28-Year-Old Is A Rising Star Entrepreneur
From real estate to coffee, Djdade Denson is making his impact felt.
At 28, Djdade Denson has already established himself as a leader.
He co-owns a successful northside coffee shop, oversees a camp for youths and is developing expertise in construction and development.
Denson is a co-owner of Coffee Makes You Black, a restaurant and gathering space that has operated at 2803 N. Teutonia Ave. since 2001. He also is the director of Jaha Workshop, which runs the annual Camp “Xhongo” Peace Father & Son Retreat.
Before taking on those roles, Denson, who goes by the nickname “DJ,” worked in project management for a local construction company. But after three years, he felt the pull to do more for the community.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in civil and environmental engineering from Marquette University, Denson said “it’s almost my obligation to try new things to help my community.”
A Milwaukee native, Denson graduated from the Associates in Commercial Real Estate program, also known as ACRE, in May.
ACRE is an educational partnership between the Local Initiatives Support Corporation Milwaukee, Marquette University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee School of Engineering that seeks to expand and support minority representation in the commercial real estate industry.
A love for community
Denson continuously looks to learn and then share his knowledge to help promote homeownership, financial literacy and development to benefit the community.
“Milwaukee can’t do better than a guy like Djdade,” said Daniel Armstrong, Denson’s friend and co-owner of Coffee Makes You Black. “He’s all for the city. He’s all for the youth. He’s all about inspiring.”
Denson grew up in the 53206 ZIP code, an area on Milwaukee’s North Side located west of Interstate 43 to 27th Street, bordered by North Avenue to the south and Capitol Avenue to the north. The area has faced long-standing challenges related to poverty, joblessness and mass incarceration of Black men.
“I’ve been blessed to have parents who were really, really dedicated to education and togetherness (community),” Denson said.
The second youngest of six siblings, Denson attended Milwaukee College Prep in middle school and University School of Milwaukee for high school.
With academic and athletic scholarships, Denson attended Marquette University, where he was a Division I track and field athlete. He graduated from Marquette in 2019.
‘A lot like his dad’
Denson also is continuing his late father’s legacy of helping the city’s youths. His father, Ron Johnson, and others started the free annual father and son camping retreat after attending the Million Man March in Washington D.C., in 1995.
After 27 years, the camp is now nearly as old as Denson, who took over running it in 2022.
“He’s a lot like his dad . . . the kind of person who wants something good for everybody,” said Tony Courtney, a regular at Coffee Makes You Black and a community elder. Courtney was a friend of Denson’s father.
In August, 95 boys and men from Milwaukee and Chicago traveled to the Blackhawk County Park campground in De Soto, near La Crosse, to camp, fish on the Mississippi River, play sports, watch a meteor shower and bond.
In addition to helping youths, the camp also has enabled Denson to make important business connections.
He and his business partners first approached Coffee Makes You Black owner Bradley Thurman about learning the ropes of the restaurant when they were at the camp in 2021.
“We went into the chief tent, and we told him what our thoughts were and what our intentions were, and you know, he embraced it,” Denson said. “He was like: ‘OK, y’all start Monday.’”
Thurman taught Denson and his business partners about running the restaurant, giving thema crash course in business and entrepreneurship from customer service to marketing and product consistency.
ACRE opens doors
With his background in construction, Denson noticed that residents often are not included in development projects in Milwaukee and how out-of-town landlords own many properties in majority Black neighborhoods.
“How can you take pride in your surroundings when you don’t have any ownership?” he asked.
Feeling compelled to make a difference, Denson applied to the ACRE program. The program helped him to understand how real estate and development work in Milwaukee and how to include the community in future development projects to avoid displacing people.
“My goal is to equip the people who currently live where they live with the necessary tools, knowledge and apparatuses to be able to keep their homes and benefit from the increase in activity,” Denson said.
Andy Hunt, the Vieth director for the Center for Real Estate at Marquette University, called Denson a rising star who consistently demonstrated he was committed to success and building partnerships throughout the ACRE program.
“One of the things that I admire most about him as a leader is the fact that he’s so well-rounded,” Hunt said. “He recognizes how different parts need to come together to make the whole.”
Breaking new ground in Bronzeville
One of his goals is to continue learning about construction so he can teach others while building homes for the community.
Denson referenced an African proverb that gives him motivation: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.”
“It was so impactful to me just because I’ve been embraced for the most part by my village, I guess, but I know that isn’t true for everyone,” he said.
“So just teaching the village how to embrace all of us is something that I think is one of my goals because then you can truly change lives and set a standard for how we want to be treated, loved and cared for.”
How Djdade Denson is building community and changing lives in Milwaukee was originally published by the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.
Meredith Melland is the neighborhoods reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service and a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Report for America plays no role in editorial decisions in the NNS newsroom.
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