As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Souza.
Ashley Souza is a brand builder, product developer, and mental health advocate. Deeply inspired by the power of product and its ability to connect people through sensorial experiences of the mind-body and soul.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in the beauty industry. My mother has owned a hair salon in my hometown for over 40 years, with some of the longest tenured stylists due to her family-first approach to management. I grew up with about 20 mothers in addition to my own at the salon. When I was 15, visiting my brother in San Francisco, my mom took me for an hour and a half makeup tutorial and consultation at one of the first MAC brick and mortar locations. It was then that I fell in love with makeup. I started offering makeup services at my mother’s salon for proms and graduations. I distinctly remember the first time I turned someone around in the chair and tears welled up in their eyes because they finally felt beautiful. That is when I knew the beauty industry held power beyond paint and powder.
After spending three uninspired years in college, I made the bold decision to drop out and follow my dreams of becoming a makeup artist by attending MakeUp Designory in Los Angeles. After freelancing for TV and film for a year, I took a job as the Executive Assistant to Lev Glazman and Alina Roytberg of Fresh back in Boston. They mentored me into the discipline of product development, where both my right and left brain attributes were given the ability to soar. I owe my career mostly to those two wonderful, fine and supportive individuals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My journey at Crabtree & Evelyn has been so much deeper than simply transforming a brand as I was able to simultaneously transform myself through a lot of hard learned lessons and self actualizations. I stripped C&E back to the basics on which it was founded and there was a great similarity to the personal growth I also experienced. Through our brand ethos of exploration for growth, I transformed who I was when I started here through sobriety three years ago. The personal and professional parallel journey has been the most interesting experience I’ve had thus far in my career.
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’m not sure how funny it was at the time (OK, it wasn’t funny at all!) but during my first week with the business, we had a leadership offsite trip in China for two weeks. My luggage got lost on my first leg, and I was left with no choice but to borrow an Athleta dress from our Head of HR that I wore for three days straight. Talk about an embarrassing first impression! Jokes are still made four and half years later about that dress!
Important travel lesson learned: Pack an extra outfit or two in your carry on!
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?
I have been incredibly blessed to have amazing bosses and mentors during the span of my career. As I mentioned earlier, Lev and Alina of Fresh were more than just my bosses. They were my surrogate parents; my daily inspiration and my friends. We were a family in the Fresh Boston office. Their creativity and passion shaped my approach to business, brand building and product development from the first day I met them. I’m tearing up as I type this thinking back to the days spent together in our South End loft office. They were some of the most inspiring days of my life.
Then I was lucky enough to have it happen again at Crabtree & Evelyn. David Stern, our former Global CEO and my boss led me to ultimate success, at work and outside of it. His unwavering faith and belief in my vision for this brand and my abilities to overcome obstacles to make it happen is the only thing that kept me moving forward over the last five years. He gave me the grace to make mistakes and learn from them, listening to me when I struggled and encouraging me to believe in myself — something I have always had a hard time doing.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
David taught me that you’re never going to get it right 100% of the time. As a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, these kinds of situations can trigger me to go to a dark place, but you learn over time that no matter how much you stress, the outcome will be the outcome.
I do my best to take some quiet time to calm my mind before a big meeting, lighting some incense from Bali (the place where my mind is most at peace) and focusing on slowing my thoughts down in order to approach the situation from a place of neutrality.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As a leader of a global business, and a brand founded on connecting cultures through products, the need for acceptance, equality and diversity is of the utmost importance. I face challenges with these topics on a regular basis. The way things are viewed in the western world are often seen from an opposite view in the east. All opinions are valid and we must have a balanced group of people at the table in order to rationally and respectfully discuss these differences.
These are hard conversations to have, but without a diverse set of views within the discussion, your business has the dangerous possibility of becoming polarizing and discriminatory.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
The most important thing we can do as leaders is listen. Listen to our people, listen to our communities and listen to ourselves. There is no 100% right way to tackle these issues, we must work together to define what the future of inclusivity and equality looks like to everyone in their own way.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. 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?
