#GirlsRock: An interview with designer, athlete and adventurer Emily Bunnell 🍥


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Emily Bunnell balked when I first brought up a #GirlsRock interview.

This is common. So many incredible women I approach (for this!) feel like they’re not #GirlsRock material. Which kind of reinforces that you actually are. I knew within 10 minutes of working with Emily at an ACN event in Detroit that I’d ask.

Emily had scooted aside to allow me room at the table with the company’s co-founders and other heavy hitters to prep for international training.

Speaking of training … at that table, I learned that this contracted designer competed at the highest levels as a weight lifter. I later learned after we became colleagues and friends of her penchant for taking the most incredible global adventures, too.

I found Emily to have an understated air of excellence, the type of person that seems to draw in the room – but without the spotlight.

Please give Emily a warm CD welcome. She’s a rare conglomeration of kindness and strength, emotional and worldly intelligence. I don’t toss that stuff around lightly! I’m honored to have her among the #GirlsRock tribe.

2019MastersWorldChampionships
Emily (left) at the 2019 Masters World Championships in Montreal.

Eli: When you were little, what did you think you’d grow up to be?

Emily: Well, I’ll just quote my own “about” page for this: 

Emily_HeadshotAs a little kid, when the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was asked, I had four answers of equal interest: 

  • -a mad scientist
  • -an artist
  • -a professional soccer player or
  • a horse

Fortunately for my childhood dreams, one of those was remotely realistic. Aside from the complications of becoming a horse, or becoming mad, I more or less feel the same now; I love the sciences, competing in sports, creating art, and spending time with animals. I’d add “writer” or “outdoor advocate” to that list and nothing has changed.

Eli: Feels like a lifestyle you’ve been born into. What site is that about page from?

Emily: That’s from bunnelli.com, the website for my freelance design and art business, Bunnelli LLC.

Eli: That page sounds as multi-faceted as your childhood aspirations! How did you get started as a freelancer?

Emily: I’ve been working as a graphic designer professionally since 2007, either in-house, or for agencies, but always did freelance work on the side. About 10 years in, I was a creative director, which meant I spent the majority of my days in meetings, managing the creative team and their projects and mediating issues between departments, and very little hands-on designing. I had become very removed from the hands-on design part of creative and I didn’t particularly love what I had become as a ‘manager’ instead of a ‘creator.’  

In 2017, I made freelance design my full-time job and established my business, Bunnelli, LLC.  

To be perfectly honest, the first year was hard, I had clients who didn’t pay, I underbid and overworked, I had no idea how to do my accounting, and generally lost money and sleep. Add on some family health issues and it was just a tough year. However, after finding a great tax consultant, a good design mentor, a handful of really stupendous clients, the support of my husband, and a lot of trial-and-error, I am still at it and doing much better. I have learned quite a bit in the last three years but I still feel like a novice who’s figuring it out daily. 

However, I do much more hands-on-creating and concepting, I often get to work for clients and projects I’m super passionate about, I am a bit poorer, but with way more flexibility in my life and time, and even get to do some illustrations now, so I feel like my path is headed in the right direction. Which, ironically, is sort of back to where I started. Funny how life works like that.

BanffNP
Emily in Banff.

Eli: Life does take us on circuitous routes, doesn’t it? How much would you agree those uncertainties and hardships were necessary to put you where you are now?

Emily: Absolutely. I don’t believe growth is really possible without adversity. Sometimes we create that by signing up for a hard college course or training seven days a week, which is a preferable form of growth, but sometimes life provides those hardships – and they’re growth opportunities no less.

Eli: You know a thing or two about growth and opportunity in other ways, I know. How did you get started with competitive weightlifting?

Emily: In 2011, not long after moving back to Utah, one of my co-workers started going to this thing called Crossfit and kept telling me how fun and challenging it was. I was intrigued, as I had grown up always doing competitive sports and I needed something to get me excited about exercise as an adult. I googled the nearest location and ended up walking into Cache Valley Strength & Conditioning and met the owner and head coach, Brad Thorne, who since changed my entire perspectives on fitness and nutrition. 

I did the competitive Crossfit thing for a couple of years and grew as an athlete. Weightlifting was always where I did best and the part I consistently enjoyed most. So I signed up for my first weightlifting meet, The Utah Summer Games. My husband drove me 4 hours to the meet, I didn’t own a singlet or know a lot of the rules, but I knew I wanted to lift with integrity and have fun. I ended up winning my weight class and more importantly, meeting several really kind coaches, organizers, and competitors. 

I was hooked on the good vibes and driven spirit I felt there, and have focused most of my training on weightlifting since 2013.

BoiseRoseGarden
Emily in the Boise Rose Garden.

Eli: This opportunity has actually taken you around the world, hasn’t it? What’s that been like?

Emily: Well, so far it’s taken me to Nationals twice (both times in Salt Lake City, Utah), and World Championships in Montreal, Canada. So most of my traveling in recent years has just been for fun/pleasure, but this last year was a special treat to get to travel to Quebec and represent the USA on an international stage. It was certainly one of the most nerve-wracking and thrilling moments of my life, I was teetering between throwing up, bursting into tears and laughing at any given moment. 

