In 2014, Donna Miller was on vacation with her sisters, Dr. Karen Nern and Dr. Freddi Pennington. All former business executives, with five daughters and three granddaughters between them, they started talking about their frustration with the lack of women in senior leadership positions and the fact that one out of every four women is impacted by domestic violence. One of those women was their mother – a beautiful, strong, intelligent author and college professor who had been a survivor as an adolescent before marrying their father.

Their mother had high expectations of them, and also taught them to use their talents to make a difference. They started mulling over what the three of them could do to drive positive change, and came to the blinding realization that women have all the power they need. No matter how much money women earn relative to men, they make around 80% of ALL purchasing decisions.  

Purse Power Co-Founders (and sisters), Donna Miller, Dr. Freddi Pennington and Dr. Karen Nern on a vacation that led to the company.

With that simple but powerful number in their heads, they felt that if women would buy from the companies that support them – women-owned or women-led companies – and a portion of the proceeds support efforts to reduce domestic violence, they could use that purchasing power to shatter glass ceilings and change lives in a matter of quarters rather than decades.  

Founders + Funders NYC - November 8th

One day of startup and portfolio growth for founders and investors.

And so Purse Power was born.

Purse Power is a tool that allows any shopper to find women-owned and women-led companies they can prioritize and purchase from. And a portion of the proceeds does in fact go straight to efforts that combat domestic violence.

We sat down with Donna Miller, Co-Founder and CEO of Purse Power, to talk more about the company, her journey, and leadership in the workplace (she’s a pro at this, we couldn’t resist!).

Taking a vacation idea to execution.

Miller will be the first to tell you that the journey to where Purse Power is now hasn’t been quick. “We were making slow progress on the idea but not having much traction until we went to the Women’s March in Washington, DC on January 21st of 2017,” she recounts. “We didn’t go for political reasons, we went because we knew the women there would care about what we were doing.”

Then it tipped. Equipped with 30,000 pins that said “Purse Power – We have it. Let’s use it.” they found themselves with six volunteers – including two men – within minutes of setting up, and got rid of every single pin in three hours.  

One of the women who received a pin, Alana Johnson from New York City, asked for 10,000 more pins to give out at Grand Central Station on International Women’s Day. When Miller asked her why she wanted to help, she said “I want to be able to tell my grandkids I was there when this started.”  

“Women have been marching for equality for decades.  If we want a better world for the generation of young women coming behind us, it’s time to try something new.  Money talks. We have it and we can use it to drive the changes we seek,” Miller stresses.

Since then, the team has found friends who support the mission, formed a corporation, acquired investors, partnered with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and built an online directory of over 750,000 women-owned and women-led businesses.  To be included in the directory, a business must have a female CEO, be half-owned by women, or have at least 20% women on its board.

Members of the Purse Power team at the company launch party. From left to right: Jan Peery (Board Member), Donna Miller (Co-Founder) , Dr. Karen Nern (Co-Founder), Martha Burger (Board Chair), Linda Haneborg (Advisory Board Chair) and Jennifer Grigsby (major investor).

They’ve also partnered with eCommerce students at Carnegie Mellon University to create a Google Chrome extension that allows consumers to find and buy from these companies as they shop online and developed iPhone and Android apps that empower consumers to find and buy from women-owned and women-led companies when they’re nearby.  Consumers are also able to look up products made by Purse Power companies as they shop in physical stores.

A multi-platformed solution so consumers can always shop with their mission first.

There are four components to the platform: the website directory, the business owner dashboard, the Google Chrome extension and the iOS/Android apps.

The website allows buyers to search for women-owned or women-led businesses using keywords and physical locations. They’re also able to download the Google Chrome extension to integrate into their regular online shopping experiences.

Each registered business owner is able to control their listing through the dashboard. They can include a business description, add social media information, list hours and locations, describe services, add a logo, pictures, audio files, etc, and run specials and coupons directly through the site.

And of course, the mobile apps allow user to access all of this information on the go, with geolocation features built in so shoppers can locate relevant businesses while out and about.

Using purchasing power to change the status quo.

“Women have been marching for equality for at least 49 years and it hasn’t driven as much change as we had hoped to see by now,” laments Miller. “At the Women’s March in Washington, DC, I overheard women repeatedly saying, “I can’t believe we are still talking about this.”  It’s time to try something new.”

Miller feels every significant sustainable change in the history of the world has been driven by economics.  Therefore, given the energy around gender equality and women’s safety in the media at present, it turned out to be an exceptional time to be giving women a way to take positive, constructive, effective action on their own behalf.  

“We have all the power we need to drive positive change.  We just need to act together,” she says. “Purse Power’s technology and the ability to know which companies support women at point-of-sale is a game changer.  Purse Power is providing the platform women need to use the power they already possess to achieve the goals they have had for decades.”

Business models that can scale impact.

Purse Power is a for-profit company. “When we started, I’d been on the board of a battered women’s shelter for several years. While there, I spent most of my time helping to raise money,” recalls Miller.  

She knew there must be an easier way to create an ongoing revenue stream for shelters and other non-profits so they could serve their constituents – women in crisis – instead of spending so much time and effort on fundraising. A major part of Purse Power’s mission is to create that revenue stream by donating 20% of our profits to programs, places and products that keep women safer.

Perspective, listening skills and being solution-focused are key to leadership. And graveyards.

Miller has spent three decades as an HR executive and former executive coach. When asked about what professionals could think about to develop themselves as a leader, she first points to a perception gap.

“I’ve found that people often assume others are doing things because they are ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, ‘stupid’, ‘manipulative’, etc,” she says. “From my perspective, whatever someone is doing makes perfect sense to them.  We all have different paradigms and ways of looking at things given our life history. It’s much more effective to assume others are telling the truth as they see it and learn why they see things the way they do than to write their viewpoints off as a lie or invalid just because they see things differently.”

Listening also matters. “True dialogue is the only path to real understanding and teamwork,” Miller observes. “It’s very important that leaders listen more than they talk.  We need to ask questions to understand rather than judge and help team members think rather than giving them the answers. If you want to grow in your career, you need to help your team members do the same.”

According to her, human beings are like plants – they grow toward the light.  “When we focus on problems, we get more problems. When we focus on solutions, we get more solutions,” she states. “When you struggle with important issues, it’s valuable to think about what you want and what has worked for you or your team in the past, rather than to focus on what’s getting in the way.  There’s always a kernel of success to build upon. When we focus on capitalizing on our strengths and the strengths of those around us, we’re much more likely to be creative and achieve our goals.”

Donna Miller in an interview with Forbes.

Miller has also seen many leaders who are focused on the next promotion or the next achievement, and are at risk of missing out on the important things in life.  In her opinion, significant others need attention, children are only young once, parents will not live forever, and no one ever regretted spending less time at work on their deathbed.  

“One of the most important exercises I ever did in my life was to go sit in a graveyard with a piece of paper,” she tells us. “I thought about the end of my life and wrote down what I wanted it to have been about.  For me, it is making a difference for women. Once I knew that, it was easy to plan backward from there. I never want to look back over my life and say, “I could have, I should have, and I didn’t.” Purse Power is my mission in life.  What’s yours? Are you living it?”

Behavior in the workplace is based on needs.

Miller believes behavioral issues are caused when there is a mismatch between one person’s behavior and another person’s needs: “We all have expectations about how the world is supposed to be given our personal history.  When others don’t behave the way we need them to, it often causes us to act out.”

She’s used a personality instrument called the Birkman in her coaching practice for many years.  For her process, it gets these usual behaviors – underlying needs and stress behaviors – out in the open so team members can get and give each other what they need most to be effective.  

“If your readers have access to a HR professional, it may be useful to see what kind of support their organization offers in this regard,” she suggests. If no support is available, she’s found the following books to be extremely useful: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and The Work by Byron Katie.

It’s her strong opinion that gaining insight into yourself and others is the most valuable thing you can do to ensure behavioral issues don’t derail you or your organization.

Equal access to dreams.

Miller is a mother of triplets – two boys and a girl.  This gives her a unique perspective. “I want all my children to have equal access to their dreams,” she says. “I love my husband and my sons just as much as my daughter.  We need to have a partnership between men and women. There is no such thing as “winning” or “losing” between the genders. We need each other. We are partners in solving our world’s problems.”

This is why she set up Purse Power to also support companies that are led my men if they have female board members.  It’s why a 50/50 split in ownership of a company is perfectly fine with them. “Men are not the enemy,” she stresses. “We need good men to partner with us to solve the disparity between the genders.  Executives can actively make sure women are on senior leadership candidate slates, they can take special care when making supervisory promotional decisions to make sure the women on their team don’t face the 30% gender penalty, they can stand up to men who treat women badly, they can watch for and call out unconscious biases and they can teach their sons that women and girls have just as much value and capability as they do.”

Do women support women?

Miller recently asked a question in one of her LinkedIn posts: Do women really support other women?  6000 people looked at it.

“I think I hit a nerve,” she declares. “I find it confusing that we can both undermine each other in some settings and be each other’s strongest supporters in others. Women have been marching for equality for at least 50 years.  We can absolutely achieve the changes we seek if we act together. There’s no stronger power on this earth. No matter our belief system, perspectives, characteristics or affiliations, we CAN all come together to use our purchasing power to create a safe and equal world for women and girls.  Join us. Purse Power – We have it. Let’s use it.”