Ashley Brasier is a Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, where she focuses on early-stage consumer companies. Prior to joining Lightspeed, she obtained an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Previous to business school, she was a Category Manager at Thumbtack, and worked at Bain & Company as a Senior Associate Consultant. Learn how Ashley went from Visual and Media Studies major at Duke University to venture capitalist, how she thinks about mentorship, and much more. Here’s her story!
First, if you just want to start off by telling the readers who you are and what you’re working on right now.
I’m Ashley Brasier, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners where I am on the early-stage consumer team, looking to invest in Series-A and Series-B stage companies. Right now I’m focused on exploring consumer businesses targeted towards the Gen Z population. I’m spending time understanding their habits around retail, shopping, and consumer-social. I think there’s a big opportunity with changing behaviors, provoked by COVID and otherwise, to create better online platforms for things like social or discounted shopping. I think we’re experiencing a renaissance around more authentic human connection and other ways of connecting besides asynchronous Facebook posts. We’re seeing a lot more synchronous audio and video, as well as a lot more social apps based around finding new friends, meeting people across geographies, and meeting people based on interests.
Tell us about your journey from the end of high school to now.
I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and decided to go to Duke University just a few miles away from my parents’ house. At Duke, I studied Visual and Media Studies, which was a mix of art history, architecture, sociology, and studio art. It was a major that allowed me to explore different interest areas.
When I was at Duke, I thought maybe I’d be an architect or perhaps an environmental lawyer. I really didn’t know. I was dabbling around in a lot of different things. Then, during my junior year, I studied abroad in Copenhagen and took a European Business class. I was in the classroom with a lot of people who were pursuing Bachelors of Business Administration degrees at other universities. That experience opened my eyes to the world of business and the career possibilities within it. A lot of folks in the class that year were applying to consulting internships with firms like Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey & Company. I decided to throw my name into the recruiting hat as well and ended up getting an offer from Bain.
When I first started there, I was very much thrown into the deep end. I barely knew how to use Excel, other than the sum function, and had a lot to learn about what the job was and what skills were required. That summer was very tough. Everything felt like it was two times as hard for me because I didn’t come from a business background. But I was motivated by the ability to help transform organizations and felt that I was making a positive impact.
I decided to return to Bain after my senior year of college and stayed there for three years. I continued to learn a ton and had the opportunity to work across several different industries–everything from aerospace and defense to retail and consumer-packaged goods. I also spent some time evaluating investment deals as part of Bain’s Private Equity Group. It was while working at Bain that I discovered my love of all things consumer and a real passion for understanding consumer behavior and motivation.
When I wanted to do my next thing after Bain, I was looking to work at a company that would enable me to go a little bit deeper into the operations side of a consumer business and to really drive a portion of the business. So I joined Thumbtack, which at that time was an early-stage consumer marketplace startup. The business connects consumers with local service providers – handymen, DJs, bartenders, and many others. At Thumbtack, I was in charge of the events and weddings categories, and it was my responsibility to grow those categories and enable a great customer experience. That exposed me to the ‘behind the scenes’ process of how an early-stage company really comes into its own and grows into what we call a unicorn–a really big and impactful company.
After Thumbtack, I decided to go to business school because I wanted to hone in on my business skills, given I hadn’t focused there in undergrad. Coming out of business school, I toyed around with a number of different paths, varying from going back into operating to starting my own company to investing. Eventually, I landed on investing because I thought it was a really great way to put my skills to use. From all the experiences that I had accumulated over the last five years, I had developed a broad purview of consumer behavior across a number of different industries. I was really motivated by the idea of creating and building alongside entrepreneurs and helping people realize their vision. I was particularly attracted to Lightspeed because of the people, but also because of the strong portfolio of companies that they had invested in, several of which I had some connection to. Ultimately, I felt really comfortable and had a lot of conviction that this would be the right place for me.
What did your time at Bain teach you about building?
Bain taught me how businesses undergo change to evolve and remain competitive. Change is really a component of building – there’s often building and re-building required when growing a company. Because a lot of the companies that work with Bain are Fortune 500 companies that have existed for a really long time, my projects at Bain were largely centered around how to rebuild parts of organizations that have been around for a long time.
