A conversation with a Forbes 'Millennials on a Mission' lister: Miki Agrawal
While I was in New York for the Memorial Day weekend I arranged to meet up with Miki Agrawal. Miki is widely acknowledged as an up and coming incredible young woman. Earlier this month she was featured in Forbes on a ‘Millennials on a Mission’ list (http://onforb.es/10OaU8w). At thirty-four years old she is a restaurateur (she is owner of farm-to-table pizza restaurant WILD – www.eatdrinkwild.com – in New York and is working on building out the space for a Las Vegas location which will open in July), she is a co-founder of THINX – www.shethinx.com – (a high-tech underwear solution for women during their period), she has spoken at the World Youth Summit at the United Nations on the topic of social entrepreneurship, and her book ‘Do Cool Sh*t’ is going to hit the shelves in the summer.
We settled down in her apartment in her ‘boudouir’ (her nickname for the area that serves as office and entertainment space, which is a gorgeous array of cushions and mattresses by a huge window) and spent the next two hours sharing stories, exchanging perspectives on cross-generational collaboration and leadership amongst women, and finding out those fun and surprising things that you discover you have in common with each other.
What I didn’t know when I asked the doorman to let me in, was that earlier last week while in Vegas a strong wind gust slammed a metal door into Miki’s hand, almost taking off the end of one of her fingers. As a result, she had emergency surgery just a couple of days prior to our meeting. With a large pin in her finger and still mildly dosed up on pain killers, Miki still welcomed me warmly and gave generously of both her time and her spirit. I always view conversations with someone from a different generational group or age group as an opportunity to ‘be surprised and get inspired’. Miki didn’t disappoint in this regard.
Right after discovering that something we shared in common was teaching spin classes, we exchanged stories about how we met our respective significant others. In doing so, I learned that Miki met her boyfriend Andrew at the ‘Burning Man’ festival (www.burningman.com). Having never heard of ‘Burning Man’ before, Miki showed me an online video about it, which led us into a discussion about the principles of the festival.
[text_box class=”grey”] How can organizations create situations where our dynamic, talented, motivated Millennial women can ride the wave of the desire for self-expression, radical inclusion, and radical self-reliance? How can organizations create environments where emphasis is placed on the community and the tribe?
A music festival that takes place in the Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, spanning eight days at the end of August, with tens of thousands of people in attendance, ‘Burning Man’ provides an opportunity for an entire community of people and places to be created where nothing existed the day prior, and where nothing will be left behind when the eight days are up. It provides a whole new way to think about the concept of community. People arrive, join a camp, and participate in all aspects of establishing and helping the community thrive. The entire community operates as a gift economy (no money, no trade), adheres strictly to the principle of leave no trace behind, and at its core embraces the concepts of self-expression, radical inclusion and radical self-reliance. Radical inclusion means every person becomes rapidly and highly integrated into the community. Radical self-reliance means that after the first two to three days of figuring stuff out, you rapidly transition to a point where the ‘noise’ goes away, you are clear on where you can most uniquely contribute to moving the community forward, and your authentic self comes out and gets exhibited through your leadership contributions. In its entirety, the whole process also provides an opportunity to reset and rediscover yourself.
I believe there is a very significant takeaway here for organizations and individuals seeking to gain a greater understanding of younger generations of women. I believe Miki’s love and joy for the ‘Burning Man’ experience and creative expression opportunity epitomizes the mindset of younger generations of women. They are very focused on community and the concept of building a tribe. In any situation, the process and the experience itself is just as important to them as the outcome. The ability to bring their authentic self to the table is very important to them. They value these same qualities in others, irrespective of what age group or generation you might be. Since they believe strongly in their ability to make rich contributions to the community, irrespective of years of experience, they are motivated by being asked questions where the person asking the question is truly open to new answers, and get very engaged in owning a solution when others are open to different ways of doing things. In Miki’s words: ‘The questions are eternal, answers are temporary.’ The question stays the same, but the answers change over time.
In a similar vein, Miki also told me about one of the most important experiences of her life. It was a summit series with top CEOs and up and coming entrepreneurs over a four-day period on a cruise ship. Yet again it was our discussion around the event that reinforced opportunities for enhanced communications across different generational groups.
While it might be easy to think that younger generational groups value digital communications over other forms of communication across the board, in actual fact our emerging young leaders highly value the opportunity to digitally detox and directly communicate and connect with people in all parts and at all levels of an organization. They value open access. They dislike hierarchies and communication barriers. They highly respect and will engage deeply and actively with those who respect them and who are seeking to benefit from bi-directional communication and learning, i.e. those people who understand that Gen X and Gen Y have as much to teach to others as they have to learn from others.
