Find your “why.” Your “why” is the reason behind your dream and the reason why you work so hard to achieve it. Your “why” will give you the extra fuel to keep going when your personal gas tank is running on empty.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Eckstein. Widely recognized and honored as an actress, entrepreneur, fangirl trendsetter and leading voice for female fandom, Ashley is most known as the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars. She also founded Her Universe in 2010 — the groundbreaking fangirl fashion company and lifestyle brand. As the Founder and GM of Her Universe Ashley continue to oversee all aspects of the company and she interacts daily with her fanbase of over 350,000 fans on social media and through www.heruniverse.com. A leading authority on female fandom, Ashley has been featured in stories on CNN, MTV, Forbes, TODAY.com, ABC News, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal among many others. She has been chosen by Good Housekeeping magazine as one of their 25 Awesome Women and was recently chosen by CNET as one of their Women Who Inspire for 2018.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me!
My personal life has mirrored Ahsoka Tano (my character in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels) in many ways but I think the most notable way is how Ahsoka inspired me to create Her Universe. Ahsoka Tano was groundbreaking when she came on to the scene in 2008 in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. She was the first female Jedi that was a lead character in the Star Wars Universe. I personally believe that Ahsoka’s powerful presence in Star Wars paved the way for more strong female characters in Star Wars and more acceptance for female Star Wars fans. I feel incredibly grateful to be her voice.
When I saw that there was a major need to for a company like Her Universe to exist, I didn’t exactly know how I was going to make it happen, but someone needed to speak up for female Star Wars fans because at the time, Star Wars was deemed a property just for men and boys. There was practically no merchandise being made for female fans and almost half of the fanbase was female. More importantly, women and girls were being bullied for liking sci-fi and fantasy properties. I knew something had to change. I asked myself, “What would Ahsoka do?” The answer I came up with was that Ahsoka would stand up for female Star Wars fans and spread the message that Star Wars was for everyone, so that’s what I did with Her Universe — I created a fashion line for fangirls and I asked fangirls to step into the spotlight and be celebrated.
As I describe in my book It’s Your Universe: You Have The Power To Make It Happen, I was a full time actress and I knew nothing about starting a licensed fashion brand. Eight years later, through a lot of hard work and perseverance, I’m incredibly proud of the company we’ve created and more importantly, the community we’ve built.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
I think the most interesting story since I started my company is how much the industry has changed since we started. I was flat out told that I could not have a successful business just by selling sci-fi and fantasy merchandise to female fans, many people told me that there was “no money in it.” Offering merchandise to female fans, or “fangirls” as we proudly call ourselves, was as they say in business “white space” and a market that was deemed unprofitable. I barely had any research to back up my claim that there was a need for a company like Her Universe, but I knew that 45% of all sci-fi and fantasy fans were female and that 85% of all consumer purchases were being made by women and it seemed like those numbers were on my side. I had a hunch and a hope that if I built it, they would come and I was right. Not only were we able to build a multi-million dollar company that solely focused to fangirls but the industry took notice. Now, catering to female sci-fi and fantasy is a rapidly growing, booming business and all of the major studios are taking note.
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?
I think the funniest thing was how much I didn’t know. I was a full-time actress and I did not have a college degree. I was definitely learning on the job! I took to heart the advice, “Fake it, til’ you make it.” I remember going into major licensing, design or manufacturing meetings pretending to understand everything they said and then I would go home and research everything for hours. My husband gave me great advice in the beginning and he told me to build my team and surround myself by people that were smarter than me. He wasn’t saying that I wasn’t smart, he was saying to find people that knew more than me in their field. Since I wasn’t a lawyer or financial planner or licensing expert, I needed advice and I built an inner circle of trusted of advisors. I was not afraid to ask questions, so every time I would come out of a meeting where I didn’t understand something, I would ask my team for help or research the answers myself. I share this story because I often look back and laugh at how much I didn’t know but I’m also grateful that I didn’t fully understand what I was getting into because how can you fear what you don’t know? I was naïve but that was my strength.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes our company stand out is our community and what it stands for. From day one Her Universe has always been two parts, a merchandise line and more importantly a community. Female fans were often being bullied for being in the sci-fi and fantasy communities and I knew that we needed to break down the stereotype that these properties were just for men and boys and prove that this genre is for everyone. However, I also knew that I could not do it alone and I asked fans from day one to join me. I said, “United we stand, divided we fall.” Not only did female fans back me but so did male fans and we built a community and a bully-free zone where female fans could be celebrated and accepted. The merchandise was always part of the solution to fix the community problem because if girls felt more comfortable wearing sci-fi/fantasy merchandise made for them and if it became more readily available, we would begin to change the perception. So, wearing our Her Universe merchandise grew to mean so much more to fans than just wearing a cute shirt, it meant that she was a part of something, a part of change. I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. Collectively, our Her Universe community has played a huge role in changing the stereotype and culture in fandom today. We still have a-ways to go, but I’m proud of how far we’ve come.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One aspect of starting my business that I did not know before diving in was how much and how hard I would work. Years three-five, I worked seven days a week, 365 days a year. I did not take a vacation, I was checking emails and on calls from the time I woke up until the time I went to bed and when I wasn’t on email, I was on social media talking to our community and customers, even on holidays. After five years, I was burnt out. To build a business from scratch, you have to be a workaholic, and so I had to force myself to take breaks. I mandated a rule for myself that if I could, I would take one day off a week to do anything but work. I made myself stop. Of course, there was more work to do and it was hard to turn that voice and panic in my head off, but I had to accept that it would still be there when I came back refreshed after a day off.
