Dr. Lynna Van Merkey: “More empathy”

I wish someone told me that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” I still get anxious thinking back on moments when the professor would call on me. Students are proud and stubborn — we don’t ever want to say the wrong thing. It feels embarrassing and vulnerable, like you’re naked on stage. The truth is, there […]

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I wish someone told me that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” I still get anxious thinking back on moments when the professor would call on me. Students are proud and stubborn — we don’t ever want to say the wrong thing. It feels embarrassing and vulnerable, like you’re naked on stage. The truth is, there is always a lot to be learned. And ironically, the more you discover, the more you realize how much you don’t know. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and uncertain. I think most successful people have experienced imposter syndrome or have felt at some point that they have been “winging” it. Much of the growth happens during times of discomfort, so lean in.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lynna Van Merkey.

Dr. Lynna Van Merkey is the Founder and Creative Director of V Coterie, and a practicing dentist. After struggling to find meaningful gifts for mentors during her pre-dental years, she found a deeply underserved market catered to medical and science professionals. V Coterie began as a passion project for creative expression. What later emerged came a lifestyle brand that represents today’s modern health professional, accompanying the many roles she/he/they will take on along the way — from unassuming student to confident clinician.

Lynna graduated from the University of Tulsa with a B.S. in Biological Sciences, the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry with a Doctorate in Dental Surgery, and matriculated at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Graduate Orthodontics residency program. She currently lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with her husband and pup Winston the standard poodle.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Thank you for having me! I’d love to share a bit about my background. In kindergarten, I spent most of my time at the art station, doodling rainbows and rolling meadows with purpose. In 2nd grade, I proudly marched alongside my mother at the open house and delivered my handcrafted paper flower bouquet to my new teacher. That same year, I won 1st place in an anti-littering poster illustration contest. This budding artistic curiosity was apparent, but the environment around me did not necessarily nurture my imagination. Having arrived in the States with little documentation, my father’s credentials as a medical doctor were denied. I grew up in the tiny town of Chelsea, Oklahoma, where my ex-physician father found work in the restaurant business. It was on the bottom floor of an apartment complex, and we lived in the back half of the building. We helped wait tables, clean dishes… It was very much a family business. No matter how frustrated my parents became by the cramped, cluttered, and chaotic lifestyle during those trying years of running a business, it was, above all, their relentless work ethic that instilled a passionate sense of motivation in me. I vowed not to let the struggles of a low-income life become false limits to my success. Knowing exactly what could hold me back was the first step toward breaking down the barriers to creativity. My upbringing was gritty, but it wasn’t anything like my parents’ immigrant story, so I’m grateful for that.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The American Student Dental Association taught me how to channel my passions and energy into being a part of something beyond myself, surpassing personal concerns or direct personal gain. I was advocating on key issues that affected not only my own welfare but also my colleagues’. Topical issues like dental student loan debt, licensure, and barriers to care. There is incredible merit in caring about things that don’t directly impact you. Actually, most things indirectly affect us all. All people are connected in some way, and the actions which you take with your life will surely impact other people in ways we cannot yet foresee.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Making a difference means being a part of something much bigger than yourself. More than a single act of kindness, more than a monetary donation. Something with lasting, residual, and ripple impact to continue on into the future without your direct involvement. The word “difference” itself suggests that there is always room for alternative thinking. Whatever form that takes for you, it ignites and mobilizes the people around you to be a part of it, too.

For me, V Coterie is a means for the aspiring or established healthcare worker to find community. I want the people who experience the brand to feel a sense of belonging, representation, and support. After all, a career to and through healthcare is one paved with debt, endless exams, long hours, and immense stress. The accessories are merely a vessel to empower and to connect. I like to think that the understood motto of our brand is: “Look good. Feel good. Do good.” When you look good, you feel good. When you feel good, you’re empowered. And when you’re empowered… you can achieve absolutely anything.

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Medicine is traditionally portrayed in media and film as cold, clinical, stoic… Needless to say, the medical professionals that make healthcare happen are very much human! Fun, layered, creative even. There are also many stigmas that persist today. For example: the “you’re just a dentist, not a doctor” quip in The Hangover really misses the mark. Even veterinarians and DOs (Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine) experience the same type of discrimination. It is my goal through the brand that we provide tangible levity via thoughtfully designed, accessible luxury goods, but also to tell stories of those that our products adorn. The nurse who juggles being a mom and a growing side hustle. The POC, non-traditional pre-med student who might not have the same privileges as others in his cohort. The vascular surgeon who, in fact, enjoys wearing a bikini and sipping on an alcoholic beverage during her time off (see #medbikini on Twitter or Instagram for this reference). Fashion gets a bad rep for being trivial. I defiantly disagree. Fashion can and should be used as a tool for resistance and social empowerment.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I was president of a student organization in dental school that needed rebranding. I’ve always been of the creative, Do-It-Yourself sort, so I took matters into my own hands. I had lapel pins produced with our new logo, and those really took off. I enjoyed the process, so I continued with a series of dental designs and sold them through Etsy. Once I stumbled upon the Internet healthcare conglomerate on Instagram, that’s when V Coterie caught wildfire. We’re a fun group of people, ranging from expert leaders, healthcare “influencers,” to meme accounts.

