Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Suzanne Lerner, activist, philanthropist, and co-founder and president of fashion brand Michael Stars. She serves on the board of the Ms. Foundation, ERA Coalition, and A Call to Men, as well as being a member of Women Moving Millions and Women Donors Network. To learn more about Suzanne, go to www.suzannelerner.com.
What is the most important message people need to understand about why gender equality is so important?
Equality is good for everybody. Period.
The problem is that people who resist the move toward equality and fight any measures to achieve it – particularly certain leaders in our country — fundamentally see equality as a zero-sum game. For example, if equal rights become explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution, somehow that win becomes a loss for someone else. That’s just not true, especially in America where we have the resources, education, and leadership to create opportunity for everyone. What’s really exciting to me now is that we’re starting to see real progress with many multinational companies and even lawmakers embracing equality with equal pay as a key starting place.
The other really important point is when women rise, we all rise. Organizations that provide women with opportunities for better healthcare, safety, education, and wages have impact far beyond a single individual. A woman multiplies the impact of an investment made in her future by helping her family and community.
What got you started in gender equality giving?
Many years ago, I remember seeing a little blurb in Marie Claire magazine about an organization called “Women Thrive.” I immediately connected with their mission of empowering women’s voices around the world. It was my first big donation — $250 — the largest amount of money I had given away at the time. I was building my business and didn’t have a lot to spare.
Without overthinking it, I picked up the phone and called them to set up a meeting with their founder, Ritu Sharma. As we talked, I realized that my experience as an entrepreneur, understanding of grassroots organizations, and my passion to get involved was of value to them. I eventually joined Women Thrive’s board. It wasn’t a decision I made lightly. My husband was ill at the time and I was shouldering a lot of responsibility at our company. But, I knew I wanted to do it. It was a decision I made for myself, as well as for the organization. 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 is your philanthropic vision or mission, especially as it relates to equality?
There are three key aspects to my approach to philanthropy:
First, as an entrepreneur, I am drawn to grassroots organizations led by innovators that have a mission to help women through skills and advocacy-based training that encourage women to find and use their voice. These organizations play a special and unique role in empowering women. Typically, you’ll find that they have developed broad and deep networks and a high level of trust within communities. They also understand the cultural, social, and economic barriers to creating change and in many cases have been working for years on ways to overcome those obstacles. And from a funding point of view, they are incredibly efficient and resourceful, tapping their local networks for volunteers to supplement their own staffing. I always fund general operating when it comes to supporting these leaders, as I think it’s crucial to trust them to know where my dollars are needed the most.
Second, I support organizations that have a strong focus on creating opportunity for women of color. These organizations are building national and global platforms that work to change the constructs of power to enable gender and racial equality and address the systemic challenges faced by women of color. If you look at the work of organizations such as the Ms. Foundation, A Call to Men, the ERA Coalition, and others you’ll see they are creating local community impact and working on issues that change things on a more national and global basis.
Third, I am incredibly passionate about helping future generations of women become leaders and philanthropists. My guiding belief is that giving is the best investment anyone can ever make. I am often invited to speak to young women entrepreneurs in their 20s and early 30s who want to learn more about how they can get involved in “philanthropy,” even though they may just be getting started in business.
That leads me to my next question! What is your perspective on how women can become philanthropists? Do they have to wait until they’ve acquired wealth?
There is a perception that philanthropy is about having a lot of money to give away. The first thing I tell them is that philanthropy is not just about giving money. Don’t get me wrong, writing a check, whatever the amount, is important. But, giving of yourself matters just as much. Over the years, I have supported organizations in many different ways by serving on boards, making my network available, building partnerships with my company, and simply showing up and helping.
When I went to Haiti in 2011 to learn more about recovery efforts after the earthquake, I quickly got involved in the relief effort. There was an amazing confluence of healthcare providers, artists, actors, businesspeople, and many others, working together to rebuild communities. Not all of them had the financial resources to offer, but they gave 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.
The other important thing is that your own real-world experience is extremely valuable to non-profit organizations. I wish I had known that earlier. I always thought you had to have non-profit or corporate experience to be of value to a board. However, when I started sitting on boards, I realized that my own experiences running a growing business were incredibly useful.
I noticed that you also fund men’s organizations, how does that fit into your philanthropy?
“Feminism is for everybody!” Writer, educator, and activist bell hooks said that and it became the focus of a recent limited-edition tee campaign my company, Michael Stars, launched on Women’s Equality Day this year. It’s true! It was exciting to see so many men post photos of themselves in the tee and declare their own feminism. Men are just as harmed by limiting gender roles and stereotypes that glorify toxic behaviors like violence. Tony Porter and Ted Bunch are among the leaders of the healthy manhood movement which they describe as an invitation to men to shift attitudes and behaviors that devalue women, girls, and other marginalized groups. It’s important to me to support this type of work because it’s one of the ways we’ll creating lasting and sustainable change.
Do you also bring a gender lens to the organizations you support through the Michael Stars Foundation?
Definitely! I am so proud of what our foundation stands for. It’s the embodiment of the values 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 work with my teams to foster their own voices and develop their leadership capacity. We see the foundation as a catalyst to help our customers learn more and take action on important issues such as the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment, the prevention of sexual assault and gender-based violence, and women’s economic empowerment.
What are the challenges of being a woman leader and how can women do to develop their own leadership capacity, as well as that of other women?
Women in business, and especially women of color, have to fight stereotypical assumptions about what they can or cannot achieve. Because we are women, we are often not given the encouragement, or the benefit of the doubt that men receive, especially when it comes to leading a company. I started my own business after realizing that I wasn’t being taken seriously by the various companies I was working for. I was passed over for promotions and relegated to roles such as “showroom girl.” And, when it was time for me to take the helm of the company that I co-founded and built with my husband Michael, I had to overcome the skeptics who said I didn’t have the “experience” to lead.
One of the most rewarding things about building a successful company is that I have the capacity to support other women on their leadership journeys, both within my organization and outside of it. It’s important to support each other, learn from each other, and create the social capital that enables other women to grow, succeed, and pave the way for future generations.
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