So here lies the challenge and the opportunity for organizations of any size seeking to engage and retain our talented Gen X and Gen Y women of today. Companies and the women in leadership roles in those companies have to ask themselves ‘How can we create these kinds of intense, focused, compressed, rapid learning experiences for our younger female talent? How we can find ways for people to create, not just to execute? How can we create opportunities to directly connect our younger women directly with our more senior women, but in a way that allows them to collaborate on initiatives that are of strategic importance to the company, therein providing the opportunity to provide meaningful impact through collaboration and bi-directional learning? How can we create an environment and culture which values authenticity, community and recognizes the value of contributions made by the team as a whole? And by the way, I would be willing to bet that if we created these kinds of opportunities, they would be welcomed and embraced by women of all generational groups.
[text_box class=”grey”] If you want to be in the hearts and minds of the next generation of women leaders, whether as employees or as customers, you must figure out the social impact component of your business model. [/text_box]
As we drifted away from the discussion about new ways to think about building community, we edged into territory of talking about the importance of impacting community. Miki is a walking and talking advocate for living the concept of social entrepreneurship, i.e. starting something that has a social mission attached to it. If you watch her speech to the UN on this topic, she explains how in social entrepreneurship it’s all about how you are elevating the conversation with your product in a way that creates change around the world.
WILD was built on an idea of providing access to a fun food that everyone loves to eat, for a population of folks impacted by requiring gluten-free diets, and the idea of supporting the local farming communities. THINX, in addition to providing a high-tech underwear solution for women during their period, has partnered with AFRIpads, an organization based in Uganda that creates washable, re-usable cloth pads for women in developing countries so that they can go back to school or work without worry and discomfort. For every pair of underwear sold, AFRIpads manufactures seven (7) washable, re-usable cloth pads for those in need. Without those sanitary cloths, those girls miss a week of school every month once they start to menstruate, in what is commonly called the ‘week of shame’ in those communities. Imagine missing a week of school every month, and how you would feel if you were trying to make do with mud and leaves. Instead, THINX epitomizes social entrepreneurship by tackling ‘The Girl Factor’. Miki shared that if one single girl is able to not get pregnant, complete her education and get a job, roughly 90% of her income goes back to her community; whereas with men only about 20% of the income goes back to the community. The impact of that kind of financial wellbeing being pumped back into those communities is staggering and can totally change the long-term wellbeing of those communities. That’s social entrepreneurship. Her book ‘Do Cool Sh*t’, due to be released in the summer, is intended to re-ignite entrepreneurial spirit across all generations by giving people the roadmap to navigate those challenging entrepreneurial waters.
If you want to be in the hearts and minds of the next generation of women leaders, whether they are your employees or customers or both, you must figure out the social impact component of your business model. Our businesses can’t just be about the product anymore. They must be purpose driven. They must contribute to solving a social problem. In addition, as Miki pointed out, if you are using your product as a platform to talk about a bigger issue, then people remember you more. And who doesn’t want to be remembered and stand out from the crowd? When you are memorable, when your product is memorable, people talk about you, they talk about your product.
[text_box class=”grey”] ‘Hire slow, fire fast. Treat your business like a second child. Do what you know and it will be great.’ [/text_box]
Irrespective of age, no-one does stuff like this without making some mistakes along the way. On one of her blog posts Miki spoke about attending a Clinton Global Initiative event, and hearing President Clinton speak about their mistakes, even with all the resources they had. She wrote how it made her feel better about her mistakes. So I asked her what were some of her biggest mistakes and lessons learned? Miki shared with me that her biggest lessons and mistakes have to do with hiring. Her takeaway: ‘Hire slow, fire fast.’ She learnt the hard way that while it might be tempting to just get a warm body in place to fill an open position, the wrong person can stunt the growth of your business.
She also shared another of her big lessons, one passed on to her by Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of Wine Library. ‘Treat your business like a second child.’ This lesson leverages the analogy of during parenthood the first child is watched so closely, paranoia creeps in at every turn, and you keep the child so close at every turn. The second child, however, is raised with a little less stress and you give the child more breathing room to grow in its own way. She feels strongly that she is going about her second venture – THINX – with a very different attitude, and that she is seeing greater success with it by not keeping such a strong chokehold on it. In Miki’s words: ‘Everything in business life is an iteration. All you can do is learn and grow from things.’
