Derrick L. Johnson is Founder & Director of Dream MKE, an initiative dedicated to developing a culture of innovation in underserved communities in Milwaukee.
Dream MKE has a goal to develop pathways for individuals who have ideas, but don’t know the next steps—people who have transferable skills but lack the opportunity, and others who are simply looking to leverage technology to change the world. We believe that by integrating modern technologies into underserved communities, we can create positive systemic change.
At what point did you become interested in entrepreneurship?
My favorite definition of entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled. With that said, my first taste of entrepreneurship was in seventh grade, where I fixed computers for family members and friends. This lead to a development of inquisitiveness around technology. I remember taking apart clocks and reassembling them. I would use my Lionel train set to explore the boundaries to find the precise speed in which my train would topple the tracks but not derail. In retrospect, it was my mind’s way of creating thought models and frameworks to understand problems. It’s the breadth of these experiences that put me on my path today.
What has been the largest difficulty you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?
The most difficult thing about entrepreneurship has been finding individuals who see value in nontraditional opportunities. While it has been fairly easy for us to find the next clothing line, restaurant or real estate investor, finding functional entrepreneurs who are willing to search for that nightmare problem, solve the problem and monetize that solution has been difficult. Thus finding the right problem to solve and having the persistence to select another problem—even when you realize you got the 31st try wrong—is essential. Almost any problem can be solved when the people trying to solve them are removed from restrictive systems and given enough time. There is a delicate trifecta that epitomizes entrepreneurship; it’s this balance of time, risk and opportunity that eludes even the brightest minds.
What makes Milwaukee a unique place to start a company?
Milwaukee is a great place to start a company because leaders and mentors have an intrinsic, vested stake in helping the next generation become successful. We see this epitomized in the launch of BrightStar Wisconsin Foundation, where investors are exploring a philanthropic investing model. Honesty, more leaders are accessible here. Simply having the ability to call individuals who have achieved success (and they actually pick up) and share their advice has been tremendous.
What piece of advice do you have for new startup companies?
Find people who inspire you. Find individuals who have a different worldview than you do.
Also, ask what people need: What’s bothering them? What’s hassling them? What’s costing them money? What’s keeping them from getting what they want? Ask how could you help these people do their job better.
What was your dream job as a child?
When I was a child I wanted to be a music producer. I was raised around music. My grandmother worked at WGCI in Chicago, so our house was filled with enough vinyl to fill a few bedrooms. In my early twenties, I worked as a recording engineer, won Milwaukee’s first Dynamic Producer beat battle and even met a few superstars. However, THE biggest highlight was getting a positive feedback from Teddy Riley, one of my favorite producers.