Get Your Own Seat: Suzanne Lerner of Michael Stars
Hey guys it's Rebecca. I just wanted to let you know in case you didn't that we recently launched my first fragrance I'm so proud of it. I think the smell is amazing. I created it for you for me and it doesn't actually involve any compromises. It's vegan sulfate and fat-free cruelty free. My goal was to create something that marked all your milestone moments, but that didn't compromise your and others health and it's environmentally friendly with sustainable packaging. So head over to my website, Rebecca minkoff dot com, and check out my first fragrance. Everyone you're listening to superwoman. This is Rebecca today's guest Zan Learner the founder of Michael Stars she started this company with her late husband Michael so many years ago. But what is more incredible is her philanthropic parts the amount of give back she does. How? She Invest Women and how she took. Some things that was a passionate. This is. Suzanne on. Super. Well. Thank you so much Suzanne for joining me today. I would love for you to start with a little bit of a back story. You know when I first got my first Michael Stars Shirt I just. Assumed it was a man and was so happy to learn it. Was You. So I love you to Kinda give me your history and how you how you started the brandon and then we'll guide in. Sure. You know it is also a mom. So my husband's name was Michael, and we kind of organizes together. And from the beginning I was a sales rep in their clothing industry had few showers around the country and is very cute. Guy Walked in one day with the South African accent. With screen printed t shirts and it was Michael and within two weeks we were dating Haarder's so I recommend anybody asked the guy out on a date if you want to get give somebody interested. So that's of how we started and we realized we were very much alike because we cared about equality we care about making a difference to people and we were both very much entrepeneurship. So I was running sales and merchandising and marketing and Michael Caine around the company. So we had equality there even in the company. Wow and how many years ago was this this is in nineteen, eighty, six. Oh my gosh. So. What was that experience like when you first launch I mean business I talk about business being so incredibly different only fifteen years ago but we're talking with you know almost twenty five back into the math correctly maybe thirty years ago. What was it like launching? I'm assuming you didn't do the do now have to raise them VC money to start my company. At love to hear that journey. No not at all we had a great idea and Michael second mortgage to home. So there was no VC VC money out there there were no banks that lend money to somebody who can chance much the background. He had had a successful business before in the fashion industry and I had a pretty good a wrapping business. And at the time, you know people love new ideas. New Products were willing to give people. A chance is much tougher. Now, you have to have all the marketing the Tom the money back in Europe and We just kind of went out the door and I showed it to my clients and my customers and they got excited I mean our first season. We saw Bernie's Theater Fred Segal remain. Dale's we kind of shot up really quickly. So it was really fun but after two years, it wasn't so exciting anymore we. So what are we going to do next? So we came up with the idea of garment Daij t shirts, which we had already been doing with Spring Press. So I already had a connection with a really wonderful American factory Pennsylvania and we I did a thirty color colored I mean I I could've done forty choas. If somebody asked me am was how we started and that's what we can that one size which is easy at the time and it was a ridden and again it it took off. So there's been a lot of cycles and our career where. You kind of like go have the ups and downs. You have ray products in you know I'm sure what that's like. You have great season and then the next season might be tougher. And we've gone through a lottery incarnations to last the length we have and I. Think it's because I really do understand what the woman wants to wear a really do get her tastes level. So then we came up with these garment I t shirts and then our shine t shirt, which is probably the first t show you lot. And we've been able to remain consistent and have a loyal following I. Love that you know you touched upon the fact that you are great at sales and I feel like people so many people have great products and then it comes to them talking about themselves and their line and they falter. So what do you think magic ingredient has been that made use such than seller because to get into Barney's all stores you named For season as like everyone's dream and then I never got into parties despite you know how however many meetings I have with them. So what what do you think? is outside of the secret sauce of being you your uniqueness passion I. Think you know Rebecca you've got that and the people that do are believed and I think times were different onto they were willing to take on smaller people times very, very different for us. So we were lucky to get on the door. I. Think it was different. It was unique. It was something they didn't see before. And we told the story about it and it could be been Michael I together as the duo that just had that type of personality. He was the same like me you're enthusiastic and warm, and we had integrity and we believed in our products beliefs a big part of it. If you don't believe in what you're doing, you're not gonNA convince anybody else. Totally I think it all starts that that can do that. You have internally and then people can feel that. So honored you keep the business rush because you said, you know after