“At almost 6 feet tall, I have always struggled to find clothes that fit my frame. I played basketball and track in high school and college so I was usually able to skate through life wearing workout clothes or a uniform. But when I realized I wasn’t born to be a professional athlete, it became clear that as a tall woman, my fashion choices were extremely limited. When it came to clothes for work, special occasions, or even a date night, I usually came up short. Literally. Nothing fit me properly. It was, and still is, a ridiculously frustrating reality,” says Ashley Elleby the creator and designer of Ashley Elleby, a very necessary clothing line for tall women.
“Not having clothes that fit made me feel less beautiful. It made me feel self-conscious. It made me wish I had a different body. After years of settling, I decided to do something about it. I developed Alyssa Vermell Apparel out of the clear consumer need for fashion-forward clothing options that actually fit. I knew other tall women and girls have had my exact experience and are dying to support a brand that will bring about change.”
Read what else she has to say.
What inspires you to show up at work every day?
I am determined to leave behind a legacy. I come from a family of doctors, engineers, bankers, and teachers and each one of them found a way to leave a lasting and impactful mark on the world that has spread past their families and immediate communities. I want to do my part. I want to make sure that I leave this world in a better place than it was when I arrived. I’m still not exactly sure what my legacy will be, but each day [that] I am following my passion I know I am getting one step closer to figuring it out.
How did you determine your career path?
I have always wanted to be a fashion designer, but my parents told me bluntly at an early age that I was “too smart to be a starving artist.” They encouraged me to be an engineer and I obliged them because at that age I still believed that my parents always knew best. So, I made my way down to Atlanta and enrolled at The Georgia Institute of Technology, I would later go on to receive a B.S. degree in industrial and systems engineering. At Georgia Tech, I was also a member of the track and field team, playing into my long love affair with sports. But as I neared graduation, I realized that a corporate career was my best bet as my Olympic dreams started to fade away with the advent of a debilitating back injury. But as I looked for suits to interview in and “first day” work outfits it became ridiculously clear that the retail world was still not suited for a tall, athletic woman like myself.
After graduation, I worked at some of the best companies in the world — GE, P&G, J&J — but I still felt unfulfilled. I was doing the work because it paid well and I was good at it, but I wasn’t passionate about it. I didn’t like someone else setting my path for success. I didn’t really like selling medical equipment. I was still searching for a greater meaning. But in the back of my head, the wheels were still churning, developing a plan for my fashion line for tall women.
After a few years of engineering/manufacturing work, I realized that I needed a career change. I wanted to make my own decisions and realized that the only way to get there would be to start my own business or find a career where I had more autonomy and authority. I went to business school at Washington University in St. Louis and studied marketing and entrepreneurship and found my way into brand management in the food and beverage industry. Thankfully, I am great at parallel pathing, and while in business school I also developed my business plan for my tall women’s clothing company, Alyssa Vermell Apparel, and started identifying investors.
Fast-forward four years [after] graduating with my MBA and I am a full-time entrepreneur working on Alyssa Vermell Apparel and three other smaller businesses. I walked away from a life of developing marketing campaigns for fake cheese and snack bars and walked into my purpose as an entrepreneur. Not only am I able to make my own decisions, but as each day passes and as each milestone is reached, I am getting one step closer to creating the legacy. It is not easy to take the risk of self-employment, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to reap the rewards.
Describe the skills that will be essential to future business leader and innovators.
Tenacity – Being an entrepreneur is not easy. There are going to be so many setbacks and unexpected outcomes and disappointments that you have to have enough resolve to push through. You have to be self-motivated and decide every day that what you are working towards is worth all of the hard work. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will.
Deep knowledge of the industry – I believe the entrepreneurs/innovators who have the most success are those who have a vast knowledge of the industry that they are trying to impact or they have a strong tie/association to the target consumer. If you can prove you are an expert or very knowledgeable about a subject or a consumer segment, it will be easier to tell your “why me” story and get investors on board with your business plan.
Adaptability – You have to be open to change and willing to accept that you don’t know everything and you might need help. You even have to be willing to completely change direction if needed and accept that sometimes where you envisioned yourself to be might be completely different than where you end up.
Describe how you set goals and evaluate your success.
I always start setting goals by looking 5-8 years ahead and envisioning where I want to be and what I want to accomplish and work backward. I set small and large milestones that will get me to where I want to go and work diligently to get there. I read books, I talk to people, I take classes, I do whatever I need to do to reach those milestones and accomplish my goals.
I measure my success on three factors:
- Did I do what I said I was going to do?
- Did it bring about the life change I was hoping for?
- Am I any happier now than I was then?
Names three books that changed how you saw life that you would recommend to others?
I reach each of these books at turning points in my life, freshman year of college, and the first year of business school, and the months preceding me leaving corporate America, respectively. They each opened my eyes to allow me to view the world in a way that I had never done in the past. From having a deeper understanding of what it means to be black in the United States to encouraging me to follow my dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, these books have shaped the way I look at people, business, the world, and most importantly, how I look at myself.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Describe why lifelong learning is important to you.
I am a strong advocate for self-improvement. I feel that in order to be the best you can be, you have to obtain knowledge and have life experiences. If you choose to stop learning you choose to be stuck. You choose to never advance yourself or your knowledge of the ever-changing world around you. If you stop learning, you stop growing, you stop improving and you start regressing.
What are the three most important factors of being a successful woman?
- Do not be afraid to be seen as intimidating. Speak your mind. Stand up tall. Do not cower because of someone else’s insecurity.
- Know that your gender is not a weakness, it is a strength.
- Build a strong support system of successful and experienced men and women who can keep you focused and encouraged.
If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would like the people of the world to not live in fear of people, ideas, or places that are different than what they are used to. We tend to operate out of fear because we think that someone who is different will evoke a change or take away our power and make us suddenly insignificant. But if we operate out of love and genuine curiosity to learn about another person, culture, or idea we would open ourselves up to so many new opportunities and experiences, previously thought unattainable.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would be more patient. I am always too eager to get to the next step or next phase and I don’t take the time to enjoy the present. I forget to be present. I forget that life is a marathon and not a sprint. I need to take more time to live in the moment, breathe, and take in my surroundings before things/people fade away.
How do you successfully grow from business failure?
The first step is to understand and admit that mistakes were made and to take responsibility for those mistakes.
Second, one must determine the root cause of the failure and determine if the problem can be remedied through a change in action, effort, or personnel.
Third, actively seek counsel from others who have been successful in their field to gain feedback and guidance on how and when to move forward.
Next, make the changes necessary to move forward.
Finally, track your progress and compare the results to the goals you have set.
All the while, never losing hope and never stop believing in yourself and your dreams.
Name three successful female role models and explain why you admire them.
Michelle Obama – She is the most poised, articulate, and inspiring woman I have ever had the pleasure of encountering. She so happens to be our country’s first lady. I wish to leave a legacy as great as the one she has left for her daughters and all of the young women across the world.
Oprah Winfrey – Oprah is my generation’s version of a self-made woman millionaire that literally pulled herself up by her bootstraps and entered into the world of broadcast journalism. She has since turned her fame into a multimillion-dollar television network and has show women that hard work, perseverance, and business savvy always wins out in the end.
Shonda Rhimes – Similar to Oprah, Shonda has shown young women everywhere how to bust through glass ceilings and disrupt the world that was primarily dominated by white men. She has also proven to the world that you can “have it all” if you are willing to sacrifice, work hard, and take unconventional routes.