Finding Your Inner Entrepreneur: Embracing Risk and Doing Good
By Polina Pinchevsky | January 13, 2023
I am Emily Kane Miller. I’m the founder and CEO of Ethos Giving, a social impact strategy firm, and Ethos Tracking, our proprietary social impact data management platform.
I started Ethos Giving three and a half years ago. I joke that my son and Ethos are twins because they were born on the same day. So, it’s easy to keep track of.
Polina Pinchevsky: Congratulations! That’s exciting. My youngest daughter is my business twin, as well. I never have to think for a second about how old we are. Let’s jump right in. Why go into business for yourself? You had a great corporate job. Why did you make the leap?
Emily Kane Miller: Prior to starting my firm, I spent nearly a decade as the head of philanthropy and corporate affairs at The Wonderful Company, a privately held business in Southern California. It was a great job for impact work, and I witnessed firsthand how a family and a business putting their shoulders to the wheel of making a difference could create incredibly valuable social change.
At my nine-year mark, three things happened. First, I was having my second child. Second, the world was changing. By 2019, people’s appetite for social impact and true community change work at a corporate level had elevated as the B Corp movement took off. Leaders were really trying to figure out – how can we be of service? How can we use our business as a force for good? Thirdly, I was getting job offers from up-and-coming organizations. And I realized, I didn’t want any one of the jobs — I wanted all of the jobs! And when you want that, you start a strategy firm! So I was really lucky that I was in the right place in my life, because I hadn’t been able to find a firm that was doing the actual community-based internal impact work.
PP: Starting and running a business, as you know, is all about risk taking, and you need to have a pretty high tolerance for risk to be a business founder, because life throws all kinds of curveballs your way, professionally and personally. So, I’m curious about your risk tolerance and how that translates into how you parent your kids?
EKM: I’m a regulatory lawyer by training and am very risk-averse. I like rules; I like structure. I am not a renegade. I spent about three years convincing myself before I started the business that I shouldn’t start a business. That I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t want to go out on my own — I like being part of a more traditional framework and structure. I was lucky that my husband helped me to see that I had the appetite, I had the talent and I had the risk tolerance.
And as soon as I started the firm, it became clear to me that I am an entrepreneur. I am someone who’s comfortable with risk. I am someone who can sit in that chair and hold these things. And I’m really, really creative. When you’re starting your own business, you need to be able to see problems, look at them dynamically and lead with passion. That’s something that I love doing. And the fact that I’ve been able, in my business, to really grow that skillset is one of my favorite parts of this experience.
In terms of how I parent my children, I have a very low appetite for risk. I want them to be super safe. I think being an entrepreneur has probably helped me be a better mom, and being a mom has helped me be a better entrepreneur, because at a certain point, you realize that you have to trust in the system and trust your gut and let things fly. Oftentimes, they’re even better than you had hoped. And you have those moments where you get to see the fruits of your labor, both in parenting and in business, and that helps you charge ahead the next day.
PP: It’s interesting that your husband recognized your inner entrepreneur. He is one as well, right?
EKM: My husband has a services firm, and I think he was able to see the value over a decade of what it’s like to run your own firm, build a brand around your skillset, and grow a business around that. And while we have very different businesses, that core function is the same. I’ve sharpened a set of skills and services that I know really well, and we can bring that to clients and scale that approach. I was able to learn from him in the way that he created his model.
One of my favorite things about each of us having our own business is how we support each other. Ethos Giving provides social impact resources for Nathan’s communications and clients. And he provides the comms and marketing resources that our clients need. The fact that we work together and spend time thinking about interesting client matters together, and that that’s part of our day, is a special thing. It enhances our marriage, that we get to dive in on those sorts of opportunities together.
We’ve got really little kids — a three- and a five-year-old — and oftentimes parenting at this stage can feel pretty basic. That we can discuss matters related to public policy or social impact is a breath of fresh air. I really appreciate the fact that our businesses coincide in that way.
PP: I’m wondering if the passion and intensity you have about running a social impact business comes home with you, if you try to communicate it to your kids or share it in your parenting?
EKM: One hundred percent. I would say there’s not a part of my parenting that isn’t impacted by the work. We spend a lot of time thinking about food and where our food comes from and visiting farms and explaining how food gets to our plates so they feel connected to that. We also talk a lot about waste and making sure that we don’t throw food away because people work hard for it, and it takes water and resources. And I can point to clients in my book of business that I’m working on that are related to food, justice, waste, resource allocation, and regenerative agriculture.
We live in Los Angeles and my book of business includes sports teams, and clients and partners that support arts organizations and other nonprofit institutions that the kids get to enjoy. We go to those museums, we go to those games. They understand that I help these organizations. We talk about what the work is, and they know that because of what I do at my computer, this exhibition happened or this community-based sports program happened. I feel really good that my “take my kids to work” moments are letting them see what good work looks like in action in the community.
PP: Since you have such young kids and they require a lot of your time at that age, how do you balance it? What’s your recipe to make it work?
EKM: The more that’s on your plate, the more you’re able to accomplish. When people feel like they’re stuck or they’re not really sure where to go, I always say, pick up a hobby and add more to your calendar, then the rest will flow. I think there’s something about just being busy and constantly in motion that unlocks more motion.
