Meet 7 Milwaukee-based, female business founders

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we are delighted to showcase seven female entrepreneurs who run their own businesses in very different industries. These women are young, motivated and extremely supportive of one another, believing that success is achieved through collaboration rather than competition.

Particularly in male-dominated fields, women need to find each other and raise each other up with the hope of finding personal fulfillment, possibly friendship but most importantly, a future of wage equality.

“When I first got into the tech startup space, I was told many times that if I want to be taken seriously, I had to get a male co-founder. It’s been amazing to see more women in tech being promoted recently and why I try to share my story when I can,” says Erin Magennis, the founder of an NFT social network called Spree.

Meet Magennis and six other women who are running very different businesses, but with the same underlying mission.

1. Aneysha Bhat, Perennial Culture

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Bhat is the Co-Founder/Culture Strategist of Perennial Culture, a social enterprise aimed to build sustainable and thriving cultures. “This means we use systems and design-thinking strategies to revolutionize how we think about, design, build and empower culture in the public and private sector,” says Bhat.

This spring, Bhat will launch the first-ever National Culture Accelerator program. The virtual, 8-week program empowers individuals, startup teams, companies and communities to energize and empower their cultural foundations. 

It hasn’t always been easy for Bhat, but she continues to identify and maximize her strengths and collaborate with those who have complementary talents.

“Over time, I learned to embrace my unique perspective, voice and definition of ‘entrepreneur.’ To me, it means one who is empowered to create positive change and empowers others,” says Bhat. “Shirley Chisholm said it best: ‘If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair!’” 

2. Nadiyah Johnson, Milky Way Tech Hub

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Milky Way Tech Hubsupports BIPOC and women innovators through entrepreneurship educational programming, venture pitch events and a growing innovation ecosystem.

Johnson also serves as a professor at Marquette University. She enjoys painting and educating youth about computer science in her free time and currently sells her art in pop-up shops at local art fairs.

“Basically, when I’m not working or painting or doing community service I’m spending quality time with my family. Which means likely beating them in chess,” says Johnson.

3. Erin Magennis, Spree

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Spree is an NFT social network, a platform that helps people  turn their social media content into measurable digital assets using Web3 NFT protocols that can be bought, sold, collected and used.

Magennis is passionate about her work and company, but personal enrichment, learning new skills and mastering the unexpected are important to her, too.

“I’ve constantly pushed myself to try new things and explore new horizons, like becoming the youngest holistic health practitioner at the time of certification, teaching myself coding and becoming a log rolling champion,” says Magennis.

“I’ve been the only female or the youngest by a few decades in many rooms. This helped me get used to being the only one ‘like me’ doing things which has served me well.”

4. Olivia Menza, Liv A Little Vegan Ice Cream

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Menza owns and operates a vegan ice cream company, Liv A Little Vegan Ice Cream, that offers her self-created product that’s made from coconut and oat milk. She sells her ice cream wholesale, as a catering service and at pop-up events.

Her goal is to create vegan versions of childhood favorite flavors that are both healthy and tied to happy emotions.

“My brand strives to become the nostalgic, childlike ice cream in the vegan frozen dessert industry. All my flavors circle back to stories and flavors from the past,” she says.

Menza is very active on Instagram and often asks her customers for their input on flavor ideas.

“As a young female, I am extremely relatable to my target audience. Because of this it is easy to connect and build relationships with my customer base. I think this is a large reason as to why I have such a strong dedicated following,” she says.

5. Cass Polzin, Zealous Advertising

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Polzin started her first blog at age 13 to gain sponsorships from beauty companies. And it worked.

“By 15 I was selling sponsored ad packages on that same blog. I got roped into the startup world shortly thereafter, and have continued to grow through self-education and industry experiences,” she says.

At 18, she started her own organization, with a male co-founder. She says they were equal partners but he always received more credit from clients and colleagues. However, as an ally of women, he insisted on speaking up for her and making sure she received accolades for her contributions.

“It was definitely discouraging at first. Having an advocate helped a lot, but the best part is through my own growing and learning I’m now able to walk into any situation with the confidence that I belong there, regardless of my age or gender,” she says.

Today, Polzin runs Zealous Advertising which provides creative digital marketing solutions for small-to-medium-sized businesses looking to improve brand awareness, educate prospects and engage leads.

6. Izabelle Villafuerte, Empresaria Cosmetics

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Villafuerte’s Empresaria Cosmetics is a Latina-owned brand designing innovative, recycled makeup brushes. The brushes are hand-made by Villafuerte and her father from recycled wood in their garage studio space.

“I got the idea when I went to Sephora and was disappointed by the lack of aesthetics and creativity for such high-cost tools,” she says. “Makeup has changed so much over the past century. However, brushes seem to stay the same.”

For months, Villafuerte approached different US manufacturers with her idea for recycled wood brushes and was turned away by all. One day, she showed her dad what she was trying to do and he offered to help build them by hand.

“Without my dad’s help, this would not be possible. He has put so much of his own time into making the brushes. My dad is my biggest motivation to keep going and get to a place where he can retire from his welding job,” she says.

7. Katrina Vrakas, Official Create

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Vrakas is a fourth-generation jeweler. Her great grandfather was a goldsmith and watchmaker; her grandfather was a diamond sourcer and her parents own a jewelry store in North Fond Du Lac. “I’m constantly fueled by purpose and passion in carrying on my family’s legacy within the industry, as well as bringing quality and innovative pieces to the market,” she says.

Vrakas founded her business, Official Create, as a jewelry brand focused on one-of-one custom pieces and jewelry essentials crafted out of precious metals and diamonds. Although the diamond industry is dominated almost exclusively by men, she’s learned to navigate it both assertively and gracefully.

“I certainly fall outside of the gender norm when grazing the streets of the New York City Diamond District. However, I am determined to pave my way as a female within this industry and most specifically within the custom jewelry sector,” says Vrakas.