MADISON, Wis. — In order to honor his Indigenous roots, Alejandro Miranda Cruz named his Madison-based film company after the eagle — a symbol of omnipotence for the native Sierra Madre Occidental peoples of Mexico.
The director co-founded Bravebird with producer and partner Noel Miranda in 2015. Since then, the duo has had the goal of bringing the perspectives of underrepresented voices into their projects. Such have included a visual profile of nonprofit Centro Hispano of Dane County, the “Why I Love UW” series and a feature-length film, “Trace The Line,” which depicts four artists navigating the throes of the early pandemic.
This is especially important to Alejandro, having previously pursued an acting career in Los Angeles — he recalled being typecast for delinquent roles, and seeing a lack of diversity on camera and behind the scenes of various productions.
But 2020 was an unkind year to Bravebird, as it was for the rest of the film industry — and for minority-led small businesses in general. Projects dried up and the company’s freelance ecosystem dwindled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Noel said.
While the health crisis delivered major blows to most small businesses, those owned by people of color were hit hardest, according to an analysis published in April 2021 by the Federal Reserve. Among the 10,000 businesses the Fed surveyed in fall 2020 (all with fewer than 500 employees), 95% said their operations were negatively impacted by the pandemic, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
When asked to state the financial condition of their business, 57% of respondents said “fair” or “poor.” But companies with Asian (79%), Black (77%) and Hispanic owners (66%) were more likely to characterize their standing that way.
Having been through several local programs that uplift businesses before, Bravebird was in search of a solution to stay afloat.
The business eventually found it in early 2021 through a program put forth 12 years ago by the Green Bay Packers, which is officially expanding into the Madison area this year, marked by Madison Region Economic Partnership CEO Jason Fields joining the effort’s board of directors last December.
The Green Bay Packers Mentor-Protégé program for a year partners applicants with experienced business leaders, who provide technical, managerial, financial and other guidance to help companies improve their competitive standing. It is kicked off by a “Draft Day” where proteges pitch their business to the board of directors, who then match them with a mentor based on need.
While anyone can apply to be part of the program, businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans and people with disabilities are especially encouraged to take part. Mentors must be established companies “of good character” and have a senior-level officer willing to provide feedback and meet regularly with their assigned protégé, who themselves must have been in business for at least two years, and have a vision for growth. The initiative does not work with startups.
The program is administered by Green Bay-based AFF Research, which has existed for two decades, and helped work on previous redevelopment projects at Lambeau Field, among others. A requirement, in order to have the Lambeau Field project come to fruition, was to have minority- and women-led businesses participate, said Aaron Popkey, Packers director of public affairs.
That’s where AFF Research came in as a consultant that advises its clients on how to ensure their supply chains include diverse businesses, said president Anna Steinfest, who also recruits mentors and proteges.
“We hit all our marks, but discovered that some of these younger businesses had challenges in sustaining themselves after the (Lambeau Field) project,” Popkey said of what spurred the program’s launch. “They lacked certain experience and skills to further grow their businesses.”
Such challenges are something Fields has observed among minority-led businesses in Madison. There’s a “total empty void in this space” for programs similar to the Packers’. Steinfest first approached him to be part of the board of directors August, he said.
Fields regarded the city as an “uptapped market” for minority-led businesses to maximize their potential.
Noel said Bravebird was among the 19 proteges that participated in the 2021 cohort, along with 15 mentors. In the 2022 cohort, Steinfest said there are tentatively 21 proteges with 19 mentors this year, though those numbers have yet to be finalized.
Of Noel and Alejandro’s experience participating in the yearlong program, she said “we had to change the way we filmed and how we communicate that to clients.” She described Braverbird’s mentor as a “seasoned business owner” who helped the duo not only build up their confidence as filmmakers, but establish a better work-life balance.
Now, Bravebird has 15-20 freelancers it works with on various projects.
“We’ve been pivoting back to commercial and corporate work again,” said Noel, adding Bravebird is looking to do more documentaries as well.
Meanwhile, managing partner Kimberly Hazen of Madison-based DoCo Dwell, which owns rental properties in the village of Sister Bay, is part of the 2022 cohort. Hazen found out her business, founded in 2019, was accepted into the program in late January.
“I would love to just get a plan and direction,” Hazen said in anticipation of working with her mentor, adding she wants DoCo Dwell to take on the role of developer in addition to landlord. She’s not ruling out expansion in Madison, but Hazen said her priority is to “get her feet wet” first.