What has resonated with our community is our relatability. I am both the creator and the consumer. During my final years as a dental student, I started sharing my academic and creative journey on my personal account. Brands were reaching out to me to share their products on my feed. It was really interesting to have both perspectives — 1) being the content creator and 2) being the brand. Once I realized the power in my photo-posting, hashtag-wielding thumbs, I realized the civic duty that accompanies that: the importance of using our public platforms responsibly.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

In dental school, I maintained high marks despite multiple competing priorities. I strove for straight As during my first and second years, but I became disenchanted after my father’s sudden passing in November 2016. That was the gut-punch that changed my approach completely on how aggressively to pour myself into my studies. I had missed out on a lot of important life moments for the sake of scoring perfect marks. I finally relented and allowed myself to be okay with having other passions outside of academia. I was able to run the business solo throughout dental school because of this change in mindset. Mind you, the volume at the time was very manageable for someone like me. I say “like me” because I’ve always been hyperactive and hyper-productive. Now, I say I’m a high achieving, recovering perfectionist. I’ve come to accept that I won’t always be the brightest, most talented individual, but put me in a lineup, and I will certainly be the most resourceful. That takes a lot of creative and critical thinking.

I should also mention the elephant in the room regarding my resignation from orthodontic residency. I realize the privilege in that decision. Not many are granted that opportunity because the application process is wildly competitive. For introspection, I sat down with both my dental school and orthodontic residency personal statements. It’s crazy that in a single essay, you’re not only attempting to convince admissions panels to take you in; you’re also self-validating your own desires. I felt like a fraud, but I had to come to terms with the fact that I would continue working on V Coterie because I wanted to. I had hit a wall trying to juggle keeping up with literature, a nascent Master’s thesis, new clinical skills (the orthodontic world is very much different than general dentistry), 50+ patient cases, alongside big business projects and client relationships. Business is time-sensitive, and I needed to be fully present for it. My residency position was filled within weeks in a miraculous, stars aligning sort of fashion. There’s something very poetic about that. I’m confident that I would have built this brand whether I was a dentist, orthodontist, or nothing.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

In this digital age, we have access to a plethora of resources that generations past did not. I say use it to your advantage. I spent quite a bit of time scouring YouTube, digging through forums… Definitely exhausted my Google search bar. Emulate (not imitate, big difference) the people, brands, and organizations you admire. Most importantly, just do it. A lot of people have these grandiose ideas that scare them into inaction, maybe for fear of failure, maybe because the sheer amount of work involved can be intimidating. But done is better than perfect. You’ll learn a lot during the process of doing.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

We’re still very much in a growing phase and working through those kinks. Sometimes, I just have to roll up my sleeves to get the job done. Our biggest purchase order consisted of more than 3 pallets worth of inventory. Somehow, we had to get this up three flights of stairs into our one-bedroom apartment. (Uhm, excuse me, what the heck is a pallet jack!?) Those moments really make you want to pull your hair out. In hindsight, we can all laugh at our naïveté.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

I have definitely sent out a few empty packages during my time. No product, no promotional insert, nothing! Just a bubble mailer with a shipping label slapped on it. When mistakes like that happen, I see it as an opportunity to connect with the customer, and to offer a more human experience. Brands that fess up after they mess up — bless up. (Sorry for the cringey rhyme!) But it really is the beauty of being a smaller, more engaged brand.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I’ve certainly had mentors along the way, though perhaps not so formal with that label. I am the product of all the lessons instilled upon me from those before me. Teachers, professors, business owners, dentists, scientists, etc. I think sometimes we can be very compartmentalized in our thinking — that when you’re the apprentice of a researcher, the applications and lessons are purely for research. That’s not necessarily true. When we pull inspiration from other industries and incorporate them into the problem-solving processes in our own respective fields, that’s when the real creative magic happens.

I’m a leadership summit/conference junkie, so I like to think that I’m great at networking. I got bit by the bug during my senior year of high school. However, I only recently immersed myself in the entrepreneurial space proper, and I gotta say, it’s terrifying to commit to a new professional role, a new identity. Not just “dental student,” not just “dentist,” but “entrepreneur.” (Honestly, though, I hate that word!) The sad part is, I’ve become cynical along the way, feeling like every interaction is a transaction, that the other party usually wants something in exchange. It’s tough to gauge who is genuine and who is not. But when you do find a mentor who wants to guide you with the purest of intents, gosh, it feels like the warm, friendly hand reaching down to pull me out of the hole. I’m most interested in fostering these types of mutual, wholesome relationships in this stage of my life.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’m proud of the way we can push the envelope regarding what is considered “inappropriate” or “unprofessional.” I mean, we have a design featuring a pair of testicles that reads “Hang in There.” I had a customer send me a screenshot of her conversation with a colleague who was having a horrible day. Getting gifted that lapel pin made her giggle and forget some of the work week stressors. Some of the gift messages people write for their orders reveal a lot of the reasons why we are doing any of this at all: from transplant survivors, career changes, getting accepted into medical school, passing licensure and board exams, etc. All of these are very concrete occasions for gifting, and we get to be here for that.

