It is so important to stop forcing gender stereotypes on children. Studies show it negatively effects both males and females. From a very young age, girls are conditioned to believe they are not good at math and science, which affects their performance and career choices. Meanwhile boys are taught they can’t show any emotion, which leads to bullying, depression and a host of other issues
Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Crowder the co-founder and CEO of VNTANA, an industry leading platform that automates the conversion of physical products into 3D Web, AR, VR & hologram e-commerce experiences. She has worked in the mixed-reality space for over 7 years helping Fortune 1000 brands including Adidas, Lexus, AT&T and more launch mixed reality applications to increase conversions. Prior to co-founding VNTANA she graduated from USC with a bachelors and master’s in engineering and gained valuable engineering experience at Gulfstream, Northrop Grumman and BP. She leverages her engineering background to guide VNTANA’s overall direction and technology development to shape the future of e-commerce by making it easy to create
a 3D version of every product in the world. Ashley was featured as one of USC’s leading engineering CEOs of 2016 and is a part of the Microsoft Early Developer Program.
Ashley has given talks on the future of mixed reality and how to incorporate it in enterprises today at SXSW, Digital Summit, Internet Summit, Augmented World Expo, TEDx Venice, the World Economic Forum’s Global Growth Companies & Technology Pioneers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, The Montgomery Summit, Siemer Summit, Digital LA, and others.
Co-founder/CEO of VNTANA. Over 7 year’s experience in Mixed Reality helping the Fortune 1000 launch mixed reality applications to increase conversions. Bachelors and master’s in engineering.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up I watched my dad start his own construction company and saw the benefit of owning your own business, so I always wanted to start my own company. I loved math and science (and hated writing) so I pursued a Bachelors and Masters of Engineering at USC. I got to build robots and learn how to build all sorts of products, which was great experience for starting a company. I always had some business on the side, whether it was tutoring, selling granola bars on the bike trail, or later importing glasses from China to resell, which is how I met my co-founder Ben. Ben also went to USC and was importing glasses from China, a very weird side project to have, so mutual friends introduced us. We continued to throw around new business ideas and decided to start VNTANA after we were introduced to ICT, which is a partnership between USC and the military where they fund research in mixed reality development. Once I got involved there, I knew this was the future and I wanted to be a part of shaping the use of this new technology. AR, VR and mixed reality are changing every industry from retail, to education, to the military and more. We saw the transition from film to digital over the past few decades and now we are in the transition of digital to computer generated images (CGI). Every company needs to be thinking of their CGI or 3D model strategy as consumers continue to demand more and ever better content.
When we first started the company, phones were not capable of AR, web could not support 3D and there were no headsets on the market, so we built turnkey hologram solutions for brands including Intel, Adidas, Mercedes-Benz and other Fortune 1000 companies. Through this process we created a robust content pipeline and the tools to decrease development time of 3D assets by 95%, helping companies create 3D web, AR and VR commerce experiences proven to more than double conversion rates while reducing returns.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When we first founded the company, the immediate use case of our technology was to live stream holograms so presenters and performers could be in multiple places at once. I had a weekend job at a nightclub where I programmed lightshows for DJs, so our first clients were DJs who wanted to live stream their holograms to nightclubs in Asia to perform in multiple cities at the same time. My co-founder and I visited 104 nightclubs in 42 days between Singapore and Japan on just $5K (including flights!) to sign up clients. It was a crazy trip. We stayed in some very questionable hostels to save money, and a friend from USC who worked for TimeOut magazine in Shanghai introduced us to TimeOut writers in other cities across Asia, who then introduced us to nightclubs and event promoters. We randomly met Pitbull in a club in Shanghai, which was amazing! But other meetings were questionable, as local gangs ran certain club scenes…we quickly realized brands, 3D products and corporate executives were a better route to go.
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?
We had to make a video about the company for an accelerator application. We had the whole team involved so we could show off our talent and I was supposed to say, “We make sh*t happen” or “We get sh*t done,” but I accidently mixed the two and said “We get sh*t happen.” Everyone busted out laughing, including me (even though I was slightly embarrassed). “Get sh*t happen” has since become one of our team values that people say all the time. It stands for two core beliefs in the company:
- We all do whatever it takes to meet a deadline and solve problems.
- It’s ok to make mistakes. We are moving fast so mistakes will happen, although it’s important to recognize them, learn from them, and move on.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We started the company almost eight years ago before phones were capable of AR and there were no headsets on the market, so we have been working in the 3D and immersive space for almost a decade. Unlike most tech startups you hear about, we did not raise a huge amount of money. We were able to provide hologram services to brands, which allowed us to operate profitably while learning from real life projects to build a needed solution for 3D automation. Through building turnkey hologram experiences, we realized the huge problem facing the industry was the cost and time investment of 3D model creation, so we solved our own problem, creating software to automate the processing and distribution of 3D models. We are a scrappy group of dreamers that know how to solve tough problems without a lot of resources, and pride ourselves on doing things differently.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Having a 3D version of your product on your website gives customers a better understanding of the product, which has proven to more than double conversion rates while reducing returns. Taking that one step further with AR, you can allow customers to do a virtual try-on. For example, they can hold their phone over their foot and see how a pair of virtual shoes look. This is the power of 3D, which we are enabling for retailers at scale. Our software platform automates the optimization and conversion process, reducing the time to create these types of experiences by up to 95%. We are excited to help brands with large SKU counts gain the benefits of 3D at scale. With the launch of Facebook AR, Google’s 3D ad platform Swirl, and newer 3D ad platforms like Admix and Unity, we are excited to help brands create more fun and authentic 3D digital experiences for customers.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
We are definitely progressing, but there is still a lot of unconscious bias against woman in the workplace. There have been many times my co-founder and I were email introduced to someone and they assumed I was the administrative assistant because I was the female on the email. When anything like this happens, I stand up for myself in a confident, composed manner. My advice is to stay confident, speak up for yourself, and choose employees and investors you trust and who believe in your vision and will grow the business with you.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
There is no one-size fits all for any demographic, whether it’s women in STEM, male founders, etc. Over generalization of all groups needs to stop.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Hire people who believe in your vision and fit your culture over the perfect resume: After a few missteps with early hires, we landed on the practice of Top Grading (taken from the book), which is a strong formula for recruiting that puts much needed structure around the interview process. It has been working for us ever since!
