Ashley Eckstein is a force, which isn’t surprising considering she’s a strong believer in The Force Star Wars brought to life. As the voice of Star Wars’ Ashsoka Tano, Ashley brings to life a strong character who always wants to do the right thing. And in real life, she isn’t much different from that character.
She strives to empower young girls and women everywhere through Her Universe, an online community where female fangirls can be themselves and also find merchandise featuring their favorite Lucas Film, Disney characters and more. And like the Disney characters she loves, Ashely had to persist to make her dream come true. Why? The industry simply wasn’t welcoming to creating sci-fi and fantasy focused clothing exclusively for a female fan base.
But like any heroine, Ashley found a way to turn a negative into a positive. Because other major companies didn’t want licenses for merchandise this space or didn’t use the ones they had, she was able to prove a fan base and a market without any competition. Of course, a few years later when Her Universe began proving sales, other companies began to pay attention. It has grown so much in size that it’s now a subsidiary of Hot Topic.
“I am grateful for the fact that we were able to prove ourselves in a wide open space,” she says. “I wanted to create merchandise made for women that maybe would help them feel comfortable enough to step into the spotlight and say, ‘Hi. I’m a girl, and I like Star Wars.’ I founded a company on a hunch and hoped people would back me up.”
Now, in addition to her role with Her Universe and as the voice of Ahsoka Tano, she can add author to her list of accomplishments. This summer she released It’s Your Universe, an interactive book that guides its reader on making their dreams happen. “My book is my ode to Disney and Star Wars,” Ashley says. “The world of Disney is so huge. I write about Disney characters and Disney movies that resonated with me personally, what they mean to me and the lessons that they’ve taught me.”
What was your very first job ever, and what is something you learned from it?
My first job was for Walt Disney World. It was my dream to be a Walt Disney World cast member. My dad was a cast member, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I desperately wanted to be an entertainer at Disney and dance in the Main Street Electrical Light Parade. As fate would have it, they were having auditions on my 16th birthday. At the time, you only had to be 16 to work for Disney, so I went and tried out, and I was actually hired on my birthday!
Although I was hired, what I quickly realized at Disney, is that you didn’t get to pick your job. They pick it for you. It was definitely a lesson in “you don’t always get what you want,” and a lesson in never giving up. I was hired to be a cast member at Disney, but I did not get the job I wanted right away. I did not become a dancer in a parade. And a year later when I became a dancer it wasn’t even in the Electrical Light Parade. It was the Hercules Parade they had at the time. It was an amazing lesson. At the time it was very frustrating, but I look back now, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Once you had the idea to launch Her Universe, what steps did you take to turn it into reality?
When I had the idea to start Her Universe, there were two major obstacles. The first was that I knew nothing about starting a business or making merchandise. I was a full-time actress, and I grew up loving fashion design and would definitely call it a hobby, but I didn’t go to school for it. And I certainly didn’t know the first thing about making merchandise or starting a company. I had to educate myself from scratch on how to start my own company, how to apply for a trademark, how to apply for a license from Lucas Film, how to make merchandise and all of these things.
My first step was to build my team. My husband was fully supportive of my endeavor, and the advice he gave me was, “Look, I support you, but make sure you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.” And he was not implying I wasn’t smart. He was just saying to make sure to seek out experts in each field and build my team, and then I’d be able to do it. So, that’s what I did! I found myself a great lawyer who could help me start my company and help me do my trademark and secure my LLC. Then I found an amazing licensing expert who helped me put together a pitch for Lucas Film and helped me do that licensing contract.
The second major obstacle is that there was no roadmap for what I was trying to do with Her Universe. Usually, in business, they say to find a similar company and model your business after their business model to create a roadmap. In women’s merchandise in the sci-fi and fantasy world, it just didn’t exist at all. And in fact, I was told that it wouldn’t exist. It wasn’t possible to be successful. Women and girls wouldn’t buy merchandise made for them. I had no research to back up my claim, other than the fact that I knew I wasn’t alone, and that half of all sci-fi and fantasy fans were women and girls. Then, 85% of all consumer purchases at the time were being made by women. I only had those statistics, and I literally based my entire company off of those two statistics.
