As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Milan Rouge of Milano Di Rouge.
Milan is a serial entrepreneur, fashion designer, media influencer, author, and philanthropist. This Philly native worked from the ground up to make a name for herself and her Milano Di Rouge empire. Starting with just two shirts, and a big dream, Milan launched Milano Di Rouge originally as a t-shirt line. Today Milano Di Rouge also offers Men’s, Women’s and kid’s luxury streetwear.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Sure. So, it all started with blogging. In 2013, I started a blog, and I used it as my outlet to write about love, motivation, and dating. In just three months, I had 100k views, Understanding the power of having a growing audience, I began brainstorming other ways to reach them and ultimately sell to them. I wanted to keep their attention while I had it. That’s when the idea of creating a motivational fashion brand came to me, and that’s when Milano Di Rouge was born. The reason I chose fashion is because I wanted the brand to bring everything that I love together. I love motivating and inspiring others, and I love fashion. Fast forward to today. We’ve grown so much. We now have an app that we’ve formatted like a magazine, we motivate our community through inspiring daily texts, we give advice, and we have annual fashion shows. I also love empowering my community, so I make it a priority to give back through the company via back-to-school drives, Christmas drives, Thanksgiving food drives and giveaways. I’m truly working at my dream job and making an impact at the same time. I’m grateful!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Yes, there is one that I can never forget. One day, a customer messaged me on Instagram telling me that a few nights prior, he planned to kill himself. While looking in his drawer to find the pills, he found our brand’s signature quote instead and changed his mind. When he wrote me, he sent a picture of the quote and said, “This message right here saved my life.” To this day, that is the most interesting story and interaction I’ve had since leading Milano Di Rouge because up until that point, I hadn’t realized that my brand could impact so many people.
Our brand’s signature quote is called The Milano Dreaming Quote, and we have it on our shirts and a few accessories to remind our customers to keep going:
“Don’t be average, be great! Speak the life you want to live into existence. It’s never too late to follow your dreams. More powerful than the will to win is the courage to begin. You must start somewhere. Be motivated. Self-motivation is key, but more importantly, motivate others. Be driven. Let your drive take you to new heights you’ve only imagined. Be radiant. Let your personality shine so bright that it inspires others to want to chase their dreams as well. Today is your day. Let go of excuses, remove all doubts and make your dreams reality.”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This is always such a hard question because I feel that everyone in my life has helped me get to where I am. If I have to choose though, I choose Greg Samuels. Greg is my friend, my property manager and my logistics manager. He has been with my company since 2014, so he knows the ups and the downs. One of the “downs” that I can vividly remember is opening my flagship store in 2016. It was a difficult experience because I had to work with contractors who tried to outsmart me, unfair landlords and so many other things. If Greg wasn’t by my side, I have no idea what I would’ve done. Having him there to guide me though that journey and having him in general through all the highs and lows of business helps me out a lot.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I‘d say the lack of respect we get in our respective industries is a huge barrier for women founders and aspiring women founders. Wanting to break into an industry but being disrespected and undervalued by those already in the industry can be very intimidating. For me, not only was the fashion industry male dominated when I entered but trying to then carve my lane in streetwear was an even bigger hurdle. I had to deal with a lot simply because I am a woman, and in streetwear, we are severely underrepresented. At the time, the streetwear designers that I knew were male, the photographers were male, the videographers were male, and the manufactures were male. I literally had to break barriers, demand respect, and even go as far as taking a male friend with me everywhere I went, so I wouldn’t be sexualized and disrespected. Thankfully, I see a difference in the industry now, and I hope that my journey inspires women to demand respect and to not be intimidated. We deserve to be in those spaces as much as anyone else.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
The one thing we need to do is to erase the stigma that says that a successful woman always has a man behind her business. That’s simply not true for me and for many other female founders. When we keep this stigma alive, what we’re doing is making women believe that we need men to keep our businesses afloat, whether it’s for strategy, funding, or something else. I’m here to say that we don’t. Men can play a unique role of course, but as women, we are equipped with the brains, the drive and the hustle that’s needed to create our own empires. What a man can give to us business-wise, we can give to ourselves or each other through genuine sisterhood and support.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
This question makes me think of “Run the World” by Beyonce. In the song, she talks about how we’re smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children, then we turn right around and get back to business. I’d say that sums up my answer. Women just work differently. It’s simple. Men work strategically, but we work strategically, emotionally, and instinctively. Being born with female intuition is a gift, and many of us don’t realize how powerful it is in business. I also feel that women hustle harder, we’re more solutions-oriented, and we have more empathy, which is also very powerful in business. I believe that we’re literally born with the tools required to run empires.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth that I hear over and over is that as a founder, you don’t work as hard as an employee. This is a huge misconception. I’ve honestly never worked so hard in my life, especially because I choose to be very active in my business. Though I heavily rely on my team, I still make a conscious effort to know the basics of everyone’s role, so that I’m able to get the job done if they are unavailable. Many founders don’t talk about this. They don’t talk about how much work it is to constantly learn about roles you are unfamiliar with, especially when you have a huge team. Another myth that many founders don’t talk about is the pressure that you constantly feel, knowing that you have real people with real lives and real responsibilities who heavily depend on you to support their families. If I don’t work hard, my team doesn’t eat, which means daycare, doctors’ appointments and housing among other things become an issue. That’s why I want people to understand that being a founder is a lot of work, but the key is this: If you find something that you love, it makes the work feel worth it. I believe that’s the reason I don’t mind working so hard for Milano Di Rouge. It’s because I truly love the brand, which makes it easier to love the work.
*Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder?
Everyone is cut out to be a founder, but the work is what separates those who are successful at it from those who need to try again. To be a successful founder, you need to be a great leader, take initiative, and be solutions oriented. You also need to be able to roll up your sleeves when duty calls and get the job done with no excuses. Knowing how to be a team-player is also very important because to lead a team, it’s crucial to know what it’s like being on a team.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be a Leader — Bosses tell you what to do, while leaders guide you and do what’s necessary to help you get it done. As a leader, I’m hands-on with everything in my company, and when my team needs help, I jump in. This also applies to anytime their role requires them to learn something new. When this happens, I try to learn as well, so that I can assist in the future if necessary. I had to do this with my team recently. We just switched over to a new app vendor, and when they scheduled a demo call to demonstrate how to use their platform, I joined the call, and we learned together.
- Be Understanding and Know Your Personnel — Know who you’re working with and how to work with them. When you do this, you’ll be more understanding, you’ll have a better idea of how to meet their needs, you’ll be more empathetic, and most importantly, you’ll know when to terminate, promote and demote.
- Be Respectful and Demand Respect — I treat everyone with the same respect, and I also demand respect from these same people. I try to be compassionate, friendly, and empathetic, but as a leader, I also must be firm. That’s how boundaries are set.
- Know the Basics of Every Role in Your Company — I can’t stress this enough. Know the basics of each employee’s role, so that if there comes a time where you need to step in, you can do so with ease. I recently had to do this twice when our buyer left soon after I gave birth, and our social media manager quit without notice. Their absence caused a strain, but because I knew the basics of their role, I was able to jump in until a new manager and buyer came onboard. Knowing the basics prevented me from rushing into hiring the wrong people and most importantly, from dropping the ball.
- Learn — You should always be learning. Just because I have the title of being the founder doesn’t mean I know it all, and I make sure my team understands that and knows that I’m a lifelong student. I also learn through the wisdom found in books, interviews of the greats, podcasts, and courses. I’m always hungry for knowledge, and I believe that all women founders should be too.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I use the success of my business to inspire others to be successful. I want everyone, especially young black girls, to look at me and ask themselves, “If she can do it, what’s stopping me?” I also make it a point to use my social media success to share the highs and lows of my journey with the following I have because that makes it even more inspiring for people when they see that we all can really push through every obstacle that comes our way. Nothing is impossible. When it comes to my financial success, I have always and will always give back. Just last year, I donated more than $50,000 to single moms, I contributed to Thanksgiving drives, Christmas drives and back-to-school drives.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d create and establish a “Making Dreams Reality Building” in my city. It would serve as a haven for urban teens, and I’d make sure there’s a heavy emphasis on the kids learning important life skills, such as financial literacy, personal development, business management and mental health. Once adequately trained, the teens will then be deemed employable by Milano Di Rouge and our partners. A refuge like the Making Dreams Reality Building would solve so many issues that we see time and time again among our youth, the main one being that they have too much idle time. A lot of the trouble that our teens get into comes from them not having wise ways to spend their time, so through this initiative, they’ll be molded into productive, responsible tax paying citizens who have a solid blueprint to use when they grow into adults.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Beyonce. Hands down. She’s all about empowering women, she’s intentional, and her creativity is out of this world. She gives me so much inspiration. It’s unreal. I listen to her song, “Freedom,” and watch her interviews before all my fashion shows. A lunch with her would be a dream.