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Women in Business Q&A: Ashley Merrill, Founder, Lunya

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Ashley Merrill launched Lunya in 2014 with a clear conviction that women's sleepwear was overdue for a fresh, modern perspective. She was a business leader with no clothing industry experience, but in October of 2012, she decided to take a leap and fulfill her longtime dream of becoming an entrepreneur.

Merrill founded Lunya after launching and managing online lifestyle destination Momtastic, for Evolve Media. From 2007-2010, Merrill was Director of Business Development for Atomic Online and prior to that an analyst with an LA based Venture Capital Company. She received her undergraduate and MBA degrees from UCLA. Ashley Merrill lives in Santa Monica with her husband Marc, her son Linken, and daughter Vesper.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Life experience has taught me the importance of personal growth. I really value learning from people around me and my husband has served as an amazing inspiration. My husband is a natural born leader, and I'm a practiced one. I have been lucky enough to watch him nurture and grow his business, and through that process, I have learned some amazing lessons. One of the most poignant take-aways is the importance of team. As an individual you are only capable of so much but if you can inspire people to work with you there is no obstacle you cant overcome. For me starting a company is about identifying a problem or opportunity, crafting a solution, and executing on that idea. Being a leader is about inspiring people and getting them bought into that vision. My job is to unite a kick-ass team of people, get them excited about where we are headed, and get the hell out of the way.

How has your previous employment experience aided in your launching of Lunya? What are some highlights and challenges you have experienced?
Prior employment has taught me to the importance of being solutions oriented. When you work for other people you can get caught in the trap of externalizing blame. You can think of a million reasons why something can't work. The reality is that (usually) if you can step outside of yourself, you will always realize that you can in fact, solve the problems and impediments around you.
At one of my prior jobs, I fought for the opportunity to launch a new internal division. I was passionate about the opportunity, but worried about the culture of the company and the tendency to think about cost, over value. I consciously decided I would try to ignore those problems and run the business as if it was my own. I hired my mom, reached out to people I had never met, and sold internal resources and management on the plan. This was great training as it allowed me to practice inspiring people around a vision. I also got to make a lot of leadership mistakes on their dime. Overall, I built something I was proud of, learned a lot and generated great value for the company.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Your wants and your dreams mean nothing - action is everything. If you want to do anything, the only person stopping you is yourself. It is valuable to put yourself in the employer's shoes and ask, "why would they want to hire me?," and if you can't come up with a good reason then you should work on solving that problem. Most of the jobs I've gotten were jobs I created for myself. I literally pitched myself and tried to remove their barriers, to them ultimately saying "yes".
When I was young I offered my services for free to a venture firm for three months because I was confident that either the experience would be valuable, or I would prove to them I was worth hiring. Both ultimately came true and I ended up with a great job.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
People matter. Maybe this sounds obvious but smart and talented people want to work with people that value and respect them. I am nothing without my team, and so I work hard to make Lunya the kind of place people feel respected and excited to work.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My life is a pie graph and everything I do divides the graph and takes a little from everything else, so I try to prioritize and be intentional about what I spend time on. I used to overbook myself and say yes to everything. I've since learned that saying no is important in manifesting the life I want. I value creating space between activities so that I can have time to laugh and enjoy the scenery. I constantly revisit my pie graph - balance is a moving target!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe change and equality is something that is, and will continue, to happen over time as women strive to reach new heights in every facet - business, science, politics, etc. My desire to start Lunya is very much about me doing my part to move the needle and help give women more choices.

All that said, I actually think family is the biggest issue for women in the workplace. In most cases having kids impacts a woman's career more than a man's. I think it's worth thinking about your whole life early on and choosing to build a family with that in mind. Your life partner is your teammate and if career matters to you then your career needs to matter to them. Will they leave work early 50% of the time when your child is sick? Will they take turns getting up at night with the kiddos? Partnership is not about Daddy being there for the sports games on the weekends - it's about all the practices they need to attend to make the game happen. If you prefer to be the primary caretaker but still need to work, I think you need to realize the effect kids will have and set yourself up for success -project based jobs, flex time opportunities, or own your own small business. With today's technologies there are more opportunities than ever!

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have always attached myself to people who inspire me. A lot of older people have so much wisdom to impart and generally a bit more time. Ask people and they will help you. You have to put yourself out there.

My first advisor for Lunya is a family friend who is in fashion and he was always so generous with his time. I used to stop by his office in between the fabric mills and manufacturer and be practically in tears as I was trying to learn how to craft clothing. He was so patient with me and for some reason I figured if he thought I could do it, somehow that meant I could.

I also always sought out women that seemed to have mastered the "balance" aspect. I ask women how they manage to raise kids, stay married and fulfill their own passions. Everyone has her own answer and from that I've tried to piece together a solution that works for me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire women who can stare adversity in the face and who make a point to manifest the reality they want. Mary Jane Stevenson is one woman who I have been extremely impressed with. She is the Executive Director at City Year and has worked for a number of political advocacy organizations. She shares my frustration with America's education system but instead of being brought down by it, she does what she can to make change.

Another woman I admire, but have not met, is Kelly Wearstler. She has such a distinct point of view and her aesthetic can be a bit eccentric but it is so unique. For that I really applaud her. I imagine at the beginning of her career, many people probably didn't understand or appreciate her design but she has been true to her aesthetic, and has been able to turn into an incredible lifestyle business.

My list of women I admire is really long - Diane Von Furstenberg for her ingenuity, Nancy Aossey for her ridiculous level of commitment to helping struggling people all over the world, how long should this list be? I can go on for days!

What do you want Lunya to accomplish in the next year?
I want sleepwear to become a personal statement for women - sexy is born from confidence not from uncomfortable lingerie. I want to see women valuing this part of the day and buying sleepwear as a declaration of personal value. Buying daywear is often about other people, lingerie is about him, sleepwear that makes you look like the modern woman you are and feel comfortable is about you. Lunya is about celebrating you.