Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Michael Emem’s Rising Real Estate Career

From drawing homes in high school to building them across the city.

By - Aug 25th, 2020 11:30 am
Michael Emem. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Michael Emem. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

“It was all part of the plan,” says Michael Emem, explaining how he’s gone from designing houses while in high school at Bradley Tech to building them for clients.

We met at 1509 N. Jefferson St., one of many development projects Emem increasingly finds himself involved in.

The Lower East Side project, a three-story, $700,000 duplex, has Emem serving as the designer and builder for the property owner.

He’s filling the role of owner’s representative, overseeing construction and permitting matters, for two other projects currently: Brandon Rule‘s Thirteen31 apartment development and Walnut Way Conservation Corp‘s Innovations and Wellness Commons office building. Emem describes the role as helping with “the important decisions that drive development.”

His firm, Emem Group, has also designed the homes planned for two urban infill subdivisions the city created, Josey Heights and Walnut Circle. Emem says he’s currently working with six prospective buyers. “I would expect to be in the ground this fall,” he says of building new homes at the sites.

A 2005 graduate of Milwaukee Public Schools‘ Bradley Tech High School, Emem picked up an associate’s degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College in architectural technology. He also earned a certificate from the Associates in Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) program in 2015. He later went back to school and graduated from UW-Milwaukee in May with a bachelor’s degree in finance. All along the way he’s been working in real estate, picking up a wide range of real-world experience.

Emem worked as a project manager for Cross Management Services and later T.L. Reese Corporation.

He got to see the hiring side of the industry when he worked with Carla Cross, one of the city’s leaders in implementing inclusive hiring practices. His time at Cross Management coincided with the firm consulting on the construction of Harley-Davidson Museum and a host of other projects.

Emem served as construction manager for Milwaukee Habitat for Humanity from 2013 to 2015 and then as a project manager from Wangard Partners. He worked on multiple Wangard projects, including Freshwater Plaza in Walker’s Point.

Emem went out on his own full time in 2019. He currently has one full-time employee in addition to himself.

House at 1942 N. 20th St. designed by Michael Emem. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

House at 1942 N. 20th St. designed by Michael Emem. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

“I have wanted to be an entrepreneur in this industry since I was a child,” says Emem. He designed and built his first home when he was just 20 on the edge of the city’s Midtown neighborhood.

Once he started at Habitat he found himself working to build approximately 35 homes a year in the city.

But designing homes for others and serving as an owner’s rep isn’t where Emem wants his real estate career to end.

“The goal is to actually get into real estate development for myself,” he says.

He says he plans to start with developing an affordable housing project funded with low-income housing tax credits, similar to the one he’s working on with Rule right now.

The goal isn’t simply to make as much money. “When it comes to real estate development, I want to approach it with purpose,” he says.

In a field that is location, location, location, Emem says he will be patient to find the right location. He is targeting Bronzeville and the North Side. “I know that there hasn’t been as much economic development as those areas need.”

Abandoning a Slave Name

I first met Emem when he worked at Wangard, and when his name was Michael Cockroft.

Why did his name change? The answer goes back more than 150 years.

“I had always suspected my name was given to my family by slave owners,” says Emem, an African American. He did the research to confirm his hunch.

He was able to find his ancestors living in Mississippi in the 1870 census. Emem also found them in 1860, but not as humans. They were listed as unnamed property of an individual with the surname Cockroft. The ages matched.

His family, which moved back to Leake County, Mississippi following the Great Recession after making the move to Milwaukee during the Great Migration, did not change their names, but he sought to change his.

He used Ancestry.com to confirm he was mostly of Nigerian descent. He selected the last name “Emem” from the Igbo language, it means “peace.”

“Changing my last name was the most liberating experience of my life,” he says. “I feel that I have true inner peace.”

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