Anytime someone starts something new, there are bound to be frustrations and curveballs. How did you tackle these when you were launching Her Universe?
I write in the book about how the road to making your dreams come true is a roller coaster, and there are constant up’s and downs. No matter what your dream is, be prepared for the ride because you’re going to go on a roller coaster. You’re going to have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. I say to expect challenges and accept challenges. It’s hard. It was constantly filled with challenges, and truthfully, filled with people always wanting to give up on me everywhere I turned. Even years into the business people would say, “It’s been very successful,” but still I was fighting problems behind the scenes with people wanting to give up and who doubted what we were doing. It’s a constant battle, and you have to be prepared to always fight for what you want.
My book is full of Disney and Star Wars quotes for inspiration. One I reference in the book is a scene from Star Wars where Yoda is lifting the X-Wing out of the swamp of Dagobah, and Luke says to Yoda, “I don’t believe it.” And Yoda says, “Then that’s why you fail.” I always keep that in mind. It’s like the second that doubt creeps in, and you allow doubt to overcome your belief, that is when you’re going to fail. You always have a stronger belief than you do doubt. I think it’s unrealistic to say you’re never going to have doubt. But you have to make sure your belief cup is always fuller than your doubt cup.
What was it like when you found out the brand you built would be featured and sold in Hot Topic?
That moment was a dream come true. I have to say I never had any plans of selling Her Universe. That wasn’t my goal. I was in shock at first that I had this chance to join a bigger company. I had been working with Hot Topic for several years, and in many ways, Her Universe is not what it is today without Hot Topic. At the time Her Universe was rapidly growing, and it was growing faster than what I could really keep up with. I was losing opportunities for our community because I couldn’t take advantage of them, and I couldn’t keep up with them. I don’t have any kids, and so I joke that Her Universe is really my child, and so I say that it was time for Her Universe to go off to college.
I’ve always said that Her Universe is not my universe, it’s our universe. It’s a community for everyone, and I felt like I was doing a disservice to our community by not taking this opportunity. There was an opportunity to expand to worldwide distribution and offer up more of our designs in plus sizes … there were all of these opportunities where I knew we had the fan base and the consumer, but I didn’t have the infrastructure to grow the company to provide and offer more. By joining forces with Hot Topic, and by coming a brand under their umbrella of brands opened up so many doors that I am incredibly grateful for.
What inspired you to write It’s Your Universe?
The opportunity to write the book came from a discussion with Disney publishing. We met after I had the opportunity to narrate the audiobook for Ahsoka, which is a young adult fiction book about my character Ahsoka Tano. I didn’t write that book. An amazing author named E.K. Johnston wrote that book, but I had the chance to go on a book tour with her and promote it. We had a great time.
So, in follow up after that book tour, I was meeting with Disney publishing to say, “Hey, we had a great time, and there’s more that we could be doing with this fangirl audience.” We had a brainstorm of what more we could do together, and I remember them asking, “Would you consider writing your story?” They asked if I would write an autobiography or a memoir, and I said, “Well, I don’t really feel that I’ve achieved enough or done enough to warrant a memoir, but if you would let me, the book that I would write is more of an advice book on how to make your dreams come true. The truth is, I’m not talking to anyone today without the inspiration from Disney and Star Wars influencing me to make my dreams come true. So, I would write kind of an autobiography, and I would tell my story if you let me write it in the form of, ‘Here’s what I did, and here’s how you can do it too.’”
Thankfully they said yes! The book is very much a roadmap to making your dreams come true. It’s interactive, and there are journal entries in it where I encourage the reader to write down their thoughts and their dreams. There are also all sorts of lists and quotes. The book is my story mixed with several of the Disney characters, their stories and the lessons that they teach us, mixed with a how-to on how to make your dreams come true.
When you’re out on a book tour, what is it like to connect with women in the Her Universe community?
