Perhaps it is no coincidence that her high school classmate at Niles West High School in north suburban Chicago was Merrick Garland, the recently appointed United States Attorney General.
It seems Suzanne Lerner similarly had her sights set on bigger issues, justice and a global mission. In high school, she participated in Project Wingspread, an exchange program with students from urban and suburban high schools.
She has been spreading her wings ever since.
Lerner, the co-founder and president of Michael Stars since 1986, has spent a lifetime as a social justice activist, entrepreneur and philanthropist with her initiatives and foundation centered on gender and racial equality.
This Equal Pay Day, Lerner and the Michael Stars team will launch a special t-shirt designed for the occasion in connection with Take The Lead. It highlights her vision of fairness and justice that she has been building and expanding for a lifetime.
After dropping out of University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1971, because she says she felt limited in preparation for her career choices, started working at an advertising agency in the research department, before taking a break to travel to Europe, including stops in Greece and France, where she studied in Aix-en-Provence.
“Then I had a big idea of going to India; so I came back to the U.S. to work to save money. Then my father had a massive stroke,” Lerner says. She delayed her trip 10 months to help care for him before he passed.
“Then I took off,” Lerner says. “I worked and lived in Australia, Bali, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Katmandu and Nepal.” In Nepal, Lerner worked for a German NGO, then later in India started a clothing line before moving to Los Angeles in 1977.
There she and a partner sold their clothing line, Suzie Wong, to stores such as Contempo Casuals. She then launched her own line and in 1986 met Michael Cohen when he came into her 350-square-foot showroom selling his line of t-shirts. She asked him to dinner, and the rest is fashion retail history.
Together, as partners in life and business, they launched Michael Stars, with the goal “to make people happy and feel comfortable and confident” with a line of “perfect” tees. With the company named for Cohen (who passed away six years ago) and artist John Stars who created the original designs, Lerner has created innovative and different initiatives, including Michael Stars Vintage and a separate Michael Stars Foundation.
“Our direct to consumer business is up 95%,” Lerner says. The recent WFH movement has prompted an increased need for more comfortable, stylish casual clothing.
Lerner, whose honors include the “Woman of Vision” Award from the Ms. Foundation for Women, “21 Leaders for the 21st Century” by Women’s eNews and “25 Most Influential Angelenos,” by Angeleno Magazine, leverages her entrepreneurial success into philanthropic realities for many organizations, and issues related to gender and racial parity.
The Foundation supports organizations locally and globally. Lerner was recently awarded the Southern California Apparel Social Responsibility Award from the Los Angeles Business Journal. Lerner has collaborated with Gloria Steinem on a voter registration campaign, The ERA Coalition to raise awareness of the need for the Equal Rights Amendment, and with social justice activism organizations in “One for All,” a giving campaign that supports communities hardest hit by COVID-19.
“We’ve been funding grassroots development for 20 years in gender and racial equity,” says Lerner, who is a member of Women Moving Millions, Women Donors Network, and the Women at Sundance Initiative, supporting documentary filmmaking. “These are issues related to our customers,” she says.
The latest initiative for Equal Pay Day is in partnership with Take The Lead as the Foundation shares Take The Lead’s vision of creating an equal world. An original design on an Equal Pay Day tee benefits Take The Lead in their mission of breakthrough solutions for nothing less than leadership gender parity by 2025. Those who sign up for Take The Lead’s new online Power Tools course on Equal Pay Day will receive a Michael Stars Equal Pay Day tee.
This year, March 24, 2021 symbolizes how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year. All U.S. women earn at most 82 cents for every $1 men earn. This was a day originated by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996 as a public awareness event to illustrate the gap between men’s and women’s wages.
But not all women earn at the same rate.
According to the Daily Herald, “Asian American Women’s Equal Pay Day was Feb. 23. Asian American women are paid 90 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day is August 3. Black women are paid 62 cents for every dollar paid to a white man. Native American Women’s Equal Pay Day is September 8. Native American women are paid 57 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Latina Women’s Equal Pay Day is October 21. Latinas are paid 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men.”
Pay equity is an ongoing issue in the U.S. and globally, and one that many companies and individuals are addressing.
According to Forbes, “Research shows that workplaces that are more transparent about employees’ pay have narrower pay gaps. Yet, Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University, St. Louis and author of You’re Paid What You’re Worth and Other Myths of the Modern Economy has found that in many workplaces, employees are discouraged from discussing pay. As a result, many employees remain in the dark about pay disparities in their workplace.”
As these practices and pay gaps persist, new research shows a heightened need for women supporting other women, as Lerner demonstrates with her initiatives.
According to a new American Express report on women in the workplace, large percentages of women are reporting the need for allyship and support from other women. The report shows, “60% of women surveyed said they plan to be an ally for other women in their personal and professional development in 2021. Another 57% of women surveyed agree that they will be more intentional in supporting women-owned businesses in 2021 than in previous years.” Close to three-quarters of “74% of women surveyed agree it’s important to listen and learn from the experiences of other women.”
“It’s an incredible time,” says Lerner, who takes action on gender equity and inclusion, serving on non-profit boards including the ACLU of Southern California, the ERA Coalition, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and as an advisory board member of Prosperity Catalyst and Children Mending Hearts.
“You have to continue to struggle and fight always. This is an amazing opportunity as so many companies are hiring for DEI, boards are forced to put more women on boards and people have the courage now to talk and speak out.”
Change is possible and Lerner has her focus set on creating a more just future.
“I think you have to have commitment, passion and mission. You have to believe in the mission and understand it, that is the most important,” Lerner says.
As the Michael Stars Foundation also assists and supports women entrepreneurs with grants each month, she says her best advice to those starting organizations, enterprises and companies is this: “Gain as much experience and knowledge as possible. Women have to forge ahead, you can’t let anything stop you or make you feel like a failure,” Lerner says.
“Build that self-confidence and have mentors and other entrepreneurs you can feed off of. Having those relationships is important because you can’t do this alone.“
And when you do that, she says, “It is like nourishing your soul.”
Because then you can spread your wings.