Operator Spotlight: Michael Stars Co-Founder Suzanne Lerner

Looking for practical help and advice on an operational area that may be outside your realm? Each month we spotlight one of our talented operators, who’ll share their expertise and offer insights and ideas that may help improve your own operations. This month we spoke to Suzanne Lerner, Co-Founder & President of Michael Stars.

You’ve been at Michael Stars since you and your husband co-founded it in 1986. How has the landscape changed for women-led companies since then? 

SUZANNE: There are more women-owned and led businesses than ever before. That’s the good news. Yet when it comes to leadership, women continue to fight stereotypical assumptions about what they can or cannot achieve.

I became a serial entrepreneur after realizing I was not going to be considered for leadership roles by the various companies I was working for. And when it was time for me to take the helm of the company I co-founded and built with my husband Michael after he passed away, I had to overcome the skeptics who said I “didn’t have the experience” to lead. Of course any man with my experience would have been given the benefit of the doubt and encouraged to take over. And that was just five years ago! 

The first thing I did as leader was to break down silos that had been built up over time and encourage collaboration. Today we are a diverse, women-led organization with a collaborative team, great products, and a purpose, vision, and mission we work toward every day.

For all the strides women leaders have made, we’re still not given the same chances men receive. The best way to address this is to support other women on their leadership journeys. It’s important to invest in women entrepreneurs, learn from each other, and create the social capital that enables women to grow and succeed.

This year has been full of disruptions. As a business leader and an activist, how have you been affected by the renewed focus on social justice? 

SUZANNE: This level of social justice activism in the business community isn’t renewed. It’s brand new! What I see today is a committed wave of founders and CEOs getting real about their responsibility to end systemic inequity in our country.

Many of us who’ve been fighting for racial and gender equity for decades welcome this “wokeness.” We started the Michael Stars Foundation nearly 20 years ago with a mission to build critical pathways to gender and racial equality through access to mentorship, education, and economic opportunity, especially those focused on women and girls of color. 

Through that work we’ve learned how receptive our customers are to our social justice and activism efforts. Our latest initiatives include collaborations with Gloria Steinem on voter registration and the ERA Coalition to support the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as our Michael Stars “One for All” campaign, which provides emergency relief through $10k grants to support communities hit hardest by the inequities exposed by the pandemic. The response from our customers has been incredible. People tell us that they want to buy from a company whose values they share. 

How has COVID-19 affected your team at Michael Stars and how have you changed because of it? 

SUZANNE: We’ve always worked hard to live our values and the team’s response to COVID-19 has really taken that to another level. As an organization, we’ve become closer and more caring. Our leaders and staff, many of whom have not lived through a crisis like this, have experienced the power of purpose and the value of open collaboration in overcoming obstacles.

We faced some big challenges back in March when we decided to make masks. None of us could sit on the sidelines as we listened to the continuous reports of PPE shortages for frontline healthcare workers and responders. But we also knew that we were not a production house and we’d need to take on new roles in order to make masks for customers and for donation. 

I’m so proud of what our team has accomplished – We’ve now made and shipped thousands of masks. It wasn’t easy, but we were fueled by our purpose. That “Rosie the Riveter” spirit has become even more a part of who we are today and will enrich our culture moving forward. 

Michael Stars led the charge in so many ways comfort fashion, women in leadership roles, equal pay, diversity, and more. Why is it so important for business leaders to be a voice for equality and change? 

SUZANNE: You can’t afford not to be a voice for gender and racial equality if you want your business to thrive. Inequity threatens the independence, economic stability, and health of your employees and society at large. I’m looking forward to seeing more U.S. businesses get behind social justice and support legislation like the Equal Rights Amendment. No business can afford to be on the wrong side of history. 

Why is it important to support founders with nontraditional backgrounds? 

SUZANNE: Non-traditional in the start-up world often means that you’re a person of color, a woman, or both of those things. Most of my social impact investing and philanthropy focuses on women and girls of color. They have an incredible ability to innovate, contribute to economic growth, and organically advance gender and racial equality through whatever they do.

Not many people realize that women of color are one of the fastest-growing segments of small business owners. They are starting businesses at a rate that is six times the national average, generating more than $200 billion in revenue, and employing nearly 1.4 million people! Yet businesses with women of color CEOs get less than 1 percent of all VC funding every year.

Smart, progressive investors know that when a woman of color is founding a company, she is most likely solving a complex and important problem that has the potential to positively impact her community, make a profit, and help the economy. 

What’s one amazing insight no one knows about the fashion industry?   

SUZANNE: You purchase a “simple” tee. What you may not know is behind that tee is a complex process. Every stage is critical: concept and inspiration, design which includes fabric selection, color palate, styling details, pattern making and fitting, production, and distribution. As a company that produces 90 percent of its collection in Los Angeles, we control every aspect of this process to ensure we craft high quality, long-lasting garments and utilize manufacturing contractors who share our values.

AOC often talks about the skills she picked up as a bartender, and others talk about what they learned working retail. What were some of those formative jobs for you?

SUZANNE: For me it was all about typing and secretarial work. I have to thank my mother for insisting that I acquire a “skill to fall back on.” When I left university to travel, I basically typed my way around the world, finding interesting jobs like working at an NGO in Nepal and for Reuters in Australia. Those and other gigs exposed me to the critical social issues of the time and taught me how to work with a diverse group of people. 

What’s one unconventional thing you’re doing to keep yourself sane these days?

SUZANNE: I’m typically on the road 50 percent of the time. Since the pandemic, I’ve been home much more and discovered that sweeping my patio is like being in a Zen garden! It’s my way of meditating and keeping sane.

What’s the one condiment you could never live without? 

SUZANNE: Marmite on toast, a habit I acquired in Australia. It’s so much more than a condiment and I can’t live without it!

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