Meet Suzanne Lerner
President & CEO of Michael Stars
When Suzanne co-founded Michael Stars with her husband, Michael, in 1986, she never knew how it would evolve into something so purpose-driven and how much impact it would have as a result. Michael Stars began with an iconic one-sized tee and now focuses on so much more.
№1 — What drives you and brings you joy day to day?
My why is an equal world. Connecting great people brings me joy. I meet amazing people from all walks of life through my work and through my philanthropy and activism and I love connecting them because I immediately see how they can help each other. When talented people get together—they can accomplish anything!
№2 — What has helped you persevere through tough times?
Developing resilience is so important. If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, you have to learn how to become resilient, especially because you will absolutely fail along the way! I’ve certainly had my fair share of failures, especially when I was starting out.
Failure is unique and powerful in that it teaches you things that you simply can’t learn any other way. The key is to fail forward. Use each failure as a learning experience.
№3 — Tell us a little about your mentors and how you have gotten to where you are today.
A great mentor sees something in you that you might not see yourself. My very first mentor was the one that recognized I had the makings of an entrepreneur.
The backstory is that I had dropped out of college. At the time, women weren’t encouraged to study business and I definitely wasn’t interested in finding a husband! Instead, I hit the road.
One of the countries I went to was India. While browsing a small shop in Delhi, I met a woman and immediately connected with her. She suggested we start a clothing company with a few others. I had no money and no experience! But my gut said, “go with it!” I’m glad I trusted that instinct. I went home to Chicago and convinced my parents to take my college tuition that they had saved up and invest it in my new venture.
Eventually that first business failed for many different reasons – but that experience helped me realize how much I liked the fashion business. So, I went to work for other companies to learn as much as I could, doing every possible job from showroom girl to shipping and billing. While I gained a ton of experience , I lost out on promotions—even though I got great reviews from my bosses and was outperforming my male counterparts.
I realized it was time to take control of my own destiny and create a company that I would want to work in. The result was one of the country’s first national fashion sales companies. Along the way I found mentors who became invaluable sounding boards.
Then one day a man with a charming South African accent named Michael Cohen walked into my showroom and my life! Together we created and built Michael Stars, becoming partners in business and in life.
№4 — Sustainability: how do you use your brand platform to promote sustainability?
This has always been a huge focus for Michael Stars. We practice and promote circular fashion in a number of ways:
Buy better: making high quality, on trend, timeless pieces that are made to last and manufactured primarily in Los Angeles. People stop me on the street and at trade shows to tell me the story of how they bought their first Michael Stars tee back in the 90s.
Ecofriendly fabrics: using high quality locally sourced materials like Supima cotton, which is sustainably grown in California.
The Replay Initiative: partnering with innovative retailer ThredUp to sell preowned clothing to help reduce the number of clothing items thrown away in the U.S., each year, most of which could be recycled or reused.
Carbon offsetting: an initiative where customers will be able to offset the additional carbon produced by their purchase. For Earth Month in April, Michael Stars will be offsetting 100% of those emissions for the consumer.
№5 — What advice do you have for female business owners looking to make a difference in the world?
You’ve got to talk the talk and walk the walk. New generations of consumers will expect you to share your values and show that you live by them.
Define your values and your greater purpose—beyond making money! Align them with everything you do in your business, whether that’s sourcing and manufacturing, hiring and nurturing talent, or how you to go to market and build your brand. Communicate clearly and regularly with your internal and external stakeholders.
Ensure that your business thrives. Know its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, trends, and threats better than anyone else! Stay connected to your buyers and your consumers. Always be thinking about the next great product.
As a leader, be kind, straightforward, and have integrity. Some people think that kindness is a weakness in business. I’ve found it’s just the opposite. Kindness paves the way for respect, teamwork, and passion.
№6 — How do you encourage female empowerment at Michael Stars?
We encourage everyone to listen, learn, and develop their voice. We create opportunities for women across all areas of our business, especially in areas like manufacturing, finance, and production, which are jobs often held by men.
Through the Michael Stars Foundation, established more than 15 years ago, we support grassroots, women-led organizations working to create a more equal and just world. We also educate consumers through campaigns that focus on issues impacting gender and racial equality:
Collaborations with Gloria Steinem on voter engagement and the ERA Coalition in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Longtime partnership with mentoring organization Step Up, helping thousands of teen girls receive mentoring.
An anti-bullying and arts education initiative with Children Mending Hearts which has reached more than 30,000 students in 1,200 classrooms around the world.
Our COVID relief and direct services program providing $10,000 monthly grants to frontline workers and vulnerable communities through partnerships with FreeFrom, One Fair Wage, Justice for Migrant Women, and The Poor People’s Campaign.