“Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech” With Milana Lewis

When leading, be careful with using hyperbolic language. In my prior life as a talent agent, hyperbolic language helped me sign clients and get people enthusiastic about my ideas and projects I was selling. As a leader, I realized when I was using hyperbolic language it became detrimental for my team to align. As a […]

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When leading, be careful with using hyperbolic language. In my prior life as a talent agent, hyperbolic language helped me sign clients and get people enthusiastic about my ideas and projects I was selling. As a leader, I realized when I was using hyperbolic language it became detrimental for my team to align.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Milana Rabkin Lewis.

Milana Rabkin Lewis is Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Stem, the leading distribution, payment, and financing solution built to simplify the process of releasing music in today’s industry and designed to empower artists & their teams to run their business truly independently. Backed by industry-leading investors including Upfront Ventures, Slow Ventures, and WndrCo, Stem is one of the fastest-growing artist-centric distribution platforms championing for the creative class by bringing clarity to the music business.

Milana joined United Talent Agency (UTA) as a Digital Media Agent and spent five years helping build the agency’s digital offering by advising individual and corporate clients on emerging distribution platforms, digitally-driven fundraising, and new monetization opportunities. Milana advised renowned creators Issa Rae, Gwen Stefani, and Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars, on how to leverage platforms like Kickstarter and Shopify to develop, distribute, license, and finance original content and leverage new media to connect directly with their fans.

In addition to representing a roster of digital creators, including prominent stars across YouTube, Vine, and emergent social media platforms, Milana sourced deals for UTA Ventures where she worked on their Awesomeness TV investment and ran point on early-stage investments in Patreon, Hello Giggles, Splash, and MikMakTV.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I told my parents that I wanted to go to film school to pursue a career in creating, my Russian parents thought that was a nice hobby but not a viable career option and urged me to pursue a more traditional path in law or medicine. This gutted me because I come from a family of creatives, my father and grandfathers are all musicians. Yet there’s a notion that creators are “starving artists” and it is my life’s mission to dispel that. So I did a year at Michigan State on the pre-law path, which wasn’t for me, and that following summer conned my parents into letting me attend UCLA “just for the summer” when really I had applied to transfer and knew that once I was out in LA, they couldn’t make me come home.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Ha! I actually don’t remember the funny mistakes (I’m sure there have been many) instead I sadly remember the painful mistakes. Most of my mistakes have one common theme which is not trusting my gut. As a founder, imposter syndrome is very real and many of my mistakes are related to moments when I followed someone else’s lead or didn’t trust my own gut.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I believe that Stem stands out because we truly take into consideration artists’ needs for running a business and empathize with their challenges of living as a creator. We see artists as entrepreneurs, not just creatives. We recently launched a new product called Scale because we see how artists are underserved by institutional banks and are not able to leverage their music as an asset to access capital to grow their business, invest in themselves, buy property or just live sustainably. Stem recognized this market gap and continuously works to provide independent artists and labels with the opportunity to release music and run their business on their own terms.

One of our artists recently took an advance against his music earnings to buy property in Georgia to build a recording studio and retreat. For him, the task of applying for a mortgage was too burdensome and preferred the streamlined process with Scale. He requested the funds on a Monday and received the funds in his account by Friday.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we are working on a project that we plan to announce at the beginning of next year (stay tuned for details). Like the other products at Stem, we believe that this will increase independent artists’ ability to successfully run their own businesses without being tied to a record label.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