two years you got boards you came up with your next product that how do you feel like you keep things fresh even right now? No Times so interesting now. after the recession ten years ago we re framed the company instead of just t shirts we wanted to sportswear. And we did sweaters and outerwear accessories and vetted welfare us so that we expanded our product range. And now it's interesting because of covid and what people really want. We've actually reduced the number styles we've reduced the amount of products that we have in our grand were doing more casual and the it's made things a little bit easier than this new strategy of what do we do next And we this has happened. I think along the way keeps happening. You do have to constantly reinvent yourself and say every five years you've got to think about what you're going to be your next plan down the road and we just somehow another come up with it like I. I have this idea what people really want to wear and our business. Is actually incredible and we are up one hundred percent in our business this here in our economies and our specialty stores that are slowly coming back. They're excited about the product and realized that they get great quality were totally untrendy but we're not trendy or they can purchase something and intrigue us. Now they'll pull out of their claws at still find it available. Color or body shade and said that they're going to continue to run aware. So just at reinvention and I think anybody that has a product and as an entrepreneur and with a great idea, they've got to think of that next product down the road. Totally. Yet one hundred percent you can't. You can't sit back I used to think. You know all when we achieve. Is. I'll be able to put my feet up and just daydream. Possible. And you know Michael used to be like that I mean after this screen printed t shirts he's like I said Michael Nobody wants them anymore you said what I Love Them Nobody wants them anymore so I ought to convince him to do something else. So it's I think within your own company you have naysayers that don't believe you can do it or don't think you need it and and you have to have that conviction to convince them before it even goes. Butler. Oh for sure. How have you sort of evolved the company without Michael? and and what was that period like? that. was really the biggest challenge for me. Michael had gotten sick. He had cancer and solely over a period of time. I. Started taking over more of the day to day in the company but we didn't really telling me about what was happening. So after he passed away, I actually had a ton of skeptics in the company. I'M NOT GONNA say they were primarily men but I will that I didn't think about breaking down the walls and the silos and trading routine environment. Now, I had worked in a lot of different jobs in my career and I had a lot of different careers. So really knew what I would have wanted in a boss and then accompany. So I took those. Experiences and frame him around what I thought would work for us and I said come on let's just try it. Let's break down the silos. See what happens him those morning huddles those two minute meetings and chuck about what you're doing for the day and get yourself sub setup for. So at the end of the a months somebody came into my office and said I have to admit I was such a nice air bud you're totally right. So we've been continuing to break down the walls I'm now that conduit between every single department I feel like I'm. C. O. C. O. CEO doing running everything. But in a way, it's really good right now because I know everything that's happening every area I know what's happening in marketing and I know that e COM shop and how they dress should look and then go to the design team and they're working out of sitting. And realizing that they've got a little bit differently I can go to production and make sure that seems your happening on that side too. So it's actually been really great, and that's all because of all the experiences I had working in a lot of different companies. So I wouldn't be a Naysayer and say go on your own and not given experience. It's nice to have around. Yeah. Do you feel like having all those? You since Kobe I've had more hats and I ever imagined it. You just named a bunch. How do you stay sane having all those jobs or do you have? Any. Adverse tips for? multitasking. I think you have to run with it and just know how lucky you are to have this opportunity. And I have to admit I don't have kids now and. I live by myself with my my dog and I don't have what other women are going to, and probably a lot of women listened stockists have kids and a husband that's working and trying to do everything and spite of the fact that everything should be slick fifty fifty is you'd miss half to push yourself to keep doing it and I I also look at myself in real. So lucky I am to be worm at. And don't take anything for granted. And just keep pushing the envelope. I do have to say I am addicted spider solitaire. So at night when I finally get a chance breakdown, do nothing I don't read a book and turn on the TV. And I played for half an hour and it's almost like my meditation I gotTa Try that. I wouldn't. Be, addictive. Something right now especially in. High, everybody I wanNA tell you a little bit about the platform. I used to distribute this podcast. It's called anchor. It is the easiest way to make a podcast and gives you everything you need in one place for free, which is what you can use. 