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How Marie Tillman Overcame Personal Tragedy and Emerged as a Resilient Entrepreneur

The Mac & Mia founder says it comes down to finding your purpose and passion and being humble enough to ask for help.
How Marie Tillman Overcame Personal Tragedy and Emerged as a Resilient Entrepreneur
Image credit: Marie Tillman

In this series, Open Every DoorEntrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.

For Marie Tillman, success means transcending the limits of finite resources and empowering people to use their skills in new ways.

She is the founder and CEO of Mac & Mia, a children’s clothing subscription service that was inspired by her experience as a working mother of five children ages 3 to 16.

She is also the co-founder and president of the Pat Tillman Foundation. Named for her first husband, a former NFL player who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 while he was serving in the U.S. Army, the nonprofit provides academic scholarships to military veterans and their spouses.

Related: This Entrepreneur Who Sold Her Company for $1 Billion Wants You to Throw Out the Unwritten Rules That Hold You Back

The two organizations could not seem more different -- one is about helping veterans create new opportunities for themselves in civilian life and the other is about simplifying life for busy parents. But for Tillman, her approach to leadership is the same for both.

“In both situations, it's really about the team,” Tillman told Entrepreneur. “How do you get everyone really focused on a mission and feeling like what they're doing every day is bigger than their individual job and contributing to something larger?”

Tillman bootstrapped Mac & Mia and launched it out of her garage in 2014. Nearly three years later, the company has a staff of 40 in its Chicago headquarters as well as 40 remote stylists.

Related: Stitch Fix Founder Explains Why the Worst Piece of Advice She Ever Got Was to Raise A Lot of Money

That emphasis on flexibility is what led to the development of her remote workforce as she went about scaling the company -- especially since she didn’t have the office space at first.

“I've heard so much from my friends, from other moms about just this challenge of having kids and having a career. We really have come up with this role that allows women to do both,” Tillman says. “I've had so many friends who say 'I can't do it all, I have no flexibility with my job and so I'm going to have to put pause on a career because I want to be home with the kids.' This I think really allows people to have the best of both worlds if that's what they choose.”

Tillman shared more insights with us about overcoming grief, finding inner resilience to rebuild and not being afraid to take on new career challenges.

Related: After a Decade in Business, This Founder Became CEO. Here is How She Tackles New Challenges With Conviction.

Over the course of your career, how have you grown and changed as a leader?

It was quite an interesting experience for me after Pat was killed. I was 27. We had this nonprofit. I was relatively young in my career and was all of a sudden sort of supposed to lead this organization. It's been an interesting journey for me to understand what that means. How do you get a group of people to rally around a mission and a vision? Which I think is so important when you're talking about leadership.

It's been a huge learning experience for me and I've been really fortunate to have some really great people that I've been able to turn to and learn from. I also think that's a huge part of leadership is being able to ask for help. None of us have all the answers to everything. Being humble enough to say I don't know the answer to that, but let me see who I can turn to.

I look for people that are way smarter than me. I think of that when I think about the board that I developed at the foundation. But then also just my team at Mac & Mia. For a while it was just me out of the garage and one part-time person that was helping me. But once we were able to hire on a team I really wanted people that were much more experienced and knowledgeable in particular areas. I think it's a huge part of being a leader and growing a business as well is just just how do you put together a team that can really drive things forward.

Related: The First African-American Woman to Travel to Space Shares How She Finds Solutions to the World's Biggest Problems

You were very young when you experienced a significant and public loss  -- as you navigated and felt that grief, what did it teach you about your own ability to be resilient and rebuild?

I think it has made me who I am today. I think it puts things in perspective. It's sort of let me know that I could get through anything. It was hard that it was such a public thing but it also allowed me to sort of say none of that really matters. What does matter is who is the person that I want to be and how do I want live this life? When there are difficult times in the business -- which there always are -- it allows me to sort of focus and say this is one more bump in the road and I know that there is something on the other side of it.

There are tough moments in business but it is just business. What we do is sell children's clothing, which is really fun. I love the business and I love the people that I work with every day. But I think having been through something that is much more life and death just puts things in perspective in a way that maybe I wouldn't if I hadn't had that experience.

Related: You Must Ask Yourself This Question Before You Pitch Your Idea

What have you learned about creating opportunity through the work that the foundation does with the Tillman Scholars?

I feel like a lot of ways that my purpose is to create opportunity for others and to empower others. At the foundation, we do educational scholarships for veterans and spouses. It really is about how can we empower these young men and women who are coming home and who have just amazing life experience from their military service and are looking to continue to contribute to the country and to the world. They want to give back, in just a different way. So how can we couple that experience with education to allow them to sort of be set free to accomplish their goals.

You didn’t have a retail background when you started Mac & Mia. What advice would give something who is about to jump into something new?

I think passion goes a long way. Especially when you're starting something, because that's what carries you. First and foremost I think you have to be passionate about what you're doing. And I think it's about bringing in people who have expertise in certain areas that you don't. Understanding where your strengths and weaknesses are and bringing in people to help you in the areas that you're not a strong. But passion, particularly in the early days, goes a long way.