Own Your Decisions. Leadership is challenging — it comes with major responsibility. And while it’s prudent to exhibit openness and welcome suggestions, at the end of the day, you have to stand by your decisions. So make them thoughtfully, and be ready to back them up if asked why. Expect to be challenged by team members, and welcome that dialogue, but stand your ground. A strong leader who can back up her decisions commands more respect from her team than one who bends in an effort to please others.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Fauset.
Ashley is the Chief Operating Officer at Stardust, a leading social app that connects movie & TV fans around the world to engage with like-minded fans, to create and share video reactions to their favorite movies and TV episodes, discover editorial content, and interact through daily polls. At Stardust, Ashley leads global marketing efforts aimed at TV and movie fanatics among the tech-savvy millennial & Gen Z audiences. Her leadership drives user acquisition and partnership generation for the rapidly-growing platform, currently hosting over 150,000 general users, including 2,000 influencers with more than 10 million YouTube subscribers.
With over 12 years on the exhilarating startup scene, Ashley’s extensive digital experience spans multiple disciplines and industries, including rideshare and social media platforms, e-commerce, and immersive AR & VR experiences for kids. Her background as a full-stack marketer allows her to artfully blend traditional marketing efforts with product management expertise. Ashley’s versatility informs her effective leadership approach, which is a calculated mix of blue sky vision, concise strategy, and practical execution. Her insatiable curiosity about human behavior continuously fuels her love for creating innovative and engaging user experiences.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
It’s absolutely my pleasure, thanks for the invitation! I love this question, and the truth is, there’s no clear-cut path that led me to where I am today. I’ve had a deep fascination with technology ever since I can remember, from using Print Shop on a Macintosh computer as a grade-schooler to designing ways to improve order-taking flows on the touchscreen register at my restaurant job in college. Organization and process are two things that come naturally to me, so the fact that I’ve landed in the app/product world is no surprise to me. I initially launched my career in event marketing, but when offered an opportunity to step into the startup world, I jumped at the chance and never looked back. The exhilarating pace really fuels me. I’m someone who’s constantly asking questions, looking for deeper insights, pushing to expand my skill set, and finding creative ways to solve problems for brands and consumers. Being curious, having an insatiable urge to learn new things, and being open to opportunity has led me to where I am today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The timing of this question is obviously going to impact my answer. In all honesty, the most “interesting” thing that’s happened since stepping into my role as COO has been directly related to the current pandemic. Back in March, as things were escalating, I drafted new policies to circulate with the team, outlining how we would proceed if and when the time came to self-quarantine. We were preparing for a potential move to working from home long term and scheduled a few “test” work from home days to ensure our remote infrastructure would sustain our daily operations. Little did we know that our first “test” day would be the first day of working from home for the foreseeable future. We had no idea it would be that last afternoon in the office would be the last time we’d see each other for months. Accepting this “new normal” and helping my team adapt to the change has certainly been unlike anything else I’ve experienced as a leader, nor hope to again.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh, boy. I’ve definitely made some mistakes along the way, but really, I think the funniest one was thinking I could avoid making them altogether. In my early career, I maintained a naivete that if I tried hard enough, I could avoid failure. Ironically, improvements often come from failure. It’s the mistakes we make along the way that hold the most impactful lessons — understanding where I went wrong and how to correct it has been invaluable to me. Life is an iterative process, and no matter how seasoned or experienced you may be, there is always room to learn and improve.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I came onboard at Stardust as Vice President of Marketing, which I held for several months before being offered the role of COO. The opportunity to step up and really impact the entire team and business was extremely appealing to me. I’ve always had an innate ability to lead, to encourage and motivate others, to see the big picture, so moving into a more prominent leadership role really was a natural progression for me.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
You’re so right about that. The level of responsibility is much greater — you have to consider the company as a whole, versus focusing on the goals and deliverables of your particular department. Stakes are higher overall, and decisions made reverberate across the entire company.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I love having visibility across the entire operation. Seeing how all the efforts play together gives me the ability to refine overarching goals and make better decisions. I’ll see something the Product team is designing, which triggers a cool marketing idea, which in turn informs development… It’s all organic and interdependent and I am constantly inspired and mesmerized by how it all comes together.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
As exhilarating as it can be, being an executive can often feel isolating. Your peer group shrinks the higher you climb, pretty drastically. That camaraderie sort of withers away — so I make sure to keep in touch with mentors and former co-workers to go to for advice, and gain perspective. There’s also the stigma of seeming unapproachable once you’re an executive, which is a challenge; team members who once used to come to you to confide, or ask for advice, often fall away once your title changes.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
