Photos by Hedi Lamarr Rudd

The first-ever Wisconsin Leadership Summit, held October 18 and 19 at Ho-Chunk Gaming and Convention Center in Wisconsin Dells, exceeded organizers’ expectations — in terms of both attendance and impact.

I hoped when we were planning this summit these leaders would get something meaningful from the two days,” said Henry Sanders, publisher and CEO of Madison365, the co-host of the event. “Seeing and hearing the responses and reactions from the people who came made all the hard work worth it. It’s the reason you do things like this.

The Summit drew more than 320 attendees, many of whom were invited to attend because they had been named to one of Madison365’s previous lists of the state’s most influential African American and Latino leaders, which the online news site has published every year since its founding in 2015.

In fact, it was a gathering of some of those on the 2016 Black Power list that sparked the idea of this summit.

“When we published our Black Power list in December 2016, the 44 Most Influential African Americans in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks reached out to invite everyone on the list to a Bucks game on Martin Luther King Day,” Sanders recalled. “We thought it’d be great, and a lot of fun, so we went all in and had a lunch for them before the game, got them all game tickets, and it was just a great time. But what surprised me is that a lot of the people on that list had never connected before, so just being there together, we started making new connections among really important, influential leaders, and the energy in that room was just electric. I knew then that we had to take that to the next level and get all of those people from our lists together to do something really powerful, and that’s exactly what happened at this summit last week.”

In addition to about 100 honorees from past most influential lists, about 80 high school and college students attended, along with many professionals and community activists looking to learn from those most influential leaders.

“It was absolutely worth the price of admission,” said FIT Oshkosh founder and CEO Tracey Robertson in a Facebook Live interview. “The connections alone are invaluable. Really powerful stuff. I’m leaving here inspired. I’m leaving here thinking next level. I can’t wait until next year.”

“It’s just a unique blend of professionals, students, people who are running nonprofits, people who work for nonprofits, community leaders. It’s fantastic,” said Judd Schemmel, community programs officer for American Family Insurance, one of the event’s Platinum Sponsors. “Different perspectives on what is going to drive Wisconsin forward, and make this the kind of place we all want for everyone. It’s important work.”

Former Wisconsin Badger and NFL wide receiver Brandon Williams, who now makes his living and impact as a financial consultant and motivational speaker and who will soon launch “Kingdom Man Magazine,” served as host and master of ceremonies for the event — and made quite an impression on at least one college student.

“The conference was fantastic,” said UW-Platteville’s Gerron Moss. “One of my favorite parts of the conference was when Brandon Williams said, ‘some people go to the tree for the tree, and others go for the fruit.’ Throughout this entire conference it was just like fruit being tossed out to everyone.”

Many noted that the 14 panels were made up entirely of people of color, and that it was people of color leading the conversations and sharing their wisdom.

“The best part of this conference is knowing that you’re not alone,” said Asalia Ortega, also a student at UW-Platteville. “That all of these people are succeeding, and they’re people of color, and you can do it too.”

“The conference was full of inspirational and resourceful material that I did not know was available to people of color,” said Madison College student Kewiana Pollard.

“This summit far exceeded any expectations I had, and I’m definitely going to take back the lessons to my own life, my campus, and just spread it around,” said UW-Platteville student Lisa Chu.

United Way of Greater Cincinnati CEO Michael Johnson, who became a key leader in the Madison area’s communities of color during his eight years as CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, returned to Wisconsin to give a keynote address on leadership.

Michael Johnson and Brandon Williams

“I thought it was phenomenal. The fact that you all put this on in one year, and hundreds of people showed up … I am so proud of you, so proud of your team,” he told Sanders in a Facebook Live video. “I’ve heard nothing but good things from people who learned from the workshops. Powerful, powerful, powerful. I love the diversity you had in the rooms. Black, Latino, Native American, Asian, women, men, young, young at heart. Phenomenal. It feels good to be back home for a couple of days.”

The summit also contained a few important announcements, made by Sanders to the more than 100 people who attended the second day’s sessions.

First, Sanders announced that the 2018 Black Power list would be published in December, and that nominations are now open.

Sanders went on to announce that he had heard from many community leaders in Green Bay, Appleton and Oshkosh that those communities needed a media outlet for and by people of color — and that in response to that need, Madison365 would expand to that area and launch FoxValley365 early in 2019.

Sanders also announced that Nia Trammel, who was named one of Wisconsin’s most influential African Americans in 2017, plans to launch a magazine especially for Black women, called “Anya,” which will be powered by Madison365.

And finally, as the success of the Wisconsin Leadership Summit led many to want more events in the future, Sanders announced the formation of the Wisconsin Leadership Council to help plan and curate future regional events as well as next year’s Wisconsin Leadership Summit. The charter members of the Council include ManpowerGroup Global Diversity Officer Christopher Rowland, who will chair the council; Angela Russell, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at CUNA Mutual (which is also a Platinum Sponsor of the Summit); Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon; and Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee CEO Griselda Aldrete. Sanders said more members of the council will be recruited in the coming weeks.

The Wisconsin Leadership Summit will return next fall. Dates and locations will be announced in the next few months, Sanders said.

All photos by Hedi Lamarr Rudd for Madison365