Senior Reporter – Milwaukee Business Journal
Ugo Nwagbaraocha…“Until we have a thriving, diverse business community in Milwaukee, things aren’t going to change.”
Ugo Nwagbaraocha is a well-liked small business owner who believes he’s done the right things to grow his distributorship on Milwaukee’s northwest side — and yet he’s feeling stuck.
The son of Nigerian immigrant parents, Nwagbaraocha (pronounced Wa-ba-ro-cha) participated in numerous supplier-diversity training programs and networked at the highest levels of corporate Milwaukee. He plays a leadership role among minority businesses as the chairman of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s diverse-business affiliate The Business Council and president of the National Association of Minority Contractors-Wisconsin chapter.
Lately Nwagbaraocha, who owns construction tools and safety equipment distributor Diamond Discs International, has been on a mission to change the overall business community’s perception of Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee. They’re not all microbusinesses with limited capabilities and many are ready for larger opportunities, he said.
“Until we have a thriving, diverse business community in Milwaukee, things aren’t going to change,” he said. “When diverse-owned businesses are successful, guess what? They also do business with other diverse-owned businesses. They also hire from the community.”
Nwagbaraocha, 46, believes that economic empowerment of minority businesses will allow them to expand and lead to multi-generational companies, which are a rarity among Black- and Hispanic-owned businesses.
One way Nwagbaraocha advanced his cause was by advocating for the MMAC to support business partnerships and entrepreneurship, including supplier diversity programs, in the business group’s commitment to making metro Milwaukee a “Region of Choice” for minorities. He serves on the MMAC board which gave him access to the organization’s leaders including then-chairman Jonas Prising of ManpowerGroup and MMAC president Tim Sheehy.
Nwagbaraocha also recently spoke as a panelist on an MMAC webinar about challenges facing Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee. During the session, he proposed the Milwaukee 7 regional economic development group that MMAC runs set a goal of projects that include expansion of existing minority-owned businesses in southeast Wisconsin.
Sheehy credits Nwagbaraocha with MMAC reviving its supplier-diversity program last fall and urging members to increase their efforts to work with minority-owned small businesses through supplier diversity initiatives and supporting minority entrepreneurs.
“Ugo is a positive, relentless force to make sure that we included supplier diversity as part of our Region of Choice initiative,” Sheehy said.
Nwagbaraocha grew up in a middle-class section of Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee with a political science degree but found an aptitude for the construction tools industry selling products part time and then full time.
He joined Diamond Discs International as sales director and then accepted the invitation to buy the company in 2007. The company was located in West Allis and he wanted to relocate to the city of Milwaukee as he sought a larger space, which he did in 2018.
At the time of the move, Nwagbaraocha’s goal was increasing employment from about 10 to 30 or 40. Diamond Discs hasn’t increased its employment due in part to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the business, he said.
Another impediment to growth is that established minority businesses don’t get the same opportunities to compete for new contracts as white-owned firms or even early-stage minority-owned firms, Nwagbaraocha said.
Diamond Discs International has established good credit and has a strong track record as a supplier, Nwagbaroacha said. The company has an SBA loan through U.S. Bank and he anticipates revenue of $5 million to $7 million this year.
As a result of being vetted and participating in WEC Energy Group’s supplier diversity program, Diamond Discs is a primary vendor to many leading utility construction firms including KS Energy Services LLC of New Berlin, Nwagbaraocha said.
“He’s an extremely affable business entrepreneur and we’ve had a wonderful business relationship for years,” said Shane Wolf, KS Energy’s director of procurement. “His drive and passion for servant leadership and as a voice for Milwaukee’s diverse business community stands out.”
Despite recommendations from industry leading clients, Nwagbaraocha said he’s finding Milwaukee’s business community challenging for companies like his growing to the next level.
“Established diverse-owned businesses receive very limited access and visibility to long-term growth investment and partnership opportunities,” he said.