Spotlight on Suzanne Lerner
President of Michael Stars, Philanthropist & Honorary Host of Spark’s 2018 Black & Pink Ball
Spark is about getting young people involved in giving back to advance gender equality. Nothing is more inspiring to us than learning from the women leading the movement through their philanthropy and business acumen. Our 2018 Black & Pink Ball Honorary Host, Suzanne Lerner, epitomizes our ideals. Suzanne has been giving and leading for many decades, well before she had the resources to amplify her impact. We sat down with Suzanne to learn more about her philanthropic journey, entrepreneurial endeavors, and embodying the lyrics of Cher’s,“If I Could Turn Back Time.”
On your philanthropic journey…
What causes are you most passionate about and why?
Like Spark, I am most passionate about supporting causes that further gender equality. Specifically, women having an equal voice in government, business, and economic opportunity to thrive in their community and beyond.
Some examples of organizations I support are Women Thrive Alliance, Ms. Foundation, Prosperity Catalyst, A Call to Men, ERA Coalition, and Emily’s List. All address and create solutions to achieve gender parity here in the US and around the world.
I also love being a member of Women’s Donor Network, a group of 250+ like-minded donors who come together to support progressive women’s causes. Like Spark, it is a chance for me to get educated about the issues, and gain exposure to all the incredible organizations out there doing the work to make change happen.
For many of our members, their $100 membership is the first time they’re giving philanthropically. At what point did you decide to start giving? When did it become realistic for you as you balanced your business with your desire for social impact?
As a child, my parents always encouraged me to give back — whether that was giving of my tine as a tutor on the South Side of Chicago, or collecting change for UNICEF.
I also remember just a brief little item in Marie Claire magazine many years ago about an organization called Women Thrive. I connected with it immediately. It was my first big donation — $250.00 — the largest amount of money I had given away at the time. I was building my business and didn’t have a lot spare.
That experience helped me understand that you can always spare a little extra and make time for the things you care about the most.
Without overthinking it, I picked up the phone and called Women Thrive and set up a meeting with their founder, Ritu Sharma. As we talked, I began to understand that my experiences and my voice had value in the world and I eventually joined their board, even though I was pretty maxed out running my business. That experience helped me understand that you can always spare a little extra and make time for the things you care about the most.
What do you wish you’d known when you first set out on your philanthropic journey?
Well, 2 things come to mind:
1.) Giving (of) yourself matters as much as giving your money
The first thing is: your experiences and willingness to give of yourself matter as much as the check that you write to support an organization. This completely crystalized for me when I got — literally up to my elbows — in the relief effort in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. There was an amazing confluence of healthcare providers, artists, actors, business people, and many others working together to rebuild Haiti. Not all of them had the financial resources to give, but they gave so selflessly of their time and their expertise. It was exhausting, but invigorating and transformative for me to see the many different ways one can truly give back.
2.) Your experiences are valuable to organizations
Second, I wish I had known earlier on that my experiences in life and in business were valuable to non-profit organizations. I always thought you had to have a non-profit or big corporate background to bring value on a board. However, as I started sitting on boards, I realized that my real-life experiences running a small business were incredibly useful given th similarities to running a small but growing non-profit.
I know that if Spark had existed when I was first starting out in business, I would have gotten involved in philanthropy much sooner!
What draws you to Spark?
Everything! Spark shares my values and strategic vision when it comes to supporting gender equality through a grassroots lens that it focuses on shaping the next generation of philanthropists, exposing them to all the various ways they can begin to give back both personally and in business. I know that if Spark had existed when I was first starting out in business, I would have gotten involved in philanthropy much sooner!
On being an entrepreneur…
What advice would you give to women looking to start a business?
Be very clear on your goals and write a business plan that you feel is achievable. And if you’ve created a great product, start thinking now about the next product. Because if you are looking to get investors, they will want to know that you have a sustainable business versus a one-hit-wonder.
Always be kind and straightforward. A lot of people think you can’t be straightforward and be kind at the same time. But just remember that kindness is not weakness, it’s a uniquely human trait! Practice those “not so random” acts of kindness because that you never know who might become a great ally later on in your business and in your life.
