Portrait shot of Emily Mills who is sitting on a bench in a red dress and blue blazer turning towards the camera and smiling.

Emily Mills / Photography By Julia Park

Emily Mills is building bridges for diverse women in Toronto

Her How She Hustles networking group has connected 5,000 women who are getting things done

Four a.m. is the sweet spot for connecting on Facebook and Instagram, says Emily Mills. She should know—her life and career trajectory changed after posting a photo of herself hard at work at that ungodly hour.

In 2010, the communications professional was pulling an all-nighter while preparing for the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC, an agency funded by United Way) awards. She was organizing the ceremony; working with RBC, the corporate sponsor; brokering the media partnership with CBC; overseeing an eight-page special section in the Toronto Star; and producing TRIEC’s first corporate video. “I took a picture of myself in that moment,” says Mills, “sitting in the office, looking down at a clipboard, and posted it with a few words about juggling all this stuff: ‘I’m always hustling, always have so much on my plate, the grind continues.’ Other women started to message me, saying, ‘I’m up, too.’

A group of Black women crowd together for a group selfie.

In that moment, How She Hustles—Mills’s Toronto-based networking organization for diverse women—was born. When she read what all those friends, friends of friends and acquaintances were working on and how they struggled to do it all, Mills knew she had to get these women together. “Can we just meet up?” Mills suggested to her late-night Facebook posse. “I can share what I’m doing, you share what you’re doing. Maybe we can help each other, maybe we can learn to manage the hustle a little better.”

Mills recalls that first in-person meeting, at a restaurant on the Danforth, where 50 women of all different backgrounds and professions “just ate and laughed and shared and cried. And once other people saw the pictures on social media, they started asking, ‘What is this? How did I miss it? And when is the next one?’”

ully Black, who is wearing a leather jacket and holding a microphone, rocks the stage at HERstory in Black event at CBC

Harnessing the power of women

Eight years later, How She Hustles has a network of more than 5,000, and Mills has organized 19 events, including brunches with 200 women, all-female entrepreneur conferences and a 400-guest party celebrating HERstory in Black, a Canada 150 photo project/documentary produced by How She Hustles and the CBC. Online and at these sellout gatherings, Mills’s goal is to connect diverse women and amplify their voices. She adopts this philosophy behind the scenes as well, hiring female caterers, photographers and event staff who wouldn’t usually have this kind of opportunity. “It’s time,” she says, “for the broader community to see what racialized, under-represented women are doing, whether they’re on their way to the corner office or building their own empires. I want to build bridges between them and their communities.”

Mills grew up in a culturally diverse west-end Toronto neighbourhood. She went to York University for a music degree and participated in Fresh Arts—a government-funded cultural program started in the ‘90s to mentor and empower young artists—along with playwright Trey Anthony and musicians Kardinal Offishall and Jully Black. Mills earned a second degree in journalism at Ryerson University and took PR night courses. In 2010, she was hired as a senior communications officer for CBC Toronto but kept How She Hustles going on the side.

Selfie of Emily Mills with Natasha Patten

“We’ve known each other since 1994,” says Black of Mills. “It’s wonderful to bear witness to a vision of hers in full manifestation—how she elevates Black women. Emily seems quiet; if you didn’t know her, you’d think she’s shy or meek. But she’s a lion on the inside.”

Mills asked the Juno Award–winning singer-songwriter to be part of HERstory in Black, in which 150 women of colour were photographed together for the CBC documentary. At the wrap party, Black performed for the women and their families and for her own mom, who died a few months later. “I was able to bring her on stage with me, in a room full of other faces that look like us,” says Black. “I perform all over the world and across Canada, and Black women do not make up my audience. But HERstory in Black was the fire starter for me to be much more verbal toward our women of colour; to ask, ‘Where are you? Where have you been? I haven’t seen you and I need you.’”

A different kind of networking

The women who attend How She Hustles events say incredible things happen when Mills brings women together. Natasha Patten, the designer behind outerwear label Blue, nervously stood up to speak at one such event, and afterward, a boutique owner in the audience approached her with an offer to sell her coats in-store. That same night, Patten garnered a fan in Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who bought two coats for herself. “I don’t like networking,” says Patten, “because I feel like it’s a lot of schmoozing with no results. But at How She Hustles events, that’s totally not the case. Sure, we get to sit down and eat and have coffee or wine, but at the end of it, there is a real interest in women trying to help other women.”

For Mills, it’s about getting all these diverse and talented people in a room and then putting A, B and C together in a corner. At the HERstory in Black photo shoot, for example,  there were mechanical engineers, a neuroscientist and an architect. “I could see those women connecting,” says Mills, “understanding that, while maybe there are not a lot of them, they are not alone. There are others who know something of their walk.”

Starting in February 2018, Mills has devoted herself full-time to her network and all the women out there who are hustling. “Women are incredible artists at balancing it all, or at least at integrating and managing it all. I want to continue creating spaces where they can share their journeys and best practices, speak their truths, connect with each other, be inspired, be informed and, most of all, be heard.”

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