For Emily Mills, taking a step back from the daily grind has been one of the best decisions in her career. But it isn’t all morning dance parties — although she makes time for those, too — she uses the time to reflect, appreciate and restructure.
Unless she makes time for them, Mills doesn’t have many quiet moments. She’s the founder of How She Hustles, the creative mind behind projects like HERstory in Black and Startup & Slay, is a public speaker, active community member and marketing consultant. So, when Mills recently sent out a newsletter explaining that she’s been taking a digital absence, it created quite a stir. Texts, emails and DMs poured in with entrepreneurs saying they felt the same need for space.
Here, she tells us about the reasoning behind her deliberate slow-down, the benefits it’s had and the response she’s seen from peers in the entrepreneur community.
You’ve changed course multiple times throughout your career — tell me a bit about those pivots.
I was an accidental entrepreneur. I was working in the non-profit sector, and my job was to get the word out about this organization that was helping immigrants get into the workplace in a meaningful way. A lot of women at work at the time were a lot older, more white and more corporate. I was looking for my tribe, my community, others who were like me. And that’s where How She Hustles began.
I’d be up in the middle of the night posting something on Facebook saying ‘Hey, I’m up in the middle of the night working on a bunch of different things, but I’m also really passionate about my community.’ And as a young Black woman, I was looking for others in the same position. That post led to people starting to send me DMs and texts and emails saying ‘Yeah, I’m working on things too and I can totally relate to your experience.’ For the next 10 years, my business was essentially putting together these gatherings, particularly for diverse women who wanted to meet others and who wanted to lead, or eventually who wanted to be their own bosses.
Then at about the seven-year mark, How She Hustles really started to pick up steam. People were starting to carpool from Ottawa and Montreal, we were selling out tickets in six hours, people were starting to follow us from places in the States, Africa, the Caribbean. That’s when I was like ‘OK, this is a little bigger than I thought.’ And it wasn’t necessarily about scaling up. To me, it was always about the quality of the experience and the way that, it really turned into a movement and a really passionate community of superfans who felt like they were meaningfully connected.
We couldn’t keep up with the demand. That’s when we started off with digital content. That’s when we created things like HERstory in Black, a digital photo series profiles 150 Black women from all walks of life – neuroscientists, architects, police officers, engineers.
In 2019 we flew across the country with a small team of BIPOC creatives to interview women about starting their own business. And then of course the pandemic hit, so instead of doing it again we did everything digitally.
What lessons have you taken from those changes in directions?
I’m a big fan of not just having diverse women as the story, but also as the storytellers. And I think that just makes every experience so much richer. They always say know your audience, but also know who your allies are. Know who is going to roll up their sleeves and do the work with you, and I think that’s what makes this work resonate.
The other piece is really keeping an eye on who needs what you have to offer right now. So many opportunities — especially during this pandemic — have happened because I just kept doing what I was doing even when I didn’t have all of my ducks in order. Even when everything wasn’t completely perfect, I think I’ve always left a certain amount of room for the unexpected. As entrepreneurs, we’re about trusting our gut to get things done.
You say you leave room for the unexpected. How do you do that intentionally?
Sometimes that means you walk away from things that are right in front of you because they don’t feel quite right. There’s quite a bit of risk in that. For example, with HERstory in Black, CBC ended up being our major partner, but there were actually several other large organizations that wanted the project. And there was one where we actually had the contract, we were just at that point where we were about to sign, and at the eleventh hour I was like nope, I just feel like there’s something bigger out there.
How do you intentionally make room for the unexpected? Don’t always take the first thing that comes to you, negotiate with the best interest of the project or the brand at heart, and have faith that the right pieces will fall into place.
How do you know when it’s time to slow down?
I don’t want to make it sound like I’ve got a magic wand — because I don’t. Sometimes your body tells you. Your kids will sometimes say — like mine do — mommy, I think you need a day off. What I’ve been trying to do is be more in-tune before that happens. The other part of it is on a deeper level.
It was like there was this standard I had created for myself and I had to make sure that I checked myself on what success looks like. The pandemic gave me a fantastic opportunity to say ‘Wait a minute. You decided to leave the corporate world so that you could be your own boss but also so that you could enjoy the freedom of choosing how to spend each day.’ Some days it’s a grind, and some days you can stay at home and do a puppet show for your son’s virtual class, as I did two weeks ago. I really leaned into that — it doesn’t mean I stop, but I think I pause some of the things that would have been the busiest aspects of my work and redirected that energy in other ways. Some of it was to my loved ones, and in other ways just doing different work for the same outcome, which is always holding space for diverse women and amplifying their stories.