As an example, I was working with a retailer that had a stores-focused organization, and e-commerce-focused organization. The e-commerce organization had been built up as a separate team because e-commerce was a really small part of the business when it was first formulated. At the time, e-commerce was actually becoming a really important part of the business and so it was about rebuilding that organization. Figuring out how to integrate two different teams with two different sets of processes and two different cultures into one. That involved breaking things down a bit and then rebuilding.
As far as the building process, I think it has to be collaborative and has to be based on first principles and a set of values that are guiding the team toward a common goal. Without that common goal, it can be really easy to get lost in different opinions or philosophies.
I also realized the importance of leadership, setting a vision, and setting a tone about how the change is going to take place and how people can contribute to that change and help it take hold. In order for the information to get to the people at the frontline, it really can’t be like a game of telephone. It truly has to be a meaningful conversation in each step of the chain.
What does growth mean to you?
The way I think about growth is in terms of exponential growth. Growth is not about one plus one equals two, but instead, how do you start a flywheel? How do you start accelerating? Is there a way to tap into existing networks and leverage their flywheel to get your flywheel going? It’s really about momentum and getting things started and then keeping the ball rolling.
Can you tell us about your mindset around mentorship?
I think mentorship is really important. For me, mentorship is about connecting with people who have taken a similar path to you, but who are 5, 10, 15, 20 years down that path and can, therefore, provide you with perspectives and learnings from looking back on their time.
I wouldn’t say I have any sort of formal mentors. I’ve never gone up to anyone and said, “Hey, can you be my mentor?” But I can think of a handful of people who I do think fit my characterization of what a mentor is. They’re largely people who I’ve worked with in the past, who have seen my work product, I’ve seen their work product, and we’ve learned from each other. I think we’re both really invested in each other and each other’s career. What makes it more of a mentor-mentee relationship is that they’re more experienced in their career and can share learnings from opportunities and experiences that they’ve had that I haven’t yet had, but which I’m soon approaching.
Can you tell us how you think about overcoming obstacles?
I think there always will be obstacles and that obstacles are part of what makes life fun and interesting. One of my favorite sayings is, “Nothing worth doing is easy. If it was easy, everyone would do it.” I think when you’re facing an obstacle, don’t try to go around it. Dig in. Understand why it’s an obstacle and how you can move past it in a way that’s considered and thoughtful.
Is there a book that has been particularly impactful to you in your career?
I would say anything written by Maya Angelou has been impactful. I think she has a ton of interesting writings on how people relate to each other that are applicable across numerous contexts. I specifically like her book “Letter To My Daughter.” It’s full of small tidbits of wisdom and encouragement.
Is there something common that you’ve seen with successful companies that you’ve worked with as a VC?
I think the most common thread I’ve seen across successful companies is a culture of learning and a culture of transparency in the learning process. There’s a tone at the top of “We’re not sure how to do this the right way, but we’re going to get all the information possible to be able to make the right decisions. Then we’re going to go make the decision, see how it works out, and be willing to change it if it’s not the right decision.” I think cultures that permeate that “test and learn” mentality and that “not afraid to fail” mentality are ones that are able to move faster because they don’t get stuck in dogmas. They’re willing to experiment with newness and that’s ultimately where innovation comes from.
If you had to give a one-minute keynote to our audience of builders, what would you tell them?
One thing that guides the decisions that I make is the understanding that there’s a continuum in decision making between making decisions made out of fear and decisions driven by love–for yourself, for other people, for the world, etc. I aspire to make decisions that are based on positivity, optimism, and ultimately love rather than fear. I think whenever you’re faced with questions like: What are you doing? What’s your next thing that you’re going to go out and do? Don’t do it from a place of being scared or a place of trying to protect yourself. Do it from a place of optimism. Ask yourself how you want to create your life? Our lives are inventions that we create over time, and there are very few things that can’t be undone. Why not be creative? Why not take a chance and do something that’s based on love rather than fear?