Just an intensely emotional experience and one I will never forget. The support of my friends and family, both in attendance and watching it live, was so incredible, I’ll never forget that feeling. When I found out I took second place, it felt like a highlight moment to several years of training, injury and comeback. 

I am not sure what this year holds for national and international competitions, but Florida (Nationals and Worlds) and Puerto Rico (PanAms) are both possibilities if my training and schedule allow. It has always been about what supports my personal life best, and I try not to let my competitive nature overdrive my primary goals in sport to 1.) stay healthy and 2.) have fun.

Horses
Emily has a love for animals.

Eli: Before I let you go, I should ask you about your travel, because you’ve gone to do some incredible things in incredible places. Tell me what drives you to take such challenging trips to some of the world’s most beautiful but extreme places. 

Emily: That’s nice of you to say, I think traveling has usually been more about exploration than relaxation for me. As a child, my parents took us to one of two places, when finances allowed;  Disneyland or Yellowstone National Park. The jungle ride was my favorite in Disneyland, and everything about Yellowstone National Park was my favorite. Disneyland is fun, but even as a child, I was bothered by the ‘flatness’ of the experience, it was a safe & sterilized adventure. So as an adult – I have modeled my time-off to maximize my time outdoors, opportunities to meet new people, eat new foods & to challenge myself. Reality checks, as it were. 

I’m not against someone wanting to sip Mai Tais on a beach for a week if that’s what fills their cup. However, the fantasized beach idea goes flat for me within a couple of hours & I find I’m more invigorated by stepping a bit further out of my comfort zone. Be it stumbling through some new language or navigating a metro or a remote trail, you discover yourself and others in adversity. Hiking in the mountains around my home is a familiar joy, but hiking in the Himalayas and the Andes pushed me in unique ways that I will never forget.  Likewise, I have an unreasonable fear of the ocean & sharks, but some of my favorite travel memories have taken place in the ocean, in the presence of wild animals, to include sharks themselves. I’m scared every time I get in the ocean, but when you just spend time with your fear, it slowly transforms into reverence. 

I think the best way to summarize one of my core beliefs about travel (understanding its a great privilege that I can do it when I do) is this quote from Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” 

Eli: I love that quote – and what a way to see the world. We could all use that perspective. I’m almost finished here, Emily. What is next for you?

Emily: Well, right now I’m letting my personal/training/business goals take a breather while my spouse and I prepare for a big move to the east coast. Moving has always been part of our plan – we love our home and this valley, but we think there’s a lot to be gained from the act of moving; auditing ourselves and our things, trimming down, and being brave. It has helped me let go of a lot of things I was hanging onto (both literally and mentally) and prioritize the things that matter. In the meantime, I’m going to keep on training (its my meditation), sticking to my plant-based diet, spending time in these beautiful Rocky Mountains, and with those that I love while we still can.

In the scheme of things, the accolades and kudos and promotions feel really nice, but the relationships and spaces that fill my heart are most important and I’m happy to focus on them for the time being.

Sahara
Emily in the Sahara.

Eli: What advice would you give young women who have similar vision?

Emily: My advice comes from a poster that used to hang up somewhere in my high school. It read something like “Nobody will remember the jeans you wore today, but they will remember how you made them feel.” It stuck with me, and I always added a second verse “I won’t remember the jeans I wore, but I will remember how my actions made me feel” because that is even more important. 

The world is gonna tell you you’ll be happy when you’re prettier, smaller, better dressed, more popular, etc. – but this is just patently false. It’s a commodification of happiness. But you cannot buy happiness, you can earn joy though – and that is a good deal more resilient. Build a life that reflects your values, be honest, be brave, be gentle (with yourself and others), be compassionate and set clear boundaries. In this setting you can 1. build connections with others that are deep and meaningful and 2. explore your truest self and goals. 

Take care of your body, mind, and soul – don’t deprive, punish or hate it – its the soul suit that will carry your inner self to do amazing things. You will love yourself and others most of all when your actions are in alignment with your thoughts, so be disciplined about both. Never stop learning, get sunshine, exercise (any way you want) put down your phone, be honest, never deny yourself or others good laugh or cry. Say I love you. Listen more. Help others. Don’t shirk the hard conversations, hard work or failure, they are stepping stones to growth. 

Don’t worry too much about what you’ll be someday and more on who you’ll be. The other parts will work themselves out. 

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12 thoughts on “#GirlsRock: An interview with designer, athlete and adventurer Emily Bunnell 🍥

  1. Hi Eli, what an absolutely wonderfull interview. Emily sounds like an incredible woman, strong, driven, determined and kind and I love her sentiments about life and what it takes to succeed. Thanks for sharing her story.

  2. Fun read! I’m chuckling at the wanting to be a horse when she grew up. I had a cousin that wanted to marry my dad’s old 1935 Ford. We all have dreams, lol!

  3. 🙂 x 1,000,000 thank you Eli! What a thoughtful and embarrassingly kind post. I really appreciate your time and friendship.

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