What do you do during your “down time”?
I’ve been able to take that time back and do other things like watercolour painting, I’ve picked it up since this pandemic and I’m really loving it.
I’ve always been an active parent and a very engaged parent, but now I actually get to see what they’re like in a classroom on a regular basis and hear and understand what they’re learning and think about how I can complement that at home. The other thing I’ve been able to do is work outside, not take on as many projects and being very deliberate about what I do and how I spend my time during the days.
Also just reflecting in ways that I never did before.
For example, I had great interview with the Toronto Star recently and they did a cover story on George Floyd one year later. And then I realized that 20 years ago, the first time that I was in a cover story in the Toronto Star, I was also talking about racial profiling. That wasn’t a bold revelation, but again had I not paused I don’t think I would have had that perspective. And I think that is the greatest gift — taking a pause, maybe not in every aspect of your work or your business life but in some aspect so that you have a chance to take a look back, think about now and look forward. When you’re constantly going all the time, I think we don’t give ourselves the gift of that perspective.
Have you changed your routine at all?
I’ve been trying to arrange my day differently. Now when I get up in the morning, first thing I do a 10-minute meditation or quiet prayer to set my intention, I do my skipping, then when our kids are up we do morning dance parties. I used to hate being woken up by an alarm clock so, no joke, we have a morning song and have a little dance party. This morning we were listening to Will Smith, Tom Jones and classic ’90s house and we danced out way to the morning while we brushed our teeth.
I used to be a real consumer of tons of content. And now I take a moment to say nope, not today.
When do you know it’s time to pick back up again and start the next chapter once you’ve taken a break?
I think you know when you feel that fire in your belly. I know when I’m ready to do certain things when I just can’t ignore all the energy that I want to execute and bring into the world.
Not only does pausing give you perspective, it also opens up new possibilities. If I had just kept doing events all the time, I don’t even think I would have really gone into the marketing consulting area which is really where I’m starting to go. This is starting to open up a whole new door.
It seems like grit and resilience are seen as badges of honour in much of the entrepreneurial world — do you see changing?
It’s already changing. The pandemic has just put it front and centre, but people were already becoming fatigued by the false glamour of non-stop hustling. My brand is called How She Hustles but I don’t think I ever pretended that my life was all about work, because it isn’t and it never will be. For me, the successful hustle is being able to bring all the different parts of my life that matter together and do my best with them. I think there’s just a reframing of what the hustle looks like for people, and the idea of wearing a “badge of honour” as a 25/8 hustler? That’s not as appealing to people anymore.
There isn’t one cookie-cutter way to do it, but I think there has to be a huge dose of authenticity to it. People don’t just want nice and shiny and perfect all the time, and I don’t pretend that my life is, because it’s not even close. There are days when I’m exhausted, and there are days where I am energetic, and for me why this pause has been so helpful is that there are there are fewer days where I’m exhausted and more days where I feel like I didn’t get everything perfect this week, but I had a lot of wins. And all of those wins weren’t just about work.
I don’t take any pride in boasting that some days I’m having my last meetings at 8 or 9 o’clock at night — that’s nothing to be shouting from the mountaintops about.
What would recommend to your peers and other entrepreneurs looking for a change?
Take the break. It sounds funny, but I remember going to an influencer event put on by a Black collective called Code Black, they’re a PR network, and I remember asking one of the influencers, ‘How do you take a break?’ And I remember the influencer just leaned into the mic and said, ‘You take a break.’ What I took away from that is nobody puts handcuffs on you. I have a certain amount of agency in my own journey, this is my brand, I’m my own boss. A dear friend who has now passed away, god bless her soul, Kike Lola Odusanya, she had a brand called ‘My Boss is Me’ and I think for so many entrepreneurs, we have to remind ourselves of that.
If you feel like you need to take a pause, take it. And don’t be afraid to say so. I have to say, that last newsletter where I told people why I took a break, my inbox was just full. It’s the most responses we’ve received since sending it out with people saying ‘I thought I was the only one.’
Story art credit: Artists Touch Productions
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.