Entrepreneurial Insights: An Interview with Founder Maggie Miller
Tell me about the path that led you to creating Digital Union:
I came from 17 years in the social sector. I worked for a long time in the non-profit industry doing the hard work of fundraising and working alongside incredibly passionate people. When I first met Hector, he was a technology CEO and had all of his experience in the corporate sector. We talked about how people in the social sector are usually driven by the mission of their impact ideas of and that’s at the heart of the reason why they’re in the field anyway. Yet we wanted to know how it would be possible to propel people with passion even more quickly. We were intrigued with the idea of how you move change agents forward as quickly as possible.
In those initial conversations, we talked about how affecting leadership in companies can affect change the fabric of the company and how the company does its business in the world. We felt by working with leadership, change could ripple quickly and that’s how we arrived at impetus for Digital Union.
What have been the biggest challenges so far for you?
Growing a company is an interesting path. The entrepreneurial path is complex and not easy. Waking up as an entrepreneur is a joy, but sometimes you hit the ground and your idea doesn’t work. Sometimes you walk out of an incredible session and you’re succeeding, and the next day or later that same day you are trying to unravel why something doesn’t work. You have a lot of freedom but you also have to blaze your own path.
Being an entrepreneur takes a certain personality. To be a successful entrepreneur, you have to be somewhat fearless. If you do go into fear, you need to use the systems of stakeholders you have at your disposal for advice and counsel: your friends, your mentors, and business leaders.
You need to be able to admit when you’ve hit a wall. There’s a very humbling part of being an entrepreneur. There’s a balance between confidence and humility and you need both sides. There’s a challenge of being present with that path, knowing that it’s okay and it’s not a singular experience, but rather the ride of being an entrepreneur.
What does social impact mean to you?
Social impact means creating actions that cause positive change in the world.
Are there any entrepreneurs that inspire you?
Austin in particular has so many examples of inspired entrepreneurs. It’s one of the reasons why it is our “home” despite the fact we travel a great deal. You can create what you want to in Austin and people want to help propel you genuinely. The culture is unbelievably supportive to the dreams and goals of business ideas.
Here locally in Austin, Suzi Sosa is a brilliant female entrepreneur. Her company VERB was mentioned in our Austin as social impact city article. She is a powerful positive woman and incredible at creating impact in the world through innovation competitions. As a woman entrepreneur, she helps remind me that is can be a celebration to paint outside the lines. I’m a very action-oriented person and I like my to-do lists to the core, but Suzi is a visionary, so I look to her to push me outside of boxes when I’m in those “doing” boxes.
Another friend and colleague that I honor a great deal here in Austin is Dan Graham. Amongst many roles, he’s the CEO of BuildASign, impact investor and philanthropic leader her in Austin. He’s somebody who believed in Digital Union from the very beginning because he brought social impact into his own company through programs like Philanthropitch. Dan was organically creating this work over five years ago before others were talking about authentic, transparent stakeholder oriented value-driven impact.
Outside of Austin, I’m also found of many entrepreneurs, but one in particular who is critical for me on my journey was microfinance guru and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank. I had a microcredit non-profit before Digital Union named DiscoverHope; it provides women in in the northern Andes of Peru who are living on a dollar a day with microfinance and education.
I lived in in Peru for two years in the mountains. When I started the project there, I left everything I had in San Diego. My methodology focused on listening to the women there and their desire for a handUP, not a hand out. In that time I was able to study microfinance and learn from the best in the trade. I think Muhammad Yunus is a fearless, positive, amazing change agent. I looked to him many times when I felt desperate and lonely in the mountains of Peru. I wrote a piece about the inception of my crazy decision to journey to Peru and begin this organization, which you can read here. I’m really proud that this nonprofit is sustainable and owned by the community now.
Are there any unique challenges or opportunities being a woman entrepreneur?
When we first meet people, there’s always the first five seconds where you try to figure out “who is this person?” When I was younger (in my 20’s), I wanted to make sure people knew that I was intelligent as quickly as possible. Maybe that had something to do with being a very happy smiley very blond woman and I didn’t want people to mistake that for being a unintelligent.
But now as a 40-something (still happy, smiley and very blond), I don’t try to force a person to feel any particular way because I think our intelligence reveals itself. I try to meet people heart to heart as quickly as possible and show that I am “in joy” with them. I see them as a human on their path trying to do something wonderful in their own lives, and I try to dip into my heart and put that passion out there like a bright light.
It’s sort of an exercise I go through when I meet anyone new, whether that’s a coffee meeting or facilitating a company meeting. It puts me in a peaceful place where I don’t worry so much about judgment. I’m not sure if this is particular to being a woman, but it’s part of my own personal path.
What have been some of your favorite moments so far at Digital Union?
My favorite moments by-and-far are the DISCOVER sessions that we do with companies. In these sessions, there’s so much passion flying around the room. When a company has invited you into their home to work with their team, they truly desire having impact within the fabric of their organization for one reason or another (whether they’re brand issues, Millennial retention and attraction, or just that they have extremely conscious leadership).
We know what’s going on high level at the company when we walk in the room, but every session is different, every team is different, and where they arrive is different. It truly is like a winding adventure; one company that we worked with brought a Candyland board to the session. The winding path of different colors helped them understand that this process was going to be a journey together. I love being a part of the journey of companies.
If you had the time to start one other business that you haven’t right now, what would it be?
I’ve am an addicted entrepreneur, but what I would like to be is an addicted philanthropist! Hector and I would like to get to a place where we can invest in social impact or social entrepreneurial ideas. We have a vision of listening to impact entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to us, and being in partnership and guidance with them and trying to understand what their idea is and how they want to impact the world and being able to use the treasure that we have to help people ignite their ideas. We do this already as partners, friends and guides…but someday we’ll be able to financially invest also! That’s the long term dream.
We literally get 15-20 requests a week where entrepreneurs are calling us and picking our brains. We love that each week is so different and interesting and getting to be involved in so many different dynamics with people.
Is there a book or resource that you would recommend?
Obviously, there are many that have shaped me for various reasons in the past and present. However, here are a couple “recent favies”
- The Solution Revolution by William Eggers.
- Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey
- Firms of Endearment by Rajendra S. Sisodia
- The Big Leap by Hendricks Gay
What are your plans for the future of Digital Union?
During the next year, we are focused on four key areas of growth and really excited about it:
- Developing our international expansion
- Curating global social innovation challenges for large companies and collective impact systems with our partners.
- Becoming social impact thought leaders/evangelists.
- Creating large coalitions to magnify impact.
We are so excited to serve in the ways we are gifted through our work at Digital Union. We hope people see us as accessible, energetic, humorous and bright and will connect with us anytime!