equity minorities in leadership and significant leadership roles.

We are making progress, but there’s more work to do. We have all got to roll our sleeves up and do it. We have to do it in a time when there’s so much complexity. I think about how challenging it was for my parents to earn the opportunity to register and vote. Here we are in a day and time in the nation where that opportunity, as hard as they work, as much as they gave up and as much harassment they got in the process of getting access to the right to vote, it’s being taken away.

It’s being reduced. It’s been made to be complicated all over again. We are in that stage where we are repeating our history, even in all of the protests that are going on. I was saying to my husband, “Should I wear a mask or not wear a mask at school?” It looks so much like the repeating of history in the ‘60s and ‘70s when integration was occurring across the country and places that people that look like me and Fiesha couldn’t go into.

This harshness, this unwillingness to admit that you don’t know everything. The medical experts have laid out and showed us the issue with this pandemic, and we are still battling something as simple as wearing the mask, taking the vaccine and putting at risk the safety and wellbeing of other people, most sacredly, of our children. We’re putting at risk our children because we are making a judgment about them being able to wear a mask to school every day. We have got to get over ourselves and get about the business of getting ready to equip ourselves as a nation of a future.

I remember when everything was happening when the George Floyd thing first happened. Every White guy like you and I probably called the African-American you are closest with. Denise Thomas, Ericajoy Daniels, and DJ. How exhausted all those people got? Thelma, I don’t know if anybody called you because you were the one person everybody knows, but they don’t know they are going to get an earful.

I did get a couple of calls, but oftentimes I was told, “Thelma, I can’t print what you are saying. I can’t repeat what you are saying.”

That moment occurred to me. How many White people have African-Americans they go to for everything? They call up Denise and say, “Denise, I need your opinion on that.” Denise turned into Ericajoy and DJ. Our homies turned into that person for 100X people because they are the one person we all know because that was the one who got elevated long ago that we see in rooms.

Cecilia has told me this as well. I have been in some of these rooms before where people look around we need some diversity on this thing. We know. “Call up Thelma.” You don’t want any more calls to be on another board opportunity, but there’s an entire next generation that does and these decisions get made simply by people sitting around at a table looking at each other saying, “Who do you know?”

It’s occurred to us that knowing someone who’s not just seeing them at a table, but knowing someone has 3 to 5 connection points with them to feel comfortable raising your hand and elevating and bringing someone else to the table with you. A lot of people only know a couple and those couple are burnt out on always being the one representation in the room. That’s our hope what we can do out of this. We were able to elevate 48 new people and it is Black, White, Brown, and they are all new faces with new visions for the city and new ways to help with a lot of new energy. I hope that through Forward 48, that’s 96 people, but a few years from now, we’ll get there.

I remember the biggest thing that you said is you’ve connected these 48 people with these great civic leaders. You built that connection. A lot of people think that handing the baton that the seasoned leaders need to hand over these seats to the next generation. It can’t be handing over the seats. It has to be a conversation.

That’s one of the great things about Forward 48. It creates the conversation so that we can go back and ask the architect, “I want to tear this page out of the playbook. This is what I’d like to replace it with. Give me your thoughts and feedback on this, and then trust us to go and do what we need to do and keep things moving.”

That’s one of the important things. You don’t take on leadership positions and not build your kitchen cabinet around you and not build a team of advisors around you, and that is where the Thelma Sias come in. It’s so that we can carry that work on. I never want to think about them going away, but as we continue these conversations and our call to these leadership positions because there’s a difference to being called and being asked to these leadership positions, you want to have that advisory board. That is critically important as you take on some of these big roles.

The thing about the capacity of having advisors around you is yes, you want those that have titles and those that have had experiences, but you also have to be very careful to bill a very diverse advisory capacity around you. You want the person who never will have a business card because that’s the person going through the issues that we are trying to resolve.

You want to be able to hear, understand, and respect the needs of the person getting on the bus every day, who doesn’t have a driver that brings him or her into the corporate environment. That’s the person who will give you a better understanding of what the bus route needs to be, what the timing should be, and how frequent it should be because they are the ones using the service.