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You know you've been doing some incredible work with your grants I know you've been giving donations and grants out once. A. Month since covid started, will you talk to me about that? Sure. So Michael and I co founded our foundation fifteen years ago, we wanted to support organizations that push for gender equality and education. We WanNA chips focus on organizations that that related customers would could be late you. So we funded millions of dollars, a lot of different organizations, a lot of grassroots organizations, and so it's been something we've been doing, and when Kobe I said, we have to do something positive, and since we do look for grassroots organizations, the ones that aren't really in the news and for people to know about we went to organizations I kinda knew about when we created ten thousand dollar grants every months. And March we were I heard about the restaurant workers, they all were getting furlough, and so this gave them grant money. And April because we've been involved for years with gender-based violence work and working with survivors wasn't organization called free from that empowered domestic survivors and We know that's really a problem right now. So many people staying home. and. We support a justice for migrant women that supports term workers at risk and were without adequate P., e. and healthcare. And then I met this wonderful man named beverly. William. Barber who was working on the poor people's campaign that addresses underlying issues of equality. And so every month we continue to do things that we'll be joined. So until under the urine on is what I really love about. This is the community of people that work as influences for Michael Stars that you know, I, don't painting influencers, people that lever random rejoining that are excited about it, and the community of my consumers are so excited and they get you learn. So realized me Michael Stars isn't just a brand to sell and profit. It's about building information for people and Promoting social justice and the end equality and equity for all of us. So I mean I see all the time I get a little. On instagram, some of the influencers are so excited about the fact that we do this kind of work and then I have people saying, what what are you reading? So I think that we're definitely having an impact important for us to have that mission is important for any young entrepreneur any young company to have that mission to know what you want to believe them to know you believe in south specific cigarette, what it is, and then work around your customers want to know that you're doing something. They totally no. You WanNa do something and I love that you've been so furlan profit and you don't have to give me exact numbers but I think one of the things that so many companies struggle with is. You know margin right. So people WANNA give back they wanna do something but did you build a healthy margin into your into your production and sales that you could do that or how did you structure that because it can be overwhelming for people who know how to do it? We didn't we worked on margins that were fairly healthy contemporary margins, but we didn't do a lot of business with big department stores that require you to really work with much bigger margins and then. We did well, and so we were the type of people. We kept our officers small. We didn't drive fancy cars and by Super Expensive House, and so we if she's save money and so we could put it back in and when we started, we didn't put a lot of money into the foundation. We did what we could and as we build up that Sokol, money were able to give more more. But like for instance, the masks everybody is suing I buy one give. By three we give to and I said you know what? I'm just giving masks and then I'm gonNA sell masks and make a profit on my masks and my my wholesale might department store on the small stores that sell Japan also, and then it can give away thousands of masks and that's what we should do we. It's okay to make a profit, but it's even better to to get away. So yeah, you. Just have to figure out how much you can afford to give, and if it's a little, it's a little and it's still great. You don't have to give away a million dollars for it to be important to them. Yeah. So I'd love to hear you know, do you have a value set of how you live your life for a guiding sort of been of rules now, I've always worn my values on my sleeve. And might lend I never thought of social impact businesses CEPA things in all ways the sang no, we always wanted to make people happy which I think going back to thinking about the t shirt or a piece of clothing emits people happy used to feel guilty about clothing. But what I try to do I have this trinity. So it's my business is the philanthropy of what I give away, and that's also part by activism and then my investment portfolio. So about three years ago I knew that what I was investing in my neutral funds were filled with companies that probably didn't get my values, but I didn't know what to do. So I said carefully looking at that and I. Had Somebody helped me and we went to every mutual fund every company and saw what they really were about and what they supported and funded, and we pulled out of anything that didn't fit with what I felt to be who I was and my values. So now I'm totally into social responsible investing gender. Lens Investing Racial Women of Color focused and I'm so proud that I actually look at what I do. And know that I'm making a difference in every aspect of my life, not just my business and not just philanthropy and just want people to remember that the stock market is a tricky place and you WanNa make sure that your values are in your investments are not. SMART. It's it's so easy to just pick up your money with the financial adviser and hope they get it. Right you're right. You have to be so much more responsible than that. Hey, Rebecca I you know country should find an. Accenture name think accenture Oh this accenture, do you know that they that is tired him to do work for them so Well that means it's kids