Gould family donation to grow YMCA women in business program

Fashion maven Milli Gould flanked by her sons Ben and Mark (R). “My mother believed in philanthropy in general, but especially in women’s empowerment,” says Milli’s son Ben Gould.

The late Milli Gould is widely remembered as Hamilton’s first lady of fashion — 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 her legacy as a design icon was a person who gained a deep sense of “nachas” — the Yiddish word for unbridled pride or gratification — from seeing other women succeed.

“My mother believed in philanthropy in general, but especially in women’s empowerment,” says Milli’s son, Ben Gould. “She got a lot of nachas from seeing women succeed in business because she knew how tough it was and is. She had gone through it herself.”

It’s a big reason why the Gould family made what Ben called a “significant investment” this month to spearhead a women in business program bearing Milli’s name at 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 coaching and planning workshops to financial literacy training and digital tool supports.

While entrepreneurial programs for women have long existed at the YWCA, CEO Denise Christopherson said the Gould family’s “transformational” gift — intended to be spread out over five years — will add additional capacity to the supports it already offers.

“This investment just goes a long way to continue our support for these much-needed services for women across southern Ontario,” Christopherson said in an interview. “And just the fact that it’s now named after Milli … She remains such a source of inspiration for so many because of the success she had in her own business.”

Indeed, 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 on the heels of tragedy, too, with her first husband and daughter dying in a house fire when she was just 25.

“Overcoming obstacles, that’s how she lived her life,” said Ben. “Women starting out in the 1960s and ’70s like my mother faced higher hurdles than they do today, but they still exist in different forms and our family has always recognized that.”

Ben noted how his mother’s empire got started — a $5,000 family loan “she wouldn’t have gotten without my father’s name (Allen Gould) on it, because that’s how it was back then,” he said.

It’s the idea of ​​lending a helping hand and giving someone a chance in the face of barriers that Ben said inspires his family’s continued support of women in business programs at the YWCA. A Woman of Distinction award winner in 2008, Milli had already shown great commitment to her namesake program before she died by donating $50,000 through the Allen and Milli Gould Foundation.

“When we learned more about program and met some graduates who had stories like hers, we just felt it was appropriate,” Ben said of the most recent gift, the amount of which he declined to disclose.

Ben said the gift 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 more money could be pledged in the future. “We want to give all these women an opportunity to start their business, even if it’s small, like my mother’s started.

“She’d very pleased to know that she’s helping to launch women in their successful business endeavors.”

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