There is definitely a lot more work that needs to be done to change the status quo of women in STEM. Currently, I am only one of two women among the hundreds of men within the music fintech space. Companies need to consciously prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplace through better hiring practices.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I can’t speak for all women, but I can share that in my experience I was questioned if I was technical enough as a solo founder. I was encouraged by investors to bring on male co-founders who were “more technical” to recruit and manage the development talent. I did and the three of us were constantly fighting over product direction and it almost killed the business. After we parted ways, I was able to recruit a CPO who aligned with my vision and execute towards it. To address this, us women need to share more stories like this whether it’s in writing or in person with other women so they can have the mental and emotional support to move forward with conviction.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Can we please stop asking these questions to women? I understand it is with good intention but it feels like questions like these perpetuate the stereotypes that we are trying to move past.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. When leading, be careful with using hyperbolic language. In my prior life as a talent agent, hyperbolic language helped me sign clients and get people enthusiastic about my ideas and projects I was selling. As a leader, I realized when I was using hyperbolic language it became detrimental for my team to align.
  2. You can never repeat yourself enough when it comes to preaching your mission, values and why you are solving this problem. I know this advice is written in almost every book on entrepreneurship but I didn’t take it to heart until we started growing. I kept hearing people question what we are doing even though our mission is written on the 1st slide of every all hands deck and we use our values as a rubric for hiring and performance management. Will Quist, who recently invested in Stem, described it as “preaching these things as if they are your religion” and he’s not exaggerating.
  3. Find at least 2 other female founder friends and lean on each other. If it wasn’t for Melody McCloskey (founder of Styleseat) encouraging me to take the plunge into entrepreneurship and offering to be part of my support system, I don’t know if I would be here. She’s answered my calls and helped me think through various issues ranging from technical decisions to coaching me through preparing for my first board meeting. Katerina Schneider (founder of Ritual) and I started our entrepreneurial journeys around the same time. We trade notes frequently on everything from recruiting, managing, and culture building. We are almost exact foils of each other so it’s been really helpful having her point out my potential blind spots and offer a different perspective on issues. We take long walks together and vent to each other — I feel lighter every time afterward.
  4. Indulge in your days off and forgive yourself for bumming around the house and binge watching mindless television. Do not be afraid to let your team know when you are taking time off. You cannot show up for your team and lead if you are burning out. It is also quite likely that when you feel burned out, so do others on your team. Internally we call these “clarity breaks.” I like this term because it sounds productive. It is as if I took a long hike in the woods and plopped down somewhere scenic with a journal to clear my head and be inspired. In reality, I’m in my pajamas, likely haven’t left my bed, and am on my 6th episode of an aspirational reality TV show about cooking or home renovations. I need a day like this every quarter to do nothing without guilt so that I can recharge. I do find that in the week following I am more motivated to work out, journal and am able to think more clearly.
  5. Write your annual “Win List.” Every year around mid December I ask myself to write down 10 things that I would consider a win if they were to happen by this time next year. They are a combination of business wins, personal life wins and ego wins. Throughout the year, I look back on this list which I keep on my notes app. It helps orient me if I lose sight of my progress or direction. I always revisit the previous years list and reflect on why certain wins were or were not accomplished. It is interesting to notice how priorities may change or how certain wins that seem unrealistic happen to manifest. I also ask my direct reports to do this exercise. It’s a great window into what drives them and what I can do to help them “win.”

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Figure out your leadership and operational gaps and prioritize hiring to fill them. You cannot be everything to everyone. If you strive to have a diverse team, you need people with a different leadership range than you. I am incredibly relationship oriented, blunt and quick on my feet. My VP Kristin is incredibly patient, has a high bar for operational excellence and great with driving towards alignment. My CPO Brendan is incredibly analytical and great with striving for clarity. Zoe our Director of People Operations is a highly empathetic person and is great at surfacing our blind spots. These are all traits I value but can’t humanely put weight on at all times so I rely on them to balance our leadership efforts. Our whole company is around 40 people and I only have 2 direct reports so relatively it is not that large of a team.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have used my success to advocate for positive change within the music industry. The current record label system is set up so that it leaves creators in the dark about the specifics of deal structures. Artists are blindsided by how the math works out on recoupment and by hidden costs such as distribution fees. These hidden fees and complicated math on recoupment have enabled record labels to profit while artists can spiral into debt. I founded Stem with the intent to empower artists to own their own businesses and rights to their masters. We are continuously innovating products at Stem in order to provide artists with resources needed to support their livelihood.

Additionally, we have been able to increase our DE&I efforts both internally and externally. Stem users can utilize the platform’s splits technology to allocate a percentage of their earnings to support causes including The Loveland Foundation, The Bail Project, CURB Prison Spending and more. At the start of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Stem’s office exterior was transformed into a mural accounting for hundreds of Black individuals whose lives were unjustly stolen by police brutality — a focal point for protestors passing by.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

In business, when someone says “no”, I hear “try harder.” When I reflect on the times I’ve heard “no” more often than not, it is because my ask was not clear enough, I did not provide enough context to my idea or it was not the right time.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂

Dolly Parton. As a multi-hyphenate icon, she’s always been underestimated and has always dealt with it in an elegant, witty and impactful way. She’s had a tremendous influence on the music business as one of the most prolific songwriters, seamlessly worked across any medium and has made profound investments in her community and other businesses. One of which, Moderna, recently came to light. Plus, can you imagine how many laughs we would share during that meal?

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