As we build this high up level of contact, it’s so important that we need to have the voices of the average person understood and respected every time we can. I don’t know how my parents knew that raising us with this mindset of treating every person you meet with the same dignity and respect you so desire and there were many times I called my mother and I would say, “I have met some people that I have difficulty treating them with respect and dignity because that’s not what they are giving back to me.”

My mother and father would often say, “You still have the test to figure out how to give it to them.” That’s a big test because there are people. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Leadership often has you sitting and hearing things in the room that are not the words you want to hear from anyone. People have an attitude about being a woman sitting in front of them or someone African-American in front of them.

Everyone’s not ready for change. We’ve got to be okay with that because leadership requires you to manage all of the pieces of the puzzle, the ideal and the ones that pushed back on you. I know the other challenge about leadership is that it can wear you, and that’s why you have to always know how to step back and step back in. You also have to be willing to know that as hard as I have worked on this, I have run into someone that is one of those people that we can’t do anything with. That’s the name you’ve put on a piece of paper and call me and I will visit with them.

One question I want to wrap up on with all you is why do you choose to make Milwaukee your home?

There’s a saying that I love. There are two types of people that don’t love Milwaukee. Those that have never been here and those that have never left. I didn’t grow up here. I grew up in Elkhart Lake. I went to school in Oshkosh, moved out West for a while. I have seen every city has ups and downs. There’s this perception, if you’ve never left Milwaukee, that every city is paved. No potholes, traffic, and segregation.

There are great people here. We have got it good. I have a perspective of growing up in a small town of 1,000 where Milwaukee has everything I’m looking for, but most of all, the incredible people. If you’ve ever tried to not visit but live out in New York or were in Seattle for a while, that’s a cold shoulder. The Midwest Milwaukee, especially people, are not telling you how much they make. The first couple of times you meet them, they are hospitable.

Thelma is right. I knew Thelma very well. You invited me to your house. Thelma’s house is mirrored. I have been there before. She caters it. She’ll cook for you. She wants you to understand this is my background, this is my life and photos everywhere. That’s why I love it here. As you look at Milwaukee, it’s also a shapeable city.

I want to have an impact. I don’t know if I could do what I’m doing in Chicago or New York. I wouldn’t have the access. Don’t make yourself and the people who are speaking at our educators at Forward 48. Tremendous access. You can’t call people up and run errands. You got heavy hitters with Thelma.

Not quite of Thelma’s. I saw Bud Selig was on there.

Barry Allen, Cory Nettles, Betsy Brenner, Greg Wesley, Thelma Sias, Dr. Mitchell, Mike LaValle. You had a lot.

Barry Alvarez, Barry Mandel, Dr. Prince, Grady Crosby, Julia Taylor, Ted Kellner and back for her second appearance is Thelma Sias. Our first repeat because she kicked it. Not only that but here’s why else I want to call Milwaukee home is because I expected our engagement, Thelma, after you left the hour-long event.

There was a Q&A. You came up to us afterwards and you said, “I want the email of that person, that person and that person.” I figured it’s one of those moments where you are feeling that was cool. You followed up with those people and not only do you follow up, you met with them. The last time I asked you, you remembered the meeting with them.

Can you imagine the kindness of this community willing to give back and mentor and take the time to do it? That’s what keeps me here because everybody loves it here and there’s a whole bunch of people that want to see Milwaukee win and the people in Milwaukee win. We are missing some connectivity points and people here are fixing that. That’s why I love it here.

I would agree with a lot of what you said. One of the reasons why I continue to stay here and have planted roots here in Milwaukee is I love this city. It has a lot of potential. I always hear people call it small waukee and talk about how everyone knows everyone. When you think about how big this city is, it may have a small-town vibe.

I would never be able to live in Atlanta and in New York and be able to pick up the phone, send an email and get a candid one-on-one conversation with Thelma Sias. You wouldn’t be able to do that. Being able to stay here. I knew the headlines. I know where I live and I have had to be connected in order to make this city feel like my home, but it does feel like my home. 

I’m super thankful for all of my mentors and all of the organizations that I’m a part of because those have grounded me and those have been my support. Coming through the pandemic, that was even more amplified because they almost talked about it. People called to check in. These weren’t my family members. People from the city who knew I lived here and didn’t have family here called me to check in.