“I have some amazing working mom friends, and whenever we get together, we say that, if you want to get something done, give it to a busy mom.” – Emily Kane Miller
That said, at a certain point, you top out. There comes a moment when you just can’t do it anymore and want to create space. I do feel it’s important to pause. We work hard to preserve our Saturdays and to have it be truly a family day. And sometimes that looks like going to a soccer game for a client, but it’s still something that’s fun and engaging. The other thing I would say is that I really love what I do, but if you are not animated and fulfilled by your work, it’s really hard to stay in it. Obviously, there’s the economics of the work that you do — my best piece of advice is to find something that works for you and your family economically, but that also fills your cup, because that’s the true secret sauce.
PP: As women, I don’t have to tell you this, we tend to be really hard on ourselves. And as women founders, it’s doubly so. We have very high standards that we hold ourselves up to. And then as moms, there’s a ton of pressure to be the best mom on the block. So how do you celebrate your own successes? And again, how does it translate into your parenting?
EKM: We don’t necessarily always stop and pause to honor the moments. One of the important things is trying to do that. Our family is Jewish, and on Friday nights we make a point of having a family dinner together. It’s a mandate, and as part of that process, we’ve ritualized finding space to be grateful and to name all of the things that have happened that week, that we’re proud of or happy about or impressed by. Or everybody goes around the table and says at least one nice thing about everybody else at the table!
I’ve also benefited from some really great parenting coaches and talking to people about how to do things better. One piece of advice was — if you have a child who’s down on themselves, we identify that and say, that’s not how we talk to this child, that’s not being a good friend. That’s not how we speak to ourselves.
And when I have a moment where the voice in my head says this isn’t good enough, or I’m not happy with this, I try to pause and take that piece of parenting advice and put it back to myself. Would I let anybody else talk to me like that? Absolutely not.
But appreciating the inner naysayer can actually be a proponent. If you reframe it, if something’s in your head saying this isn’t good enough, or I’m not happy with this, if you can take the space and go for a walk and say, okay, why does that keep coming back? Why do I have this feedback loop? What can I learn? And take what’s good from that, to help make this better, then let go of the rest. Sometimes I find that that voice is coming up because there is something meritorious you need to know. It’s just a matter of not letting it take control and pull you down.
PP: Right. A lot of times it’s our gut instinct, and that is not something we want to ignore. And to get back to something you said earlier, our family is Jewish also and we keep Shabbat. Our family tradition is to list three things each of us is grateful for after Shabbat dinner. When my kids were teenagers, there were so many things that went wrong, it felt inauthentic to them not to be able to name those. So, we modified the tradition, allowing them to include a few items that bothered them as well.
Speaking of that, because there are a lot of highs and lows, how do you deal with that? Do you bring that home? Do you let you kids see that part of your day?
EKM: We’ll talk about if you had a hard day or if there was something that didn’t go right at dinner. I want them to understand that as they’re working on tricky problems and pushing through hard moments, that’s happening in our days, too. And it’s funny, our daughter, the five-year-old, will give advice! Like, did you try calling blah blah and asking them if blah, blah blah? And that’s good — she’s thinking about problem-solving. They like flipping the script. We always ask them about their days. And then when they ask us about our days and it’s authentic, they really dig into it.
PP: That’s very true. I could think of many times, and you’ll see this as your kids get older, where my kids would hold a mirror up. I would be telling them about something that happened at the office with an employee, for example, and they would say to me, mom, you’re not being fair. And I would think, you know what, that’s a really good point. That’s not the values that we talk about. It’s a slippery slope. It’s easy to get carried away with some of the business decisions you have to make. And sometimes I felt that inadvertently, without even realizing it, my kids were the ones who yanked me back. So, what’s your support system like, and how do you unwind? What are your tips and strategies for busy women?
EKM: I’m a big proponent of naming what you need, identifying the resources in your toolkit, and then working from there. Find the folks in your ecosystem who can help provide what you need.
PP: What are you looking forward to? Any exciting future projects you’re working on?
EKM: The biggest piece that we’re focused on right now is our SaaS platform Ethos Tracking, which we launched earlier this year. My focus, at least for the next 18 months, is growing the usership and the brand. That’s my North Star right now.
The other thing that I’m excited about more broadly is that every single day, purpose work becomes more normed. It’s being taken more and more seriously. And it’s really exciting to be in the purpose sector. Having had a decade and a half of experience, it feels like the pie is growing and you can be additive and help people who are trying to do this work intentionally.
I’ve always helped clients, whether they be businesses or families, identify all of the tools in their toolkit for making the world a better place — philanthropy and cash, in-kind, supply chain management, employee engagement — all of these things that are part of the wide lens of social impact strategy. But I couldn’t find a technology tool to put all of that data in. There were tools that helped you track volunteerism or matching gifts or grants, but not look at everything in one ecosystem so you could identify it.
That’s why we built Ethos Tracking. It’s the first wide-lens, social impact tracking management system. We’re really excited to share it with any family, any business, and any nonprofit that’s trying to hold their arms around differentiated data, that is having trouble finding a home for that information, and is looking for a place to put it into one location. We’re excited about it!
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This post is part of our Founding Mothers series. View the rest here.