Up to Speed

Technology challenges facing Milwaukee’s small businesses

October 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives. The ways we work, shop, and spend our leisure time were changed almost overnight by the onset of the pandemic and subsequent public health restrictions and economic downturn. The pandemic also has necessitated a shift in how many businesses operate, requiring many to implement new practices like online ordering and no-contact pickups and delivery.

In some cases, it was relatively easy for businesses to make these changes because of technology used prior to the pandemic, including websites, apps, and contactless payment systems that made it easier for customers to find and continue to patronize them. Some small businesses did not have this technological infrastructure in place, however, making it more difficult for them to pivot to the new normal. Moreover, just as previous Forum research has pointed to the disproportionate impact of the “digital divide” on K-12 students of color, concerns have been raised that small businesses owned by people of color may be impacted more greatly by the pandemic due to a lack of access to necessary technology. While many gaps in access and success were created or exacerbated by the pandemic, many disparities in Milwaukee’s small business community have existed for decades.

This report – commissioned by the Greater Milwaukee Committee – examines the use of technology by small businesses in the city of Milwaukee, particularly as they attempt to respond to challenges posed by the pandemic and the related economic recession. Specifically, we attempt to quantify and provide greater perspective on how technology currently is and is not being used by Milwaukee small businesses, with a specific emphasis on small businesses owned by people of color.

Our primary research questions include the following:

  • To what extent do small business owners in Milwaukee have access to the kinds of technology that would logically be needed for them to operate effectively?
  • What are the foremost barriers to accessing such technology for small businesses in Milwaukee and what solutions have been proposed or tried?
  • To what extent are there gaps in technology use between small business owners of color and white small business owners?
  • What policy options exist to bridge gaps?

We attempt to answer these questions through a survey of small business owners and a series of interviews with both business owners and organizations that assist small businesses in Milwaukee. We also include analysis of possible strategies that could be implemented at the local level to address the technology needs of the city’s small businesses, again with specific emphasis on businesses owned by people of color.

The success of small businesses is central to the health of Milwaukee’s post-pandemic economy. We hope our findings will be informative to business and civic leaders, community members, and policy makers and will prompt consideration of new strategies to assist small business owners as they navigate the new challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic.