the Milli Gould’s endings is widely remembered as the first fashion lady — a fierce, entrepreneurial powerhouse whose savvy business sense and keen eye for styles and trends gave life to what became a retail empire.
But beyond his legacy as design icon she was a person who gained a deep sense of “nachas,” the Yiddish word for pride or unbridled gratification, by watching other women succeed.
“My mother believed in philanthropy in general, but especially in empowering women,” says Milli’s son, Ben Gould. “She got a lot of nachas from seeing women succeed in business because she knew how difficult she was and what she is. She had been through it herself.”
It’s a big reason the Gould family made what Ben called a “significant investment” this month to headline a women in business program named after Milli at the YWCA Hamilton.
The Milli Gould Entrepreneurial Center will act as an education and training hub for women-led businesses, offering a range of services from one-on-one planning and training workshops to financial literacy training and digital tool support.
While entrepreneurship programs for women have long existed at the YWCA, executive director Denise Christopherson said the Gould family’s “transformational” gift, meant to run for five years, will add additional capacity to the supports it already offers.
“This investment goes a long way in continuing our support of these much-needed services for women throughout southern Ontario,” Christopherson said in an interview. “And just the fact that she now goes by the name Milli…She continues to be an inspiration to many because of the success she’s had in her own business.”
In fact, Milli, who died in 2019, embodied the very definition of “self-made,” building her clothing boutique in an era when women in business were not the norm. And she did so in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, with her first husband and her daughter dying in a house fire when she was just 25 years old.
“Overcoming obstacles, that’s how he lived his life,” said Ben. “Women who started out in the 1960s and 1970s, like my mother, faced greater obstacles than they do today, but they still exist in different forms and our family has always recognized that.”
Ben pointed to how his mother’s empire began: a $5,000 family loan that “I wouldn’t have gotten without my father’s name (Allen Gould), because that’s the way it was back then,” he said.
It’s the idea of lending a hand and giving someone a chance across barriers that Ben says inspires his family’s continued support of the YWCA’s women in business programs. Milli, the 2008 Woman of Distinction winner, had already shown great commitment to her eponymous show before she died by donating $50,000 through the Allen and Milli Gould Foundation.
“When we learned more about the program and met some graduates who had stories like hers, we felt it was appropriate,” Ben said of the most recent gift, the amount of which he declined to disclose.
Ben said the giveaway is intended to “supercharge” the existing program and give it longevity.
“We see it as an investment, a restocking of the pond, not a handout,” he said, noting that more money could be promised in the future. “We want to give all these women the opportunity to start their business, even if it is small, like the one my mother started.
“She is very pleased to know that she is helping to empower women in their successful business ventures.”