The third lesson she shared with me evolved as she was working on writing her book. Miki’s original plan was to write a book on the history of pizza. However, a week into working on book proposal, she got bored! She found that what she really wanted to write about was the process she had been through to get the pizza restaurant up and running, to secure support and funding for a second location in Vegas, to launch THINX. Her lesson: don’t do what you don’t know; do what you do know and it will be great. Her measure of success on this – within two weeks of submitting her proposal her agent got a call from Harper Collins, and within a couple of weeks she had a book deal.
[text_box class=”grey”] ‘I’d like them to be more open source…see more vulnerability.’ [/text_box]
I turned the conversation back to the topic of cross-generational collaboration, and asked Miki if she could send one powerful message to women in the Boomer Generation, and one powerful message to women younger than she is, what would she want them to hear from her?
Her message to Baby Boomer women: ‘The older generation is more private. I’d like them to be more open source with all their business knowledge and more stuff. I’d like to see more vulnerability. We’re at a time where we can really be women and use our beauty and power to get what we want. We can use this to help one another. Be willing to share your vulnerabilities.’
[text_box class=”grey”] ‘You need to break through barriers, not back down from them.’ [/text_box]
Her message to women younger than she is: ‘The younger generation has been handed everything. Expectations are so high to get a lot for very little effort. If you run into a barrier, don’t just call it quits. Hardship is completely skewed in the minds of the next generation. If you’re going to show up to work, you might as well do the best you possibly can. That’s why I wrote the book. Don’t they want to do cool sh*t? You need to break through barriers, not back down from them.’
[text_box class=”grey”] A collaborative, bi-directional learning and growth mindset is so critical to foster continued development and advancement of women across generational groups. [/text_box]
Two weeks ago we didn’t know each other at all. I had come across Miki’s profile in the Forbes list. Liking what I read, I followed her on Twitter, congratulated her on being featured in the list, told her I would be in New York in two weeks and asked if I could interview her for my blog. I asked Miki why she agreed to meet with me and let me interview her based on my reach out to her. She responded that she believes it’s important to give back, that she welcomes a conversation with anyone who is interested, and that anyone who takes an interest is an important person to know. I loved the third statement…’anyone who is interested is an important person to know.’ Not because it made me feel me important, but because it reinforced the collaborative, bi-directional learning and growth mindset that I believe is so critical to foster continued development and advancement of women across generational groups. If only all women of all ages would have that attitude, and would welcome any knock on their door, viewing it to be as important and valuable to them as it is to the other woman. So many more requests for conversations of all kinds would be met with a ‘yes’ instead of with a ‘no’.
In closing, I asked Miki a few fun ‘favorite’ questions.
Daniella: How do you keep fit and healthy? Miki: I bike every day. I teach spin classes. I do crossfit a lot. I eat healthy, walk fast, and dance a ton!
Daniella: How do you and your boyfriend Andrew maintain and grow your relationship? Miki: For us it’s about the experiences we can have together. Where can we go next? What can we experience next? There isn’t a lot of emphasis on material stuff and belongings.
Daniella: What’s your favorite ethnic restaurant in New York? Miki: You mean besides WILD? Meskerem – an Ethiopian restaurant on Macdougal street.
Daniella: What’s your favorite sweet treat in New York? Miki: Go to the organic grocery store and buy Talenti sea salt caramel gelato.
Daniella: Your favorite charity or charity related causes that you support? Miki: AFRIpads, charity: water, Pencils of Promise, Dreams for Kids DC and Ability List.
Daniella: Favorite sports team? Miki: Montreal Expos but they no longer exist since they are now the Washington Nationals.
Daniella: Favorite thing about your twin sister Radha? Miki: We have a saying ‘From the womb to the tomb’. No matter what, we are always each other’s biggest supporter and we can always count on each other to be a champion for each other’s efforts. We always laugh at each other’s jokes which helps to build confidence. We always reassure each other so that when we step out into the world we are super confident. We keep each other constantly grounded. I have the most fun with her.
Daniella: Favorite item of clothing that you can’t bear to throw away? Miki: I have a cropped fur jacket that was given to me at Burning Man two years ago, that I will have for the rest of my life. It’s my good luck jacket. It’s the piece of clothing I feel most free in and have the most whimsical fun in. I wear it all the time.
Miki went to grab the jacket to show me. It was cool, she looked cool in it, and I knew that she was absolutely capable of doing all kinds of ‘cool sh*t’ in that jacket. We snapped a picture of the two of us, and I left her to rest up some more from her surgery. I headed out into the cold and rainy May day, feeling wonderfully surprised, and highly inspired.