For this former retail executive, becoming an entrepreneur was the realization of a life-long dream. But it wasn’t until the birth of her first son that Shennel Fuller decided to create her own children’s clothing line, Miles and Milan.
And according to TendLab CEO and Co-founder, Amy Henderson there is no better time to make this decision:
...any parent who leaves their child to go to work—whether it’s a choice or financial necessity—must grapple with the distance it creates. There are times when we want to be with them, and we can’t be. And this forces us to question what we are doing, and why we are doing it.
Answering this question forges us, like steel in molten fire, into stronger, more motivated versions of our former selves.
Like other successful entrepreneurs who leave the corporate world beyond, Fuller followed the fire in her belly and refused to take no for an answer. Her tenacity and fortitude were inherited; as she is the daughter of hard-working immigrant parents who instilled in her, an unparalleled work ethic.
With the support of her husband, parents and sister, this founder charted her own course to becoming an entrepreneur and hopes to inspire other women to do the same.
Ferrante: What made you turn to entrepreneurship?
Fuller: My entrepreneurial journey started three years ago after my first son, Jackson was born. My background is corporate, and I’ve held a few executive positions. I was teetering and trying to figure out if I wanted to go back. I was always a very dedicated and hard worker. But now my hard work was focused on keeping this baby alive. I was trying to figure out how I could feel the most fulfilled. I wanted to be doing what I was most passionate about. I knew it was retail and fashion, so I wanted to continue being immersed in that world, while also having the flexibility of being with my son and not missing any milestones.
For a while, I did some consulting. I was helping a major corporation by revamping their whole retail strategy. I loved the freedom of consulting; the flexibility, being my boss, managing my schedule and being able to live in both worlds (motherhood and fashion). I would bring my son to my business meetings. My work was still getting done, so I kind of shifted the narrative. I felt like if I’m going to be giving you great ideas, and developing your strategy, I can also be rocking my son at the same time if he needs me. Which made me think, not only could I be consulting more but I can take it a step further. My dream was always to have my clothing line, and that's pretty much the reason why I got into buying and working for those corporate companies, to begin with.
Ferrante: We’re seeing research these days that confirms that women who become mothers, outperform their former selves and are more ambitious and motivated. I'm guessing that you didn't have the vision of this line when you were 22. How did becoming a mom change your perspective on what it meant to have your own line?
Fuller: When I was 22, and in college, I did what I wanted and enjoyed the luxury of taking an hour to get dressed in the morning. When I had a kid, I didn't lose my sense of style, that didn’t change. What changed was my time and understanding that I was now sharing it with this little person. He came first, and I'm sure every mom could say this, that throughout the day it's like, did he eat? Sleep? And then you are like, wait! Did I eat?
I developed the line because I wanted to spend those extra moments with my son, and creating a uniform for him helped me accomplish that. My vision was to create a brand with a blank canvas. I felt like a lot of the gifts I was getting (when I was pregnant) were either fireman or baseball themed, already predetermined and the colors were loud. My aesthetic is more color/gender neutral and minimalist. And I think the fun in dressing kids in my clothes is pairing my pieces with things like stripes, and khakis but in an effortless and time efficient way.
So once I decided I was going to dive in, I went out to build a product from scratch. I took Jackson in the baby carrier, and we went to fabric houses until I found what I needed to develop the product I wanted. My hope was to make life easier for moms and to build a versatile tee that could be mixed and matched with any bottom. I also considered moms of multiples and wanting to recycle high-quality items which could be used for other babies down the road. I want my product to work for a boy or girl and for years to come.
Ferrante: Was letting go of your corporate identity and shifting to consulting and eventually to entrepreneurship a smooth transition for you? Was there a catalyst?
Fuller: My father told me to envision my life in a way that would make me the happiest. He said whatever that is, don’t be afraid to do it. At the time, that sort of gave me the push to continue consulting and not return to corporate.
Ferrante: That’s amazing that your dad supported you in a nontraditional type of position. I think parents generally want their children just to be stable and not take so many risks. So what about your family, or your dad specifically made you feel comfortable taking risks?
Fuller: My whole family is amazing. I come from a background of really strong people. My family came here from the Caribbean. For immigrant families, America is the land of opportunity. He and my mom came here with an idea of what their future would be, and it took perseverance and tenacity to build it. They built a very good life for me and my siblings. I grew up in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Massachusetts because of my parents' hard work. My mother worked two jobs, and I never felt like she was doing it because she didn't want to be at home. For me the foundation was laid pretty early, seeing what they accomplished as a young girl allowed me to say, I can do anything I put my mind to because look at what my parents have done.
Ferrante: In my work, I talk a lot about the maternal wall, motherhood bias, and the motherhood penalty. Did you see a path for yourself where you could be successful in the corporate setting and also be the mom that you wanted to be?
Fuller: Yes, the companies that I worked for were a big gender mix. I definitely worked for companies (7Fam, Levi’s, and Converse) where people were sensitive to and encouraged work-life balance. However, a lot of the more successful women didn’t have kids.
Ferrante: And if you don’t see it, rising the ranks as a mother, then it becomes harder to believe that it's possible. As an entrepreneur, do you have someone that you look up to that you see building a brand, building a clothing line and being a mom?
Fuller: It goes back to my family and the unconditional support I receive. My husband said, if this is your dream, don't sit on it, let's make it happen. Having him and my family as my anchor, really helps me feel as though I can do it. I deeply respect so many powerful women like Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, and Tarana Burke. Unfortunately, I just can't think of anybody who has influenced me as a founder. I hope to change that for other women and especially those of color. I am slowly building respect within the LA startup community by throwing myself out there. I attend countless networking sessions/events/meetups and rarely do I see any entrepreneurs who are doing what I do and who look like me. I feel like I’m chasing my dreams but hopefully blazing a trail for others to follow.
Funding is way more challenging for black women, but even that conversation is rapidly shifting with platforms like Backstage capital which funds diverse entrepreneurs. Thankfully, I’m bootstrapping and growing my business in a capital efficient manner where I hope not to have to raise outside funds from any sources. Many direct to consumer brands (MVMT Watches, Gym Shark & Active Faith Sports) have taken this route, and I’m excited to be one of them.
Ferrante: That's already a huge accomplishment to be bootstrapping your business, but from
your perspective, what is the accomplishment, so far, that you're most proud of?
Fuller: My customer response makes me proud because you put yourself out there and you have no idea how it's going to be received. My company’s repeat business is incredibly strong, and that makes my heart sing to know that it’s being received exactly how I dreamt it to be.
Ferrante: What's the one thing you're hoping to accomplish in 2019?
Fuller: I love my small boutique business, I love my direct consumer business. I do have some ideas, about building out my brand and giving my customers what they want. Ultimately, I’d love to walk into a department store and see Miles & Milan in lights.
Ferrante: How did you come up with the name, Miles and Milan?
Fuller: It goes back to my family, once again. Miles and Milan are my nephew and niece. My sister’s kids and she is another one who has always been in my corner. I wanted to pay tribute to her and her beautiful children. She’s been a shining example of a mother who I 100% look up to.
Ferrante: I love that, and she has a boy and a girl. So it goes well with the whole theme of your line, that the clothes are gender neutral.
Fuller: Yes, it does. Stay tuned; there will be a Jack and Quinn (named after my children) collection soon.
Mary Beth Ferrante is CEO/founder of Live.Work.Lead. and creator of the M-Suite, a free community new & expecting career-driven moms. Download her whitepaper and follow her on Instagram.