The other thing that helped me from not burning out was always keeping my “why” in the front of my mind. I started my business to help people, to make the world a better place for Fangirls, that is my why. Every time I felt myself burning out was when I lost sight of my why and I allowed myself to get bogged down by the little daily struggles that seemed like a really big deal at the time but they always ultimately got fixed and ultimately weren’t that big of a deal.
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?
Growing up, my parents were the biggest influence on my life and I’m forever grateful for the lessons I learned in my childhood. My Dad was a Walt Disney World cast member and we grew up in Orlando, FL. My Mom was an elementary school teacher and she often used the Disney Parks as our classroom. They used the influence and inspiration of Disney to teach me that the impossible is possible and that if I can dream it, I can do it. We were an average middle-class family and my parents were examples of how hard work pays off. Nothing was ever handed to us, we had to earn it. I later met my husband, David Eckstein in my early 20’s and he transformed me into the person I am today. He taught me that the key to transforming my dreams and making them happen is to put others first and to have a purpose and mission bigger than myself.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Bullying is very personal for me because I was bullied as a kid and as an adult and I’ve also been a victim of cyber bullying. It’s an awful feeling to be bullied and it’s exacerbated if the person being bullied feels like they are alone. Through my platform as an actress and with Her Universe, I try every day to show our community– that they are not alone. I have been a strong advocate for anti-bullying and I am just getting started on my quest to bring more awareness to the importance of mental health.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
My parents gave me a hat in 3rd grade and embroidered on the hat, it said “Don’t Dream It. Be It.” It’s my life motto.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. I auditioned to be the voice of an animated character for 4 years before I was cast as the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars. I was rejected or recast for 4 years before I got my first big part, that equals hundreds of auditions and hundreds of times I was told no. In Hollywood, they like to use the phrase “overnight success” but there are very few people who are actually an overnight success. I think the same can be said for any profession.
2. Look at being told “no” in business as a hurdle that you need to climb over. As an actress, I’m used to failure because it’s a profession where you fail more than you succeed. I grew accustomed to receiving criticism and learning from it rather than allowing it to shut me down. When I was first trying to get my company Her Universe, a fashion brand for Fangirls, up off the ground, Lucasfilm told me “no” twice. However, I realized that they were saying no to how I was trying to achieve my idea, not saying no to my idea. Often times, we allow the word no to be a dead end. I look at the word no as hurdle that I just need to figure out how to climb over. Lucasfilm did me a huge favor by telling me no the first two times. I was trying to start my business the wrong way and it forced me to listen to their advice, go back to the drawing board and start my business the right way.
3. It’s okay to fail. In my opinion, one of the most important lessons in my book is that, “It’s OK to fail.” Due to social media, we live in a society today where perfectionism is “liked,” and failure is not often talked about. However, social media is just a highlight reel and our failures rarely make the post. The need for everything to be and look perfect often creates a paralyzing fear to even try. It’s natural for parents to want to protect their kids and not allow them to fail. However, I personally think it’s so dangerous to inhibit failure. Some of the most valuable lessons are learned from failure. The feeling of failure creates a necessary hunger to succeed. We have to allow kids today to fail in order for them to learn how to succeed.
4. Find your “why.” Your “why” is the reason behind your dream and the reason why you work so hard to achieve it. Your “why” will give you the extra fuel to keep going when your personal gas tank is running on empty.
5. The minute you become comfortable is the minute you are done. When I think of successful people in my industry, I think of persistent, hard-working, hustlers. It’s a constant hustle for new opportunities and capturing new trends. You always have to stay humble and hungry.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
As I mentioned in a previous answer, I am very passionate about bringing the conversation around the importance of mental health to the forefront. There is still such a stigma around mental health and a large majority of our community struggles with their mental health, often silently. I want to use my platform to talk about mental health issues just as freely as we talk about other more accepted illnesses and struggles. I’m a girl on a mission. It’s my new “why”.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I would love to connect with everyone on social platforms at @heruniverse.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Originally published at medium.com