We’re people, too! I think many assume executives are unapproachable, or out of touch with their employees and what their day-to-day looks like. There’s a perceived invisible barrier between C-level and other team members at many companies. That said, one of the best things about spending the majority of my career in the startup world is that the non-traditional environment offers more opportunities for interaction among employees at all levels. Startup culture is often more relaxed than a Fortune-500 company, and when employees feel more at ease, they’re likely to speak up more often, feel like their voice is being heard, and feel more valued.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Beyond the glaring gender wage gap, women are still fighting against the stigma that a bold voice and strong opinions make them “bossy”, (or the other “b” word), whereas men who exhibit the same attributes do not endure such derogatory name-calling. Making a conscious effort to have a better gender balance on your executive team — and the entire company, for that matter — can help dispel these outdated notions.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Honestly, I never imagined leading an entire company remotely, yet due to the global pandemic, here I am, doing just that. Believe me — I’m a fan of flexible office hours, and the option to work from home. Emotional intelligence plays a major part in managing others. There are nuances and social cues that get missed when on a conference or video call. It’s harder to read when an employee is feeling overwhelmed, or disagrees with a certain decision. I can’t see if someone is fidgeting with their hands or holding their breath. Without the ability to walk and talk with an employee, or catch up over coffee, it’s challenging to connect with employees in a meaningful way. For now, I check in with everyone on Slack on a daily basis, stay communicative throughout the day. Office culture has been reduced to online video lunches, and the occasional online games, which helps bring us together in some way during this period of isolation.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
Perseverance is key to success as an executive. Striking a balance between having a thick skin and being empathetic is also crucial. Be strong enough to work through difficult challenges, but soft enough to understand your employee’s struggles in order to guide them in the most effective way possible. If you are afraid of tough conversations, shouldering big responsibilities, and have a fear of failure, a role as an executive may not be the right path for you.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Establish trust with your employees. Check-in with your team regularly, and really listen to what they have to say. They’re the ones executing on a daily basis, are closest to the work. If they raise concerns about potential challenges, take the time to explore solutions and opportunities with them. Loyalty among your employees will flourish, productivity will increase, and morale will soar. Everyone wants to feel like their efforts are making a difference. And always remember to praise them for great work. A little bit of positive feedback goes a long way.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I had a CMO a few years ago who really changed my perspective. After several years at the company, and 2 CMO departures, she joined as my 3rd boss during my tenure. Losing not only one, but two bosses were tough on the marketing team, but she breathed new life into the brand. She challenged me to approach problems from a different angle, to not be afraid to try new things. Her management style was liberating; I feel like she helped me hone my critical thinking while unleashing my creativity. I’m grateful she’s still a mentor to me now; she’s one of the few people whose opinion I truly value.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I share as much of my experiences as I can. I have a few women whom I mentor that are in earlier phases of their career. I listen as they share their challenges and uncertainties. I share my insights and offer advice in the hopes that they can catapult their own careers with confidence and grace. On the daily, within my own team, I strive to lead as by example — with approachability, honesty, flexibility, and humility.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Forget perfection. Growing up, I was a typical Type-A overachiever, which spilled into my adult life. I aimed for perfection, overworking myself in the process. Perfection doesn’t exist — copy and campaigns, user flows, and processes can always be improved. Do great work, learn from it, and use that to improve for the next time.
- Ask for Feedback. There is beauty in collaboration. Sharing work-in-progress with others will help you to see opportunities for improvement your eyes may have missed. Asking for feedback isn’t a sign of weakness or inability, rather it shows your commitment to producing great work.
- Transparency is key. Be open and communicate. Whether you have a concern around a deadline, or a need to work from home for a personal reason, bringing issues up early leaves time to find solutions. The longer you wait to address things, the more stressful and difficult situations become. Best to get ahead of it as soon as possible.
- Startups are messy. Be flexible. A startup is not for a person who might say “that’s not in my job description”. Startup life can often be unpredictable and requires team members to be all-in. That means more cross-collaboration, more on-the-fly changes, more ideation. It can be a dizzying life, but exhilarating all the same. If you’re gonna jump in, be prepared to go with the flow.
- Own Your Decisions. Leadership is challenging — it comes with major responsibility. And while it’s prudent to exhibit openness and welcome suggestions, at the end of the day, you have to stand by your decisions. So make them thoughtfully, and be ready to back them up if asked why. Expect to be challenged by team members, and welcome that dialogue, but stand your ground. A strong leader who can back up her decisions commands more respect from her team than one who bends in an effort to please others.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This question is so heavy, especially asked in the context of the current global pandemic. The inequality among humans is just devastating — from lack of shelter, access to healthcare, to fair wages. So many were already at a disadvantage as this virus struck, which unfairly put them at higher risk than those more fortunate. We need to find a way to get people to care — really care — about the prosperity of humankind. We’re all citizens of this planet; we’re all in this together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is one my grandfather used to say: “If you’re going to do a job, do a job.” As a child, I thought it made no sense, but it’s something I reference often in my adult life. I distill it into “all or nothing”. Either dedicate your energy wholly to the task at hand or don’t do it at all. Haphazard approaches never yield the results we want, so why bother doing it at all, if you’re not really going to try? Either do it or don’t.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Oh, that’s easy — Oprah, hands down. I am absolutely in awe of what she has accomplished over the course of her career. To say her determination and grit are inspiring to me would be a vast understatement. What’s so beautiful about Oprah is the way her career has evolved over the years. She’s someone who sees opportunity in change and isn’t afraid to take risks. She’s shown the world that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you do and how you do it. I admire her intention, her perseverance, her philanthropy. And if she wants to have brunch with me, I’ll hop in my car and drive up to Montecito right now.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.