Remember that kindness is not weakness, it’s a uniquely human trait!
How have you embedded your values into your work?
My values of teamwork, equality, and listening to all voices is part of the DNA of the Michael Stars brand. Our company is 80% women. Even our last fashion shoot was 80% women, including those in front of and behind the camera. Women’s voices are represented at all levels of the company, and I take great pride in helping all of our team develop their own voice and leadership.
Our company is 80% women.
We also use our clothing as vehicles to educate consumers about the value of gender equality. For example, this past Women’s Equality Day, 20 percent of all purchases back to ERA Coalition. We’ve been doing that regularly the last 15 years. Not only did we raise funds for a great cause, but gave our consumers the opportunity to learn more about the causes the Michael Stars brand supports.
On mental health…
Mental health is something we don’t often talk about. I think our community would appreciate hearing from someone as successful as yourself about a turning point in your life. Would you describe one of the worst times in your life and how you kept striving towards your goals?
Three years ago I took over Michael Stars. The love of my life, Michael, had just passed away. So, not only was I dealing with personal trauma, but I was now responsible for 175 employees and a new path for the company. Under normal circumstances just taking over the helm would have been stress enough. But unless you’ve lost someone close to you, it’s hard to understand the impact it has on every second of your life.
I did what I knew had to be done: tear down the silos and fiefdoms and show teams how to work together to make us successful.
And even my taking over of the company was a difficult process. Although I had co-founded the company and had far more experience in the fashion business than my husband, he was the face of the company. I was knee deep in merchandising, creative, operations you name it. I was the classic woman behind the man. People up until that point had no idea of what I was capable of and what my contribution to the company had been. It was a bit shocking. But I did what I knew had to be done: tear down the silos and fiefdoms and show teams how to work together to make us successful. Today I have a great team, great products, and we live our brand values every day.
What do you fear the most in life?
Success is not a zero-sum game where when someone wins another person must lose. You can win and I can win.
What do you desire most in life?
For us all to have equal opportunities!
Here’s the thing — success is not a zero-sum game where when someone wins another person must lose. You can win and I can win. I think that there’s this ancient idea still held by plenty of folks — particularly by certain leaders in our country — that, in order to be successful, someone has to win someone has to lose. Once we fully let go of that as a country, I think more and more people will have opportunity and we’ll get the equality for women, for people of color, for native people, that so many of us have been fighting for.
How do you practice self-care?
My version of self-care is time away in Greece where I can really unplug. Well, at least during the day because of the time difference! I also think surrounding yourself with people who really care about you is another form of self-care that we overlook.
Now for some fun questions…
What talent (or superpower!) would you like to have?
“If I could turn back time, if I could find a way” (I am hearing that Cher dance mix version in my head!) But seriously, if I could turn back the clock and make sure everyone who voted in 2008 voted again in 2010, i.e., those more supportive of equality would have held congress and it would have been a lot better instead of the lack of leadership and values we have now with this current administration.
Who are your heroes in real life?
Gloria Steinem & Jane Fonda. And here’s something that may surprise you. These are two of the most self-effacing and kind people that I know. They are dear and kind people who have been ironically portrayed as divisive forces in our country. In fact, all they are really fighting for is equality and justice. Gloria is someone can connect with anyone — even if don’t share her views. Her tremendous intellect and compassion is extraordinary. Jane could have certainly lived a much easier life but she wanted to use her platform to make change. These are people to be admired and celebrated for their dedication and commitment to the human race.
What question are you usually not asked, that you wish you were?
It’s not really a question but it’s a bit of advice I’d like to offer — since you asked — that is especially relevant when there are so many people who are frustrated and see the world so differently: hang out with people who aren’t like you and don’t agree with you!
Don’t be so tribal… so often we all have more in common than we think.
Don’t be so tribal that you can’t listen to views different from your own. Different tribes can get along. You cannot really succeed in business if you can’t do that. I know I have customers that may not agree with my views. But they are great people and I learn a lot from them. And, so often we all have more in common than we think.