They sent boxes to my house and gifts to make sure that I was mentally, physically and emotionally okay. That is what made me start to plant fruits here. I purchased my first condo, so I’m here. I’m here and all of these reasons are why. I have built a network here. I have built a lot of friends who I call family. I have got great mentors by my side who are all great, but they will call you out when you are not on point, and I love you all. That’s why I stay here. I love Milwaukee.

Before Thelma sweeps this thing under the rug, on your point right there where you mentioned why. The population metrics came out. Milwaukee is down in population. We are not doing well and there’s a lot of effort and a lot of great people doing great work in that. What we noticed is, who’s focusing on the best and the brightest young people?

If someone who leaves who’s not engaged in the community, let’s say, they are an accountant, go to the US bank building, do their accounting job, and go back home to Brookfield or whatever. Not to pick on Brookfield, but we are not worse off as a community if that one person leaves. We are not getting their tax dollars, but if Fiesha leaves, there’s going to be an unfillable crater.

We have to make sure the best and the brightest stay here and it’s hard to move if you’ve got a network of people that give a shit about you. It’s hard to uproot and call a new city home because part of moving is leaving behind what you’ve established. If you have a network, knowledge, and nonprofits you are a part of, that promotion to Chicago, it’s going to cost a lot more than a $10,000 promotion to get you there because it takes a lot as an adult a whole lot of coffees and cocktails to build a friend.

Ian, in your opinion, in any of you, is the key to talent or retention taking care of the top players here and making sure they are involved in the city, the young professionals, because that’s going to have a big ripple effect moving down. The ones that are involved are going to help shape the future of the city.

The truth of the matter is it’s like making a good apple pie. You are going to make a good crust, have wonderful apples and the right seasoning to go in. It takes a bit of everything for it to be ideal based on how my mother’s pies taste. The Forward 48 initiative is significant. Initiatives like the MKE Fellows where it’s focusing on the attraction of young African-American men being educated and they are all coming back and investing in the city.

We must continue to build the city so that they are brought into a process to encourage education, that they are committed to wherever they go for their educational experience. We are turning back and giving back to the city. I have heard many young African-American males talk about their experience of being educated at Morehouse College, for example, in Atlanta, Georgia, and they are eager to come back to what is home.

When you asked earlier about what brought me here, I’m not born and raised in Milwaukee. I’m from a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta from a little town called Marshall, Mississippi. We didn’t have a McDonald’s, Burger King, or any of those fast-food kinds of things, but we had the power of family and friends around us.

I’m in Milwaukee because I met the love of my life, my husband. I was going to school here in Milwaukee and we met and got married and moved here. This is a city that has incredible, wonderful things in it. We simply need to roll the dough and the apple pie that we are making out a little bigger. It’s a bigger pie and it has a taste that everyone gets a taste of the quality.

The beauty of what we have and the landscape of Downtown Milwaukee has to become a beauty in the Central City where I am. The attention to the design of how downtown looks has to come all the way down in the hood where I am so that we are all seeing and registering the respect completely of our community.

I look back on some of the campaigns I did when President Obama ran the first time. It was amazing to watch on election day as we went from one side of Milwaukee Central City to the other. People had their flags out and they had the presidential stand because they felt engaged and involved. Most importantly, they felt respected and valued in the process because they were going to the poll to vote for the candidate of their choice.

We have to be busy every day and those that are in rooms making decisions every day thinking about how my decision will impact the ability, not for a few but for many, to be respectful of the city and engage it? We won’t deny. This very moment, as we are sitting here now, we have enormous challenges with issues of safety in the city.

We are not going to deny that we are having complex issues with getting everyone vaccinated. We are not going to deny that as we are sitting here now in a beautiful facility having this discussion, there’s someone wondering if they are going to win their eviction notice is going to occur. If we keep our minds open to all of the pieces of the puzzle, the ones that fit perfectly and the ones that are yet to be picked up and be put in the puzzle, we will get through this. We have got to keep thinking about how do I make it for everyone. We have the capacity to do it. We have taken some giant issues and taking them on and made them work.