The word “impact” sounds big, bold and punchy, but it’s actually the little things that collectively make the larger things fall into place. That doctor is out there proudly displaying that scrotum pin which will open a conversation on men’s health, a subject many still find to be taboo. It’s hilariously charming. I sweat the small stuff, because it develops discipline and detail-orientation which are prerequisites for big impact.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

More empathy. Quite frankly, we’re all just a bunch of misunderstood humans. We all want to be heard, to feel seen. I believe in a stronger, healthier, well-supported healthcare workforce which leads to optimized patient care. I might be serving healthcare workers today, but it really spans everything else. Treat people through all walks of life with kindness and understanding. The dental assistant, the janitor, the scribe, the front desk staff, the resident physician, to the program director at the prestigious university. We are all cogs to the same ticking clock.

More strong, female leaders who dare to champion outdated conventions. The modern woman is a free and ever-changing force that embodies strength, collaboration, and emotional attunement. She can wear her glass slippers while shattering glass ceilings — in the hospital, in the laboratory, in private practice, in the institutional hallways of higher education. Her contributions are recognized, not minimized, especially by other women. Above all, she is unyielding in her commitment to self-expression, and paves a path for others to follow. When we start seeing more high-profile figures that look like ourselves, more doors of opportunity appear, and swing wide open.

Lastly, the world needs more of you, exactly as you are. You don’t need to break to the wind just because society says so. Bring your own thoughts, experiences, and voice to the table. Diversity of thought enhances creativity and enables us to dismantle old, oppressive and inefficient systems. More equitable opportunities and unfettered innovation — that’s the world I dream of every single day.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

I wish someone told me that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” I still get anxious thinking back on moments when the professor would call on me. Students are proud and stubborn — we don’t ever want to say the wrong thing. It feels embarrassing and vulnerable, like you’re naked on stage. The truth is, there is always a lot to be learned. And ironically, the more you discover, the more you realize how much you don’t know. It’s okay to be uncomfortable and uncertain. I think most successful people have experienced imposter syndrome or have felt at some point that they have been “winging” it. Much of the growth happens during times of discomfort, so lean in.

I wish someone told me to prioritize my mental health. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. I have a high adversity quotient (that’s basically a measure of how you respond to life’s obstacles), but challenges can present themselves during not so opportune times. It has gotten very dark. What started as an existential crisis turned into recurring panic attacks. When the symptoms turned into physical migraines, strain and tension in the neck, nausea, and feeling on the verge of tears while performing menial tasks, I knew there was something really, really wrong. The smallest hiccups turned into major triggers. Mental health is an ongoing journey, and some days are much better than others. This is something I want the entrepreneur community at-large to talk more on. No one should ever suffer alone in silence.

I wish someone told me how to seek help. There are tons of resources online, but they’re not compiled into a neat little package for you. You’ve got to be able to purify that information to be relevant to what you’re doing. If you’re pursuing something completely innovative, chances are, you won’t find answers right away, and that’s okay! You get creative. Start with the Small Business Administration for some baseline resources on getting started. SCORE is also great for finding mentorship.

I wish someone told me to grow some thick skin. Like, thiccc with a triple c. Social media makes your emotions readily accessible. It can lead you down a roller coaster of feelings. One second, someone’s giving you a virtual pat on the back. The next, someone’s initiating drama, poking fun at you, debasing your entire existence… It’s a tough space to navigate, and I still have to take frequent hiatuses to process it all.

I wish someone told me that it’s okay to say no, and often. What you say “yes” to is a reflection of you and your integrity. Being selective gives you the leverage you need to only work with the people and companies that align with your core values. If it’s not curated, it’s clutter. This is one key way to avoid brand dilution.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Society is for you because of you. It’s the adage, “You reap what you sow.” If you’re not advocating, someone else is, whether or not their particular cause is for or against something you wish to see differently. I think it’s one thing to want wealth, power, safety, and happiness for your own family and inner circles. It’s another to want true, positive changes in the society that your family and inner circles interact and engage with.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? They might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hands down, Harry Styles. Because 1) he talks slowly so our meeting would last its worth and 2) his demeanor and perspective on humankind is refreshing. There is this rendering I did of him on a sticker — he’s wearing a white coat, scrubs, and stethoscope; blowing into a glove balloon. It really resonated with our audience because they know what he stands for. His catchphrase is: “Treat people with kindness.” Wanna know a secret? Healthcare workers don’t want to be called “heroes.” That message tends to be fairly hollow. Rather, we want to be treated with kindness and seen for the work that we do. He is also unapologetically true to himself and committed to his own creative expression. It would be a dream to design something for him.

How can our readers follow you online?

Come sign up for the V Coterie newsletter on our website at (good e-mails only), follow our brand on Instagram @vcoterie, or my personal account @drvanmerkey. We are V excited to meet you! 😉

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