Doing a book tour was very important for me because Her Universe is nothing without our community. I didn’t do Her Universe by myself. It’s very much a group effort. People always ask me, “What’s your secret? How have you been able to sell merchandise to female fans when no one else could do it before?” Well, my secret is that I went directly to the fans. From day one I went grassroots. I pounded the pavement and went to five major conventions in the first six months. I spent my time meeting and greeting all of the fans, and I use social media as a tool to get the message and word out.
It’s always been very important to me to go directly to the fans and meet everyone in person whenever I get the chance. I’m so grateful that Hot Topic, BoxLunch, Disney, Barnes and Noble, Disney Parks, Disney stores and several various libraries and independent bookstores helped make it happen.
What’s next for you?
I feel like we’re just scratching the surface with publishing, so I would love to continue to do more books.
Also, I had the honor of visiting the Nationwide Children’s Hospital on my book tour. They recently broke ground on the biggest and first-ever behavioral health center for youth. It’s very important to bring awareness to the importance of mental health. Specifically, Her Universe has been an advocate for anti-bullying, and I want to do more to bring awareness to the importance of mental health and to the importance of anti-bullying.
Her Universe has had zero tolerance for bullying in our community and on our platforms. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital is on the cutting edge of a lot of research for anti-bullying and mental health, so I look forward to hopefully doing more work with them and joining the conversation about anti-bullying and mental health awareness. I’m just diving in, and I think the first step is educating myself. I’ve been a victim of bullying my entire life, both as a kid and as an adult, and so it’s something I’m very passionate about.
When you were on your book tour, did girls come up and talk you about being bullied?
I would say that at every single event I heard a story. Whether a girl is being bullied at school, or if it’s learning to deal with the anxiety, we don’t talk about it enough. If somebody has cancer, then that’s something that’s openly talked about. But if you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or you’re being bullied at school or even at work, you don’t always talk about that. It’s damaging, and it takes an emotional and physical toll on you. It’s something I want to bring forward in the conversation because it’s something I know for a fact our community deals with.
What is something you know now about starting a business that you wish you would have known when you started?
[She laughs.] So much! I actually say in the book that I have chronic naïveté, and I say that in a positive way. Especially as women, we’re often told we’re naïve. I think sometimes it’s meant as a negative, not as a positive. Being naïve actually helped me because I look at the end goal, and I say, “Why not? Why can’t we achieve that? Why can’t we have that? Let’s go for it!” I don’t see all of the steps in between on everything that it’s going to take to get there. Oftentimes it’s those steps in between that can be very intimidating and cause a lot of doubt, a lot of fear and cause you to give up or say no. Instead, I just go to the very end of an idea, and I say, “Why not?”
Had I known everything it was going to take to achieve Her Universe, start my own business and bring female fashion to the market, who knows what would have happened? I might have said, “Oh wow. That’s a lot of work. I don’t know if I can do it.” I just saw that someone needed to do this for female fans … I thought, “You know what? If anyone has a shot to do it, I do. I have my foot in the door. I’m the voice of Ahsoka Tano for Star Wars.”
Ahsoka Tano is such a strong character. She’s a hero through and through, and she wants to do what’s right at every turn. She inspires me. I want to be a real-life version of her, so I just asked myself, “What would Ahsoka do?” Ahsoka would stand up for female fans and that’s what I kept my eye on. I kept my eye on the fact that I kind of wanted to be a real-life Jedi. [She laughs.] That’s what I did, and I didn’t worry about all the steps that I had to take to get there.
I’d love to grab coffee with:
Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice of the United States
The books on my nightstand are:
My favorite quote is:
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” -Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
I can’t live without:
My favorite way to unwind is:
Veg on the couch and watch TV!
My favorite show to binge-watch is:
Currently, it’s The Crown on Netflix.
I feel my best when:
I’m well rested and get a full night’s sleep, a great workout in, have no makeup on, am wearing my sweatpants or sweat suit and am with my family.
Make sure your belief cup is always fuller than your doubt cup.