By Noelle Neader
Milagros de Souza – Advocating for Inclusive Style
The journey of Milagros “Mila” de Souza stands as a symbol of tenacity, a characteristic that defines many women in pursuit of their entrepreneurial vision. de Souza’s began during her first year of classes at Duke University, when she realized that her goal of becoming a psychiatrist would not pan out as she had once dreamed it would. Facing two roads that diverged in opposite directions, she had a choice to make: the path of convenience, or the path driven by her passion.
“I created my own major, Intersectional Sustainability and Fashion Industrial Complex, which is a really fancy way of saying I studied how sustainable fashion affects society,” she said. In doing so, she forged a path for herself that did not exist before. This theme would continue as she built her business from the ground up.
de Souza is now the owner of The Clothing Library, a socially responsible clothing rental company in Birmingham, Alabama that promotes a more environmentally-friendly approach to fashion by offering preloved clothing. Stepping into the unknown instead of fleeing it, de Souza turned her passions into a profession, but not without barriers along the way.
“As a business owner, but even a minority, woman business owner, it is hard to get access to capital. It’s hard to get that first investment. It’s hard to get people to believe in what you’re talking about,” de Souza said. “Sometimes that can be disheartening, but that’s something that I had to just come to terms with. This is my life and this is the path I’m taking, so my business may be growing slower, but it’s also still growing.”
de Souza recounted a time when, at a professional networking event, a man that was to help her get into a program spoke to her in pursuit of flirtation and romance, as opposed to mentorship. This single, seemingly small instance represents a greater idea: that women in business are not respected in the same ways men are. Many of them must walk into a room and deem themselves worthy to be taken seriously, while a majority of their male counterparts enter the same space with respect as the expectation, and not the goal.
“I am going to struggle with that for the rest of my life; that’s definitely something that minority women often have to do. On top of that, I am a woman, I am a lesbian, I’m black,” de Souza said. “But something that’s really important to me is that growing up I wanted to be an entrepreneur.”
de Souza’s entrepreneurial nature is shared by a long line of business owners in her family, from her parents to her great-great grandparents. In moments of despair, when obstacles seem larger than others, de Souza rests in the experiences of her grandmother, who immigrated to the United States from Trinidad with her two young children. Navigating a new market, traversing an unfamiliar economy and understanding different social norms was no match for the entrepreneurial spirit that guided de Souza’s grandmother to run one of the most successful catering businesses in the D.C. area. To de Souza, running a business became more than dollar signs and notoriety; entrepreneurship is her purpose.
“I always knew that I would be an entrepreneur too, but I am the first in the tech business. So this is something new, but also something that is very important to me because growing up, and even now, there’s not a lot of black women in the tech industry to look up to,” de Souza said. “I have to be that person for people, and that is what’s keeping me going and pushing. Of course, the numbers are getting better and there are more black women running businesses, but even to this day, less than one percent of venture capital goes to black women.”
Many venture capitalists fail to recognize the funding disparity faced by women and minority-owned businesses. A survey funded by Morgan Stanley revealed that 60% of investors think these businesses receive adequate capital, and 20% believe they receive more than deserved. This skewed perception arises from the lack of diversity in investors’ professional networks, hindering their exposure to such businesses. When these entrepreneurs do gain access, they must work harder to prove themselves and overcome higher risk perceptions compared to their white, male counterparts.
While the negative statistics and perceived bias become disheartening at times, de Souza also uses them as fuel to propel her forward as a leader in her business, and in her community.
“There is a young woman who’s growing up and thinking about wanting to run a tech business. And by the time she’s ready, I will be there to support her and I’ll be a mentor for her,” de Souza said. “So that’s what keeps me going, that while it’s hard, me doing it is making it easier for others to see themselves doing it, too.”