I talked to Ashley Eckstein of "Star Wars" about empowering fangirls, running a business, and harnessing the power of positivity
Lucasfilm has been offering us strong female role models since 1977, both onscreen and off. From Carrie Fisher to Kathleen Kennedy, the company has demonstrated a commitment to inclusiveness. Ashley Eckstein is continuing that tradition.
If you don’t already know Ashley Eckstein, she’s a prolific actress, known as the voice of Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Eckstein and her business partners also created Her Universe in 2010, a company offering sci-fi and comic book merchandise specifically for the fangirls who have been historically ignored by geek culture. Her Universe has grown considerably since that first year.
Ashley and I last spoke in 2011 when Her Universe was just a year old. She was still getting the initial word out about the company and fighting cynicism in boardroom meetings about the purchasing power of lady geeks.
2011 was a long, long time ago for me too. I was fresh out of grad school and my interview with Ashley turned out to be the first step I took into a larger world — one that involved changing my mindset from angry geek to fangirl living out some of her wildest dreams. In addition to all of the amazing merch Ashley gives us, she models the fact that women don’t necessarily have to choose either art or business — they can play multiple roles in their own lives.
How do you get all that from talking with Ashley Eckstein? Read on and I hope you’ll find out…
: When you and I talked in 2011, you had this philosophy about how fangirls should consider being positively situated, being for what they love versus being against what they hate. That was kind of a big shift for me after we had that conversation. I appreciate your excellent advice.
Ashley Eckstein: Thank you for sharing that! It’s something that, forgive me if I said this before, but Her Universe is two parts to me. It’s a merchandise line, but more importantly, it’s a community.
We try very, very hard and it’s most important to me that Her Universe is an empowering community for fangirls and fans in general. Our message is to say that this world is for everyone.
You founded Her Universe in 2010. It’s now 2017, which seems really weird and futuristic.
AE: I feel like we’ve been through so much. We’ve tackled a lot in a short amount of time. I say we, because I didn’t do this alone. I said from day one, if we want change, if we’re literally changing a stereotype, debunking a stereotype, and saying that the sci-fi and fantasy world is not just for boys and men, it’s for everyone…united we stand, divided we fall.
When I think back to that time [when] girls couldn’t even buy a t-shirt, people laughed me out of the room in half of the retail meetings I went to. They said there’s no way you’ll be able to sell sci-fi/fantasy merchandise to girls. When I think of how much things have changed today, it’s amazing.
HG: I think it’s so important for everybody to hear that you did have those experiences of being laughed out of the room.
The tendency is to look at people who are successful and prolific and go, “Wow, I bet it’s always been that way for them.” So it’s great that you share you had difficult meetings in the beginning.
AE: To elaborate on that, not only was I told “no” several times before Her Universe even got up off the ground, but the first couple years after every year, you have your budget and you have to review whether the company has potential to be profitable.
It’s a business at the end of the day. For the first couple years, every year, even though things were going well, I had people just trying to give up on the business. Every single year it was a fight.
: You hear a lot about business, that it takes at least two years to even begin to become profitable. Now here you are today with this huge library of licenses — very enviable ones at that. What does it feel like to have all these brands you can now work with?
AE: I have to go back to Lucasfilm and to Star Wars. I realize how fortunate I was — and still am to this day. Being the voice of Ahsoka Tano, being the voice of a Star Wars character, first of all as a fangirl myself, I knew I had won the lottery. It’s an honor I never take for granted. I realize how lucky I was to have my foot in the door at Lucasfilm.
I still had to go through the correct process. I still had to start my own company. I still had to apply for a license. I didn’t get any favors, but they gave me the opportunity because I was the voice of Ahsoka. Fortunately when you start with a license like Star Wars, it makes it a little easier to then go into other companies like BBC, like CBS that owns Star Trek, like Disney that owns Marvel and say, “Look, I’m a Star Wars licensee, I can handle this. Will you give me the opportunity?”
I didn’t know anything about the licensing world. I knew nothing about it. I literally thought that Lucasfilm and Disney made all of the merchandise in their offices. I had no clue. I feel very fortunate that I was trained, just like Ahsoka, I was a Padawan in licensing. I got my training from the best, from Lucasfilm and Star Wars. I was fortunate to be able to go on to other incredible franchises.
HG: Lucasfilm is well-known for having women in leadership. Just look at the company — Kathleen Kennedy is the President of Lucasfilm.
It’s amazing that you’re talking about having their support.
AE: …I have a very exciting marketing meeting today about a new initiative we have about empowering young girls. I love everything you’re saying because it’s kind of motivating me to go in there and say, “Yeah, let’s do this. What can we do?”
