Michael Huang is a Seattle native and founder of Milli—a creative agency that specializes in strategy, social media, and content creation. After the onset of COVID-19 and the economic fallout, recent protests, and growing awareness of racism, this Seattle based creative agency has further expanded its commitment to serving the community — both locally and nationally.
“We’ve always been community and purpose driven as a business,” says Michael. “But with everything going on, we’ve realized we need to trade in incremental measures for radical change.”
Michael founded Milli at age 27 in 2015, after leaving a lucrative job at a big New York advertising agency where he worked with clients like United Airlines. After returning to the West Coast, Michael began freelance work helping businesses with social media marketing, content creation, and digital marketing, and this work organically progressed into forming Milli.
Michael explains, “The world doesn’t need another advertising agency. But it can always use more places that people love to work. For me, that means somewhere where young, diverse creatives can feel supported and empowered.” Milli is such a place. “We have carved out a place in Seattle that’s truly creative and not totally beholden to the tech industry,” he says. “We’re artistic and community oriented.”
As a young entrepreneur and new business owner, Michael’s first three years with Milli focused on building clientele and expanding the agency’s reach. Like any up and coming agency, Michael and his creative team’s goals were to land larger contracts and elevate their influence on a local and national scale. He notes that “Before COVID-19, we were coming out of our best year yet. We were landing consecutive contracts with Fortune 500’s and looking to expand to LA in 2020.”
Major events of 2020 have inspired Michael and his team to change the direction they were pursuing in order to better respond to what’s happening in the City and the world today. “I realized that the world of January 2020 is gone. We need to move on.” This “moving on” has stretched Michael and his team to rethink their business model and agency’s mission.
Within the last four months, Michael and his staff –among other projects — have developed the SeattleTogether website, dedicated their time and resources to community service and pro bono work, and supported national livestream efforts covering Juneteenth events via The Movement 4 Black Lives. Additionally, Michael personally helped local small business owners who were trying to apply for federal loans.
Helping business owners navigate relief resources
Like other small businesses, Milli was impacted by COVID-19 and Governor Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order. As soon as federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Paycheck Protection Program loans became available, Michael applied for them on behalf of Milli, and then began helping other small business owners apply.
Through word of mouth connections with friends and members of the immigrant community, Michael learned that many business owners were struggling to complete the complicated federal loan applications. Michael, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and some Japanese. He knew that immigrant business owners who were less fluent in English—and those without access to or knowledge of digital technology—would be significantly disadvantaged in the loan application process. “I could start to see how many people were left out,” he says.
Michael attributes his ability to navigate the loan application processes to his detailed financial record-keeping and his ability to navigate the internet for the information needed to apply for federal funding. Michael realized that many people, especially those with the greatest needs, didn’t have the same capacity to navigate the technology and bureaucracy effectively. He recognized this as a profound irony: the government was giving away “free money – forgivable loans with equal terms,” yet small business owners most in need were shut out because they couldn’t figure out how to apply.
Michael describes this as an example of “how systemic discrimination works.” To help combat it, he responded to the “clear accessibility divide” by supporting businesses in Chinatown-International District (CID) and elsewhere that didn’t have the language, digital technology skills, or access to resources on the internet.
“I felt a civic duty because I was able to successfully obtain support,” he says. “I needed to pay it forward. I got the money because I was good at the Internet. It was time to give back.”
Michael received a Paycheck Protection Plan loan quickly, which enabled him to pay his staff and continue Milli’s creative work. In addition to providing loan application support, he has worked alongside his staff to provide other forms of consulting and creative services to small businesses “for free, if anyone is failing due to COVID 19.”
While some Seattleites felt bored and cooped up during the Stay Home order, Michael and his team were busier than ever tackling new projects. As Milli supported fellow small businesses , they also worked alongside City of Seattle staff from the Department of Neighborhoods (DON), Office of Film + Music (OFM), Arts and Culture, and other community stakeholders to build the SeattleTogether.org website in April and May.
