There’s more to life than work, or so Douglas Merrill, founder and chief executive of Hollywood’s ZestFinance, a financial services technology company, regularly stresses to his employees. The Arkansas native overcame dyslexia and childhood deafness and went on to receive a doctorate from Princeton University. Then the hard lessons came. He learned from jobs as a researcher for Rand Corp. and as chief information officer at Google that he wasn’t “a good employee,” he says. Then, when family and friends began running into problems getting cash for everyday emergencies, the idea for ZestFinance was born. Now he and his team focus on applying data science to help make it easier and cheaper for people to borrow money. Merrill recently spoke with the Business Journal about his family, the importance of living a full life while working and diversity in the workplace.
Describe your morning routine.
My mornings are a study of slightly controlled chaos. My daughter wakes me up at 6 a.m. I have a dog I let out in the yard. I start cooking breakfast for everyone (including 10-month-old twin sons). About 8:00, I’ll grab my daughter’s school clothes, make her a snack and get her ready to go. Sometimes I take her to school. I’m in the car by 8:30. I drive to work which takes seven minutes.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I have a treadmill desk. I always do at least 10,000 steps a day. For roughly three hours, I’ll be on phone calls, trying not to pant. I try to have meetings be brief and focused. I aim for 30 minutes. If no meetings happened, that would be fine with me. Nobody has an office. It makes it easy to get up and talk to people, so the problem-solving rate is faster.
How do you maintain work/life balance?
I want to show ZestFinance that your family matters. People leave to have lunch with their wife or child. Work/life balance is really work/life integration. Ultimately, these things have to work together. I think people should work enough to get the job done and not more. The key element has got to be your life is not your work. My work is important. I like to succeed. I like to think I did something helpful and that was of value. When they’re gone, I encourage people to be gone. I won’t send emails on vacation. I take my daughter to get ice cream in the middle of the day. It’s a culture of living to work not working to live.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
I think it has got to be my family. I’m married to an incredibly smart, incredibly opinionated woman who seems to like me. I have a 4-year-old daughter who’s always telling stories. I have 10-month-old boys.
What are you proud of accomplishing at work?
We have the highest percentage of minorities and disabled employees of any company. We’re way above everyone. I’m part of the White House effort (on inclusive entrepreneurship). The office is full of different ethnicities and backgrounds which is really enlightening for me. I’m excited we’re able to help define answers to the problems of the next decade or more that people don’t have access to the highest-paying jobs. If you are looking at the industry, there are a lot of smart people who are not white men in their 30s, wearing hoodies. Maybe we should figure out a way to give them the jobs.