I’m so glad you brought that up because literally I would not be here today without the incredible support of so many women at Lucasfilm and at Disney. I’m grateful to work with incredible people, both men and women, but I’ve had such incredible role models of women in business, and it started at Lucasfilm and I’m so grateful for that. [Everyone] from Kathleen Kennedy to the heads of PR to licensing executives…There is a powerful woman in every single department. Producers. It’s amazing.
I think what it’s taught me is like, we all want to be these characters, right? We want to be these Jedi, these Disney princesses, these superheroes. But you realize, wait a minute, I can be a real life superhero…It’s like, okay, maybe I don’t live on a desert planet, but I can still do the same amazing things that these characters who inspire us are doing.
: Her Universe started in 2010. You guys were kind of a lifestyle brand before that even came into the collective business consciousness. Do you feel like Her Universe anticipated the idea of a lifestyle brand or helped create it in some way? I realize that’s a leading question…
AE: It’s interesting. I didn’t look at it that way…But I think what I did realize, what I knew from the beginning was, this was the key to our success. When people would ask me, “Is this gonna work? We’ve never been successful in selling girls merchandise before for this genre, why is it gonna work now?” I said, “Well, it’s gonna work now because these fans exist and you just haven’t been catering to them correctly. One thing you need to understand is being a fangirl is not a trend. It’s not something that you’re into one day and you’re out the next day” …It’s literally a part of who you are. It’s a part of your DNA. So, being a fangirl is who I am.
The reason the merchandise wasn’t selling before is that fangirls were an afterthought…And I did use the word lifestyle. It is a lifestyle. It’s not just a cute t-shirt. You want to show off your fandom in every aspect of your life. I said, “Let me be a walking billboard to say to fangirls…We are recognizing you. We are saying that this world is for everyone…The girls are there, they’ve just been ignored.”
The second part of why this is so important to me is — because more so than anything, …even though I’ve never run a business, I’ve never had a license — the reason I have to do this is because girls were being bullied. The reason we do “fangirl of the day” is so if girls are bullied, if they do feel discouraged, they can come to our website and see another girl just like them every single day. It’s solely, especially, for young girls so they can feel like they’re not so alone.
HG: As far as the Her Universe site relaunch, I know there are a lot of new features. Do you have a favorite?
AE: I love the community section, and this is just the beginning. We’re working on adding so much more. So many new things. I’m working on a weekly show I’m gonna do. I’m so excited that we’re able to continue “fangirl of the day.” We introduced a new “Where’s Ashley” section because I want to meet the fans.
Our model up there right now, she just works in the office. She started out as a receptionist and she’s working her way up in the company. We were looking at models and their headshots. I said, you know, these are all beautiful girls. But Karen who’s sitting right over there is a fangirl. Why can’t she just be our model? She had no modeling experience, that was her first time modeling. But she’s a fangirl.
There’s another girl in our office, she’s one of the new receptionists and I follow her on Instagram…I noticed she was drawing a lot and she’s an amazing artist. So I came in one day and I was like, “Sapphire, you’re an amazing artist.” She was like, “Oh, thanks, you know I’d given up on it for a while…but I want to be a comic book artist one day.”
I said, “Well, why don’t you? Why don’t you do that?” So she gave me a drawing and I reposted it on my page, and she inspired other girls. It’s just encouraging each other. Instead of saying, “That’s gonna be hard,” I think we should be saying, “Well, why not? Go for it. You can do that.”
Okay, final question. It’s the dreaded “How do you do it all?” question.
But I feel justified in asking because in addition to running Her Universe, it seems like you’re also running a robust performing career. So I want to ask, what’s the best advice you can give to women who aspire to build multi-faceted careers?
AE: I feel very blessed that I get to do what makes me happy. I just encourage others, do what makes you happy. You’re gonna live so much of a better life and have more energy to do more things if you’re doing what makes you happy.
If it’s not necessarily in your job, do something when you leave your job, whether it’s something artistic or athletic or something with community service…Then seek out a job that makes you happy…
I’m actually putting this quote on the door of my office…and it’s on my journal. It’s a quote that stuck with me for a while from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It says, “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” I love it so much because you just really need to believe the impossible. Believe six impossible things before breakfast and then you’d be surprised when the impossible becomes possible.
You can keep up with Her Universe at their new website and follow Ashley on Instagram.
It’s my very sincere hope that we’ll all take Ashley’s advice and start asking ourselves and each other, “Why not me?”
May the Force be with You.