- Networking is extremely important: I majored in engineering, which focuses on how to create great products, but not the nuances of business — so I did not understand the importance of building your network when I first started. One of our first institutional investors was led by a woman partner who became a mentor. She told me, “No one knows who you or VNTANA are, you need to get out there and meet people to have a chance.” So, I started making myself go to one event a week, which helped me gain my first clients and drastically grew the business. Specifically, at a networking dinner I met an account manager at an agency who was working on the US Open activation for Mercedes-Benz. This is how VNTANA ended up creating the interactive hologram experience at the 2015 US Open for Mercedes-Benz with Roger Federer.
- Do your research: If you plan on starting a company and raising venture capital, read the book Venture Deals first! I read this a few years ago and it was extremely helpful; I wish I had read it when I first started my company. Instead, I negotiated my first investment deals relying on lawyers and hearing “it’s always done this way.” While you should know how things are usually done and listen to advice, I do not believe there is anything standard for a startup. If there was a good standard way of doing things, then every startup would be a unicorn. Looking back, I would have structured a few deals differently and approached raising money in a very different way.
- As the founder(s) of a business, you are the best people to sell your product: Until you create a defined, repeatable playbook for sales, hiring salespeople will not work out. We tried hiring different people from a variety of sales backgrounds, but it wasn’t until we had a defined sales offering, customer personas, and clear pricing that we were able to scale our sales staff and our business.
- Focus is extremely important, and it’s ok to say no: In the beginning you are so excited for any potential client, but not all clients are the right clients for your business. Some might require too much customization that is not scalable. We started creating a lot of interactive hologram solutions for clients, but every single one was very different, requiring a lot of engineering time. We took a step back and looked at the data, which showed 58% of our work was accounting for only 30% of our revenue. Based on these facts, we focused the entire engineering team on the 3D automation platform, which scales across all businesses and cut all the cu stom work. This proved to be the right decision as we scale our software platform to help brands create, manage and distribute 3D models across web, AR and VR e-commerce experiences.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
The highest performing and happiest teams are employees who are empowered with autonomy. Give your team clear goals and objectives, but then let them run with it and get it done on their own terms. Employees who are the right person for the job will thrive. I’m always trying to hire people smarter than me. Each new hire should bring a new knowledge base that your company was previously missing, so that person should have autonomy to utilize that knowledge to elevate your company. On the flip side, if you find yourself having to micromanage someone to get a job done, then they are probably the wrong person for that job.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Setting a clear mission with key milestones is extremely important. This sets the overarching goals that your employees and managers can guide their decisions with. At a startup, things change quickly so you will have to continue to revisit these and reset the priorities. I’ve learned re-iterating priorities and explaining why priorities have changed has helped our team make better, faster decisions to improve efficiency. You have limited resources, so you have to make sure everyone is working towards the top priorities or you will burn more cash and launches will be delayed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Shamin Rostami is a venture partner who has been instrumental in my success. She led our first investment round and has been a great mentor, providing honest feedback and advice along the way. She was the investor who pushed me to network and lead to the Mercedes-Benz deal.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am passionate about encouraging young women to study engineering, entrepreneurship and STEM. I try to be active in the local community, working with After School All Stars and Skillify, inspiring K-12 children to pursue STEM. I also volunteer at USC doing guest lectures in the engineering and entrepreneurship programs to ensure they have a more diverse group of examples to look to. It’s extremely important to give diverse leaders speaking opportunities. There is no excuse to have an all-male panel or speaker slate, so I keep a running list of amazing woman founders and engineers I meet to nominate them for speaking engagements and other opportunities.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It is so important to stop forcing gender stereotypes on children. Studies show it negatively effects both males and females. From a very young age, girls are conditioned to believe they are not good at math and science, which affects their performance and career choices. Meanwhile boys are taught they can’t show any emotion, which leads to bullying, depression and a host of other issues. Sweden has several gender-neutral pre-schools and a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology show these children were are more likely to play with unfamiliar children and were less influenced by culturally enforced gender stereotypes, but still understood gender and were able to associate people by their differences. “Together the results suggest that although gender-neutral pedagogy on its own may not reduce children’s tendency to use gender to categorize people, it reduces their tendency to gender-stereotype and gender-segregate, which could widen the opportunities available to them,” concluded Ben Kenward, a researcher in psychology at Uppsala University and Oxford Brookes University. So, if a girl wants to play with a fire truck or a boy wants to play with a Barbie doll, let them.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t trip over something behind you.” — You learn a million things the hard way when you start a company. It’s the ultimate MBA, and it’s not about being perfect: It’s about getting your minimum viable product (MVP) out there, getting customer feedback and improving to their needs to ensure you are solving a true problem and growing your business as fast as possible. You will make a lot of mistakes. It’s important to learn from them, but don’t dwell on them or beat yourself up about it. That is wasted energy that could be spent growing your business.
The long version of that quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year. He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety. Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in. Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This new day is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 :-
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook — She has helped build an amazing global company, which is now focused on winning the next digital frontier — spatial computing. VNTANA can help brands quickly create digital twins of their products to use in Facebook AR and VR providing a better, more imersive consumer experience proven to increase sales and reduce returns.