Interestingly enough, I find myself in the position of therapist more than anything else. Most of my days are spent taking a step back from the day to day challenges and helping remind my teams to remember to play the long game and refocus on the big picture. Brand building is a marathon, not a sprint and leading teams through a turnaround is most definitely more challenging than an established business or a start up. At times it can feel insurmountable and my main responsibility is to help them take it one day at a time, keeping the end goal in their sight.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
You don’t have to know how to do everything. That was always my biggest insecurity. My background is in product development, so when I was asked to lead the eCommerce, communications, and creative teams, I was incredibly intimidated. I hadn’t done the work from the ground up, so how would I ever be capable of leading them to success?
The key here is the team you hire. I have the most phenomenal and supportive direct reports and teams working with me. I trust them. They trust my vision. They know what they are doing, so I don’t have to. I have the big picture view to help guide them in their decision-making, but they are the magic makers. I am nothing without them.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Perception of what strength is. My biggest strength and my biggest weakness have always been my passion and my emotions. I would not have my creativity without my emotions, but to many, my emotions are seen as weaknesses. I believe there is a misconception that showing emotion and vulnerability in the workplace is a bad thing and makes you appear less professional. Yet I believe that if properly harnessed and encouraged, showing emotion and leading with empathy is the one thing that can inspire an entire organization in a way that stoic, corporate behavior will never be able to.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The amount of time spent helping manage others’ emotions. This is the part of my job that I love the most but never thought would take up the bulk of my time. The day-to-day business decision-making is the easy part of what I do, but helping guide many different personality types to success is the most challenging, yet most rewarding and unexpected role that I play.
Do you think 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? Can you explain what you mean?
I think there are people who have no desire to be an executive and I completely understand and respect that. However I do believe that with the right mentorship, most individuals who aspire to achieve this level in their career, can certainly do so.
In all honesty, I never imagined myself as a person who would sit at this level. As I mentioned before, my sensitivities and insecurities could have prevented me from moving forward in my career. I have an inherent love for understanding and learning about people and I believe that characteristic has led me to where I am. If you are someone who prefers to manage projects instead of people, this type of job probably isn’t for you.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Trust your instincts. Don’t change who you are in order to fit the idea of what a woman in leadership is supposed to be. I have been told that I’m “too much”, “too emotional” and “too aggressive”. Yet, these are the attributes that my teams respect the most in me.
Always listen to understand first and come from a place of empathy in your approach. Loyalty within teams is built by mutual respect.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My greatest accomplishment during my time at C&E is putting our CSR program in place. We are giving back in impactful ways to the places we explore around the globe in a way I never would have been able to achieve as an individual. The beauty industry has the ability to stand for so much more than just a reduction in wrinkles, and through our collaborations with charities in places like Bali and Greece, we are able to make that happen.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Being right doesn’t always matter — sometimes letting others learn lessons on their own is more important than forcing your own experiences on them.
Mistakes are OK — some product ideas will flop, but the one that becomes a #1 seller makes all those failures worth it. They taught you something.
Great ideas come from anywhere — my favorite thing to do is to have brainstorming sessions and kick decision making over to other teams. One person’s view is never interesting all the time. Let others have the spotlight.
You are enough — Some days will strip you down to your core, making you feel like no matter how much you give, it isn’t enough. Remembering that you can’t fix everything is incredibly important. If you are showing up and giving it your best, that is enough.
Don’t make work your life — I made this mistake for a long time. I allowed my career and its success to define me as a person. It took a personal breakdown for me to slow down and realize that I am a whole person with or without this job title. As my brother has said to me, “they’re not going to put CBO on your headstone.” That will always stick with me.
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.
My life goal is to stop the stigma around mental health and addiction. I have personally been affected by these issues in many ways. I struggle myself and have experienced the loss of both of my lifelong best friends to the diseases associated with mental illness. I believe that until the world stops shaming those who struggle and everyone accepts the narrative around mental health as normal, we will continue to lose very important people in this world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
No expectations. The root of most suffering comes from the expectations you personally place on people and situations. If you know your own truth and are able to communicate it, then others’ reactions truly don’t matter.
When you release the expectation of others, you can find peace in your own beliefs.
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
Stephen Hays. He is the founder of What If Ventures, a firm that invests in early stage mental health and addiction recovery focused startups. His Stigma podcast is extremely inspiring and I hope to one day be able to partner with him on stopping the stigma associated with these topics.