SeattleTogether, as the site explains, “is a citywide initiative to support, uplift, and celebrate the enormous goodwill, generosity, and empathy that has come from our Seattle community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is also a platform for combating social isolation…providing ideas, resources, and tools for connecting neighbors to one another, to their communities, and to arts and culture.” #SeattleTogether Instagram and Twitter platforms amplify messaging that connects Seattleites with the arts community, businesses, local organizations, and one another.
Staff from DON originally came up with the #SeattleTogether hashtag and name during discussions about how to “get something up there that brings together supportive and artistic resources and activities for the community into one place.” The group wanted to create solidarity and connection within the Seattle community, which was experiencing radically new economic challenges compounded by social isolation, in addition to other pandemic-related transformations.
Although Milli spearheaded the website development and overall branding visuals, giving birth to #SeattleTogether was very much a “team effort in both concept and execution” and involved many diverse and energetic participants. Having so many “stakeholders and community leaders” made it slightly overwhelming, initially, to figure out what the platform would look like and how it could accommodate the variety of creative ideas in play.
Priorities included realizing Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture’s vision to host a site that would get artists online and streaming. Other participants wanted to create a “unified social feed” that would showcase diverse experiences and perspectives of the pandemic, including “long quotes and vulnerable experiences from people in community.”
Even as they were swimming in ideas about what the site could become, he says, there was a “collective moment of determinism to push forward. We condensed what should have been a six to eight-month process into one month!” This experience helped his team realize, in new and profound ways, what complex group collaboration could mean.
Milli’s new vision
Michael and the team at Milli continue to forge new creative connections, support local businesses, and give back to the community. The impetus to service that began with the COVID-19 crisis and the #SeattleTogether initiative has been magnified by the recent protests and expanding awareness of systemic racism triggered by the killing of George Floyd.
“Things have shifted quite a bit with Black Lives Matter,” Michael notes. He says Milli is more than ever determined to “change ourselves by giving back.” They have pivoted yet again by expanding free services to “businesses engaged in advancing Black Lives Matter.” He says “we are in it right now. We’re constantly learning how to do better.”
In addition to other pro bono projects that support racial justice, Milli was recently brought in to support a national livestream of Juneteenth activities and celebrations organized by M4BL or The Movement For Black Lives organization. Michael reports, “we worked nearly 24 hours straight” behind the scenes, creating a channel that would stream performances and other Juneteenth-related content from cities across the country. He says the “broadcast looked like a TV channel. It was a major production.” This, he notes, was a “revelatory experience on my journey to realize what it means to serve my community … . It’s not about getting credit or getting paid. The impact is enough.”
Recent work supporting the Black Lives Matter movement has made Michael and the Milli team revisit how they think about “ROI” — return on investment.
“We can’t tell people that we care about our community as an organization and not respond to this moment by continuing the work to change how we operate as a business – and hopefully, one day, our industry at large.
“The world is changing and so should our collective approach to really…everything. This reflects the reimagination of policing, for example. Capitalism and business practices also contribute to and uphold a racist and oppressive system. For us at Milli, we’re already community focused and purpose driven, so that means the change should already be happening with us regardless if the rest of the world is still trying to figure it out.”Michael Huang
Thinking back over all the work he’s completed since January of 2020, Michael is “deeply grateful” to have worked on #SeattleTogether, as well as the projects that followed it. Whether it’s a community/COVID-19 related initiative like #SeattleTogether, or dedicating their energies to urgent issues of racial inequality, Michael believes Milli — and all individuals and organizations — should continuously evaluate how they can better serve others. He says, “this is just the start. We’re doing what we were founded to do.”
Michael appreciates the synergy and transformative impacts of their projects since January. “SeattleTogether illuminated what it meant: connection with community. It sounds like hokey B.S. when you talk about community unless you put your money where your mouth is.”
The convergence of recent unprecedented events has made him “rethink what social capital and service means. You don’t just give away stuff; doing good is an art. It’s as much a business model as working for gain. It’s shifted how I look at our agency’s mission.”