in the border rank. Rank, it is very difficult to keep up with the to let me. Turn around there. Somebody else that's doing something valve with somebody or valve with ours and Things that just I don't agree with and it's really hard to keep up with this. I have really align impacts, Jennifer canning. She's really shootings novel. What mass for the company? What are you excited I? Know you touch Gloria, Steinem do you WanNa talk more about how that's working and how it came about well. Gloria is a Michael Star's lover and has been for many years and when I first met her about seven years ago, she was so excited when she got my card and I was excited to meet her and I was laughing, it's t shirt. It's kind of funny I think Rebecca you probably feel the same team and somebody meets you bad handbag my God you Rebecca and it's and it's fun and it's exciting where. We. So I sit on the Monday shipboard she founded and we sit on boards the era coalition Together. And a call to man and we've been talking for the last year we wanted to collaborate together. So in December we decided we really wanted to work on registering women about and for us women of Color and grassroots led organizations were the primarily in our mindset of where we wanted to go and what we funded. So, we came up with his plan. We found the three organizations, which is black voters matter voter Latino and March on, and we have this whole campaign. We put together a little embroidered Gloria with her aviator glasses and the word vote on t shirts we created scrunch she's. Turned into masks. And the two of US taped on March thirteenth in New York City. We were only high fiving like air fiving and. the the three women founders of the organizations did not flying because it was at that point, there were shut down the city. So we did this video for the day Howard through it and when back to our homes, and then we really do anything I mean the epidemic hits and Democrat hit. So we waited and then George Floyd and this whole rising came about and we waited and we decided in summer it was the time people were aware people wanted to know people wanted to vote. And we felt very strongly that this is the perfect time to do it in July. So what's great about our campaigns as it's my friends, my net were or his friends. Activists Politicians influencers are wanting to do it because they want to make a difference and it's being inclusive. It's not just about what I want is Michael. Stars and promoting my grand it's about promoting these women and making a difference. I love it I. You know you're clearly your passion for Women Your Passion for equality and those who need a ladder Senate down to them supersedes I think if I might say you know you're. T shirts seem to be and clothing seem to be fuelling this passionate in war and I feel like that. So synergistic with my brand, which if I spend more time helping out others, I feel much more satisfied about my life. So. There's two questions that I love to ask all my gats maybe you've lifted maybe you don't know. But I would love to know something we might be surprised to know about you some people like bearing stories or hobbies or just like things that you decide what I would never think that she plays her solitaire. And then the second question being you know either advice that you have hard one learns yourself and WanNa pass onto another woman listening or something that someone gave you that has been really valuable that you wanna pass on. Okay. So I guess the surprise would be people probably don't know I dropped out of college that my parents freaked out, but it was a wasn't mentioned her. Being in school I wasn't meant to be a doctor, an attorney or a lawyer. I knew there was something else out there and so I spent five years traveling around the world working my way around the world and ended up in India. And I got involved in the clothing company. So that's probably surprising but most people because they've probably thought take the traditional route. Which I didn't. and. I just feel like people should know you can really run your company. From a standpoint of. Compassion kindness integrity, you can be successful doing. When I first started in the industry I was primarily by white man and I couldn't get anywhere and I hit a site my way up and I became an entrepreneur because I couldn't get a job in that regular. Place, where I needed to go where I wanted to achieve and become a vice president somewhere. And one of my. One of the jobs was he was working in he was doing something illegally the owner and I was a whistle blower. And I realized I needed to do that because otherwise I would have been the person that didn't have the integrity. And so I quit the job and I started my company. So people should remember that and if you can't get that seat at the table, you just have to go and get your seat ambitiously, build it yourself and don't be don't be scared to do. I love it I. Feel like we could train now it's all day long because I didn't go to college there. No. Now I didn't I you know my parents said if you wanna go that's fine. You know you'll have to pay for it and I went on one college tour and then I was like this doesn't feel right me I gotta go to New York and I gotta start working I totally. Yeah we do have a lot in common. Well, we need to have that time together that we kept saying trying to do for a year. Where it was a pleasure. Thank you. So can thank you for dealing with our tax person, but I think we broke it so. I. Hope. So thank you so much. Rebecca was really wonderful speaking to you. That was the sandler non superwoman to find out more about her work. She's doing had the Michael starts and check out what the foundation is up to with regards to investing women and so many of the grants they continue to be about.