Asha describes what inspired her to work with female founders; what speaks to her on the subject of brand storytelling; and how she empowers women to break the rules.
Asha Dahya is a TEDx Speaker, Author and Producer with nearly 2 decades experience creating content for major broadcast and digital platforms including FOX, ABC, MSN, and MTV. Asha is also the Founder and Editor in Chief of GirlTalkHQ.com: a female empowerment blog promoting women’s stories. Considered a voice of