The late Milli Gould is widely remembered as Hamilton’s first lady of fashion – a fierce, entrepreneurial powerhouse whose shrewd business sense and keen eye for styles and trends brought life to the retail empire.
But beyond her legacy as a design icon was someone who gained a deep sense of “nachas” – the Yiddish word for unbridled pride or pleasure – from seeing other women take off.
“My mother believed in philanthropy in general, but especially in the power of women,” says Milli’s son, Ben Gould. “She was horrified to see women giving up business because she knew how hard it was. She had gone through it herself.”
It’s a big reason why the Gould family made a “significant investment,” Ben said this month, to lead a women’s program in a business called Milli at YWCA Hamilton.
The Milli Gould Enterprise Center will serve 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 the YWCA has long had women’s entrepreneurship programs, CEO Denise Christopherson said the Gould family’s “transformational” gift – planned to be spread out over five years – will add to the supports it already offers. .
“This investment only 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 because it’s now named after Milli … she’s a source of inspiration for a lot of people because of her success in her own business.”
In fact, Milli, who died in 2019, embodied the very definition of “self-made,” building her clothing store in an era when women in business were not the norm. And she did so on the heels of tragedy as well, with her first husband and daughter dying in a house fire when she was only 25 years old.
“Overcoming obstacles, that’s how she lived her life,” Ben said. “Women starting out in the 1960s and 70s like my mother faced more extreme circumstances 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 began – a $5,000 loan from the family “wouldn’t have been obtained without my father’s (Allen Gould) name on it, as it was then,” he said.
The idea of lending a helping hand and giving someone a chance against the odds is what Ben said drives his family’s continued support of women in business programs at the YWCA. Winner of the Woman of Distinction award in 2008, Milli had already shown great commitment to her named program before her death 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 a good fit,” Ben said of the latest gift, which he declined to disclose.
Ben said the gift is intended to “supercharge” the current 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 pledged in the future. “We want to give all these women the opportunity to start their business, even if it’s small, like my mother started.
“It was very satisfying for her to know that she is helping to propel women forward in their successful business endeavors.”