The story of the American writer and producer Michelle Miller reads like a page-turner in itself. Her career started in the corporate banking world of JP Morgan in Silicon Valley, a setting that has been an inspiration for her young adult books as well as her first tech novel. THE UNDERWRITING has been translated into 14 languages and is being crafted into a TV show.
In this two-part interview, we dive into the confirmedly feminine world of Miller. In part one, we talk to her about how being a woman should never be an obstacle, why unconsciousness cannot be seen as an excuse for unequal treatment, and why women might just as well write their own rules and become as feminine as they like.
In part two, we zoom in on how Miller has become a writer, why being a woman start-up in the US is different than being one in Europe, and why women will be able to have it all, but only if they allow men to, too.
Have you always wanted to become a writer? And if so, why and how did you become a banker?
Not at all! I studied literature as an undergraduate but I honestly thought all the good stories had already been written. It wasn’t until I was in business school, feeling really lost, that I signed up for a creative writing class with a group of freshman. They all thought I was so weird – this 25-year-old business school student crashing their course – but I loved it – I got lost in it, you know? At the same time I was taking a class on the Entertainment Industry and getting really excited about the television renaissance (it was 2010 and Netflix was just starting to become a real force). I got fixated on the idea of writing a television show about finance, to show it from a character point of view that explained the mechanics of it the way ER did the medical field or Law & Order did law. I also felt a real lack of empathy in America’s increasingly hostile media landscape, and saw fiction and the way it takes you into the lives of characters, allowing you to understand them even if you don’t agree with or like them, the force that could bring those muscles back. I wasn’t ready to really go for it – I had student loans to pay back and I didn’t know if I was a good writer. But I knew where I wanted to get, so I started looking for the puzzle pieces to build it. I found a job at JP Morgan in Silicon Valley and when a friend called to say he was starting a publishing company, I agreed to write a young adult novel for him under a pseudonym. The JP Morgan job helped me pay back my loans and learn a lot of the details for my work; the young-adult novels gave me a lot of practice writing and, when they got published, a lot of confidence in my ability. Once I’d paid back my loans, I quit to write fulltime, starting with the serial version of THE UNDERWRITING, which I adapted into a novel for Penguin and am now crafting into a TV show for FOX. It’s so hard to believe it’s been six years since that first vision, but it’s been a really fun ride.
When and how did you decide to leave JP Morgan and found a content-based start-up?
I didn’t go into JP Morgan certain I would leave, but I did make a commitment to myself that I would not get trapped into it by money, which is what happened to a lot of people I knew in the industry. Once I paid back my student loans, I took a really hard look at the path that I was on and asked: if it went as well as it could possibly go – if I climbed the ranks all the way to the top of the organization – would I be satisfied and pleased with my life? I looked at everyone above me in the organization and there wasn’t a single one whose life I wanted – not because they were bad or unhappy people, they just weren’t spending their time the way I wanted to be spending my time in 5, 10, 20 years. So, in February, I made a commitment to myself that I would quit on June 15, with or without a plan. That deadline looming forced me to get everything together, and six weeks later I had my game plan all worked out and was ready to go. I quit in early April and was on my way.
Is there a fundamental difference between being a woman start-up in the US and being one in London?
I’ve been really lucky to have worked in London and across Europe, and in New York, San Francisco and LA, and all of them have very different cultures. The biggest difference I’ve found, though, comes back to femininity versus masculinity. I think London and Europe are much more comfortable with femininity which, again, I define as experience-orientation as opposed to results-orientation. In the American conception of ‘success,’ there is an assumption that the only reason to do something is for the result of it, and if that result – be it money or power or prestige – cannot be articulated or measured, there is no value in it. My experience of London and Europe has been very different – even capitalistic motives are usually in service of facilitating experiences. Femininity in men and women – be it in the form of showing emotion, of self-expression in wardrobe, of relationship-based work or artistic-and-social-good-over-purely-monetary-benefit – is much more respected. It does mean that things move faster in America, but that doesn’t necessarily make them sustainable. In terms of being a woman in either place, I think it really comes down to how feminine a woman you are – I’m pretty feminine, so I really like working and living on this side of the Atlantic, but I have plenty of women friends who prefer the clear-cut more masculine working environment in America. I hope that if in the era of globalization, we can maintain a world where both systems have their place.
What is the role men and boys play in the process of rebuilding society and moving business and gender equality forward in the world today?
I’m obviously fixated on femininity at the moment (!) but I think the next phase of gender equality and societal rebuilding is about liberating femininity for men and making it respectable for women again. I think the Women’s Lib movement made it very acceptable for me, as a woman, to behave in a masculine way – to be very competitive and ambitious and results-oriented – but it did not liberate men to be feminine – to be emotional and compassionate and experience-oriented – and so, with all these women being more masculine and all these men continuing to think they can only be masculine, it’s really tipped society out of whack in a way that over emphasizes results at the expense of experience. I think the key to getting straight is letting men be feminine without handicapping them with the same prejudices with which masculine women were handicapped when they first started asserting their masculinity. How can we expect men to fight for a more compassionate working environment when they grew up in a work culture that called them cowards for showing compassion? How can we expect men to fight for maternity leave when, even if their employer gave them the time, society judges them for staying at home with their kids? I think women can have it all, but only if we allow men to, too, and that isn’t just a shift in structure (as in opening the domestic sphere to men) but also one in our societal conception of what it means to be a man.
I actually think this is beginning to happen in the start-up generation. The popularity of mindfulness, Millennial concern with a brand’s stated missions, and do-what-you-love career choices that focus as much on culture as on compensation, are all, to me, a surge of the feminine, and I think it’s very exciting and will, over the course of the next generation, redefine not just our societal systems, but our conception of gender itself.
Text by: Eva van der Meer