If we keep doing that, we’ll see our successes not being someone’s going to take leadership from me, someone’s going to deny me access because I’m giving it over to them. Someone that will treat me wrong because they are the leader. That’s your own guilt about the journey you’ve been on. How do we drop all of this stuff and pick up a new process of working hard every day to assure that we are not a pretty city because we won the NBA championship? We are not an extraordinary city because Giannis stands tall and has the MVP award. We are not a city that is only for some but it’s an award-winning city of championship for every person that’s here.

I want to end with you quick. You grew up 1 of 11 in Mississippi, a segregated city. You’ve had this amazing career. When you look back, is there something that stands out that you are most proud of or an overarching theme? What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to live an impactful life?

The most powerful experience for me is the gift of unconditional love and respect for my parents. Their courage to fight a battle to assure to raise eleven kids sent us all off to college, holding on to our farm’s land that is now an incorporated place. Having men and women around us many times, they could not read nor could they write, but we learned early on about the principle, dignity and respect. It’s powerful stuff.

Early on in my life, my mother and father said to me how important it was to look in the mirror every day and respect who you see. As I have had my 30-year career journey, what I would say as mom and daddy talked about looking in the mirror and like what you see and respect who you see, what I would add to that, look in the mirror every day. Like who you see, respect who you see and love who you see because that builds a complete character.

When people disagree with your style, when people say bad things about you and when people suggest to you that it is not the right time for you to have success, I have had people do that. When people say to you that you want more than what people are willing to give when you are grounded, you can handle all of that when you know who you are. You can take it all on. You stack it in a pile and you move on. The advice I give to any and all that are reading, it is so important to respect your own story so you can respect the story of other people.

As my mother and father said often, you must learn how to understand that respect is not a given commodity. It is earned from you and to you, and that’s what we have to do with people. Let them earn our respect as we earn theirs and not give up. Growing up in the rural South, I have said this to people, “I never cooked and cleaned in a White person’s home.” Never.

I saw racism as raw as it could be. My mother and father never set eleven of us down and said, “Hate that person because they are different than you.” We have got to stop passing on misinformation, wrong information, and unfair information. They never once told me to dislike someone because they look different than you. Never once. They didn’t say to me, “Because someone has more than you, you should feel less of you.” It all comes back to being open and being willing to live a full and inclusive life, a fun life, and looking back on the ability to say, “What did I do to make a difference for someone else?”

Important Links

  • Forward 48
  • Journal Sentinel
  • Episode – Past episode – How the Hoan Bridge got LIT! and some unrelated nonsense with Ian Abston and Mike Hostad….. and Chris Stegman (in spirit)

About Ian Abston

Ian is a builder and has a passion for attracting and connecting the best talent to Wisconsin:
Hoan Group – Private group of 160 civic minded leaders in Milwaukee and Madison
Light the Hoan – Raised $4MM to change Milwaukee’s skyline
Echelon – Founding member of the next generation of leaders in the Salvation Army
NEWaukee – Founding member of regions largest YP Group

About Thelma A. Sias

Named in April, 2018 as a Lifetime Achievement award recipient by the Milwaukee Business Journal, Thelma A. Sias has been recognized widely for her executive leadership and deep commitment to the community.

In February 2017, she was named to The History Makers for the Library of Congress and was later honored by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation with the Doug Jansson Leadership Award.

That same year she received the Civic Leaders Award by the Milwaukee Fellowship Open and featured in the Jewish Museum Milwaukee Allied in the Fight exhibit. She was named to Savoy magazine’s 2016 list of Top Influential Women in Corporate America and was the Milwaukee Business Journal’s 2015 40 under 40 Hall of Fame honoree.

As We Energies’ vice president of Local Affairs, Sias was responsible for building and enhancing long- term relationships with community leaders and local government to garner support and approval for the utility’s critical corporate initiatives. Sias has spent her career exceling as a leading executive and professional speaker.

About Fiesha Lynn Bell

Fiesha is skilled in relationship management focusing on engagement and solicitation strategies, development and goal realization, building brand loyalty, and connecting leaders. Fiesha serves as a leader in cultivating meaning relationships to drive impact-driven philanthropy.