Women in Business: Q&A with Meredith Mahoney, Senior Director + General Manager for Lifestyle Brands at Wayfair

As the Senior Director and General Manager of Merchandising for Lifestyle Brands at Wayfair, Meredith Mahoney has extensive experience with visual marketing and product curation. Hired in 2010 as the Senior Category Manager for Youth and Baby apparel, Meredith played a multi-faceted role as the company expanded, quickly rising to the Director of Buying and Curation for Joss & Main, and then to the Senior Director for Lifestyle Brands. Meredith most recently conceived and created Wayfair's newest brand - Birch Lane. Under Meredith's close watch and influence, Birch Lane launched after just six months of production, and is rapidly rising in the ranks as the premier destination for classic, fresh and affordable home furnishings.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My experiences growing up have truly shaped who I am professionally. For example, my family didn't have a lot of money when I was a kid, so if I wanted something, I had to work hard to get it. And my parents instilled a strong work ethic in me - rewarding hard work and dedication - so making them proud has always been very important to me. These values have really shaped the person I am today, and I truly appreciate everything I have accomplished.

My early professional experience has also had a big effect on my leadership skills. My retail career began in a brick and mortar store, which is a highly execution-based arena. My experience there taught me how to quickly assess an issue and immediately work toward a solution (customers won't wait while you're deliberating). Being a leader requires the same thing; you've got to be decisive and lead your team in a way that is straightforward and honest. And my retail experience has also taught me the importance of collaboration; a good leader listens to her team and addresses their ideas and concerns regularly. People should feel supported.

Lastly, I've learned that it's important to have fun! I've had great managers along the way that have pushed me hard and still created a great work environment. A happy, engaged team will give a project everything they've got, and they'll stay dedicated until the end.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Birch Lane?
My academic background is in architecture, so I have always been drawn towards design, trends, and innovation. I started my career in visual merchandising, which helped me understand how product works together in real life and how a customer might use the product in their own home.

As I moved into more of a business focused role as a buyer, I was able to bring my understanding of business and design together. My buying expertise led me to Joss & Main, where I ran a team of 30 buyers, which sharpened my skills around running a team efficiently with a lot of fast deadlines. Joss & Main was also a very brand driven business, and I helped develop and refine that brand experience during the 3 years I was there.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Birch Lane?
The highlight of my time with Birch Lane has truly been the opportunity to build a brand from scratch, with only business goals to guide us. My team and I moved at lightning speed - pulling the entire brand, assortment, website, and catalog together in just 8 months. We created a strong brand identity from the beginning, and let it guide us through every decision. Having that brand identity made it easy to understand from day one if something was on brand (or not).

The only challenge so far is having more ideas than we have time! We have some really exciting plans for Birch Lane over the next 12 months as we enter new categories and get to know our customers.

How do you hope that Birch Lane is going to transform the home décor industry?
I am excited for Birch Lane to give customers access to beautiful, classic pieces at a much more attainable price than was available prior to our launch. We've had an overwhelmingly positive response from customers who love the look of Birch Lane and can't believe the pricing. Since the first day we started working on building Birch Lane, we've maintained an unwavering commitment to the idea that good quality and classic design should be reasonable.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have a few strategies. Firstly, I don't define my workday as Monday to Friday, 8am to 6pm. If I did, I would never accomplish everything I need to do! Instead, I look at my entire week of hours and carve out time to work on collaborative projects (during traditional work hours), time to work on strategic projects (after the kids go to bed, when I can have quiet time to think), and time to work on creative projects (like trend direction or competitive shopping) on the weekends when I have free time. I also keep the time I have with my kids sacred. If they are at home and awake, my computer is off.

Secondly, it's important to find something that makes you happy that's unrelated to work or kids, and that is yours alone. Mine is running. I don't do it every day, but when I do get the opportunity, it's very restorative.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Most women I know manage and lead very differently than men, and it can be difficult for men who haven't worked with a lot of women to understand how these different techniques are effective. This puts women in a position of having to prove themselves and their leadership methods first before they earn the trust and respect of senior men. I'm lucky to work in a young company with a lot of men who have successful wives and sisters, who understand that there are different paths to the same objectives.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Unfortunately I haven't yet formed a strong mentor relationship in my career. It's something that I would really like to develop in the next few years. But there are certainly other figures I look to for both professional and personal guidance, like my husband and some of my colleagues.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Although her viewpoints are controversial, I believe that Sheryl Sandberg started a conversation that was long overdue. She brought topics to the forefront that have long deserved discussion, and finally women are starting to feel a camaraderie in their collective (though varied) experiences in business. I'm also awestruck by female entrepreneurs, especially those who have turned their love of design into a successful business. A great example of that is Christiane Lemieux, founder of Dwell Studio and Executive Creative Director for Wayfair. She is a visionary who knows the rigor it takes to run a business.

What are your hopes for the future of Birch Lane?
I'm eager to see Birch Lane become a leader in the catalog and lifestyle brand space, both from a merchandising and creative standpoint. I'd like to build a brand that consistently inspires and impresses customers, and that fills a need for attainable classic home décor. There are so many exciting things on deck for Birch Lane this year, and I can't wait to share them with our customers.