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Female Leaders: Ashley Porciuncula

Ashley Porciuncula is VP Product of huggg, a UK-based startup which allows kind individuals to remotely gift coffees, doughnuts, cinema tickets and other moments of joy to friends and family. Her career started in Silicon Valley where she worked as a web developer until she moved to Europe to co-found a new digital team inside one of the world's largest health companies. Since then, Ashley has spent much of her career consulting with startups and larger design teams to help launch and improve their digital products. She has written and spoken on topics such as building design teams, personal branding for freelancers, and gamification of digital products.

You were raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect where the Internet and post-secondary education were forbidden. Where did you find the confidence to step outside of your comfort zone and enter the world wide web Despite the fact that it was all I had ever been exposed to, that was never my comfort zone. I craved an education, and to see what was on the outside, for as long as I could remember. It was just a matter of time before I accepted that the possibilities of what I could do with my life far outweighed what I had to leave behind. I had a strong sense of what “the real me” felt like, and I saw no path to that unless I got out. That’s not to say it was an easy choice, but at some point, you can’t deny it anymore and you just have to jump.

At 13 years old, you had a big interest in web development and design. Where did this passion stem from? My parents couldn’t discipline me by sending me to my room, because that’s where I wanted to be, with my art supplies and my books. I always loved creating and I was constantly thinking of how I could transform the things around me. One summer I visited a friend who had been allowed limited internet access, and we spent the afternoon building a webpage on Geocities. The fact that I could type in a secret code and get back a sparkly gif or see my name in big pink text was like magic. I was hooked.

You're a UX designer, product specialist and front-end developer. What aspect of your job do you love the most? Like many product professionals, I find the quest for simplicity addictive. I love the challenge of taking an idea or a problem and turning it into elegant tech. The systematic removal of things that don’t need to be there demands a lot of self-questioning. It requires taking the time to work with people from all backgrounds, listening and learning from them. Finding out you’re wrong is a lot of fun because it means there’s an opportunity to make things better.

Could you tell us a little bit about your passion project Consciously Coupled? My partner and I both work in tech and have spent a lot of time consulting with at-risk companies to help bring their communication and processes back to a healthy place. The idea started as a joke, suggesting that we could apply those same strategies within the context of romantic relationships. Out of that was born Consciously Coupled – and yes, the pun is intentional! Keeping a healthy relationship ticking is something that is often neglected until there is a problem. The app supports a variety of communication methods, reminders, and activities to do together, all 100% anonymously. We plan on launching our beta app in 2019.

Tell us about some of your career highlights? Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work all over the world, with some incredibly talented people. Moving to Paris to help build a new digital team was one of the biggest challenges and rewarding experiences, both personally and professionally. Launching my first physical product, a medical device, was a big moment. For someone who had only ever seen my work on a screen, holding an actual box with a device that holds firmware you designed is a whole new experience. Since then, the years that I’ve spent freelancing and consulting have given me the freedom to work with a variety of companies and explore my field from many different angles. It is always so humbling to see the differences among teams and learn from them and to support the launch of an entrepreneur’s passions.

One of the themes at The Female Lead is to find strength in setbacks. Are there any particular obstacles you’ve had to overcome that have defined who you are today? During my first year in Paris, I was, frankly, miserable. I really had no idea what I was doing when I jumped on a plane to take a new job in a country I had never even visited, and where I didn’t even know the language. I think the whole experience would have been much easier today, with the help of companies like Airbnb, Uber and Meetup. The three years I spent there completely changed me. The professional projects I was working on were constantly requiring me to step into new territory, all while I was figuring out how to live in this new place. I arrived with confidence in my ability to build a new team and left with the same, but every expectation I had about what that would mean was challenged along the way. The experience taught me so much about myself, and how I want to interact with the world around me. I still feel that I have a complicated relationship with Paris, so I go back every few years to remind myself of where I’ve come from.

Was there a particular moment or experience that ignited your passion for entrepreneurship?

I started my career in San Francisco, not long after the startup era first kicked off. In my early twenties, I loved the fast-paced and hyperfocused vibe around me every day, as people experimented with new ideas and ways of achieving them. I saw the way that founders were dreaming up ways to change the world, and then going out to make it happen as if hearing ‘No’ wasn’t something they were willing to accept. I’ve always tried to keep that sense of wonder with me.

How can parents and teachers encourage more girls to pursue STEM subjects and turn these into a career?

I think there are two sides to this: Learning about “what” they can do, and then believing that they can be the ones to do it.

Every moment is an opportunity to learn, and to cultivate a love of learning. Every walk in the park is an opportunity to learn about biology. Every cake that is baked is a chemistry experiment. Every time a toy breaks is an opportunity to take it apart and see how it works. I’m not a big fan of the “let’s make our own lip gloss and call it science” kits, but if that’s what your kid is into, then sure, why not? The important thing is that they’re building a sense of wonder and skills which they can use to have an effect on the world around them, instead of just being observers and consumers.

It’s important to encourage hard work and ingenuity, instead of perfect final results. Failure is a big part of any STEM field, so showing them early that being wrong is both expected and beneficial makes it more accessible.

We also need to fill their world with stories of the real people, from all backgrounds, in these fields. One of my favourite ways to do this is the Little People, Big Dreams book series. Staying up to date with age-appropriate advancements and the accomplishments of women working in STEM, with a mind to bringing these exciting facts home to the dinner table, is actually a lovely way to keep ourselves informed as well.

Children are always asked what they want to do when they grow up, but what they want to change, who they want to be like, and who they want to help is so much more important

Are female role models important at an early age? Are there any particular role models that inspire you?

Female role models are important at any age! Mentorship is valuable no matter how old you are, or what stage of a career you’re in. Healthy role models have an opportunity to program the default settings for how a girl sees herself and her place in the world.

As for my personal role models, there are so many. Michelle Obama shows us what can be accomplished when we maintain our integrity. Jameela Jamil is a fearless voice against unhealthy body image and what it does to young women. Justine Picardie is a champion for sisterhood, and surrounding one’s self with a strong female community. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler approach life with such humour, and have absolutely no time for sexism or drama. I recommend regularly pruning social media to remove the voices that make us feel bad about ourselves and replacing them with women who are forging a path through their passions, holding their heads high and fighting for others.

How can other young women with unconventional backgrounds find success?

Understand, and sometimes forgive, the old you. Find a passion that makes you happy. No matter what that is, or even if you’re still searching for it, approach everything with integrity, love and give it a healthy 100%. Over the years, as that unconventional past gets further away, the challenges you faced there will become irrelevant, and all that will be left is a beautifully curated identity and values that you’ve crafted for yourself.

What’s next for you?

At the moment I’m intensely focused on continuing to grow our products at huggg, along with the team that builds them. Our roadmap has no shortage of exciting potential, and I’m loving the opportunity to create something that brings happiness to so many people. We also plan to launch Consciously Coupled next year and will continue to add new activities and tools there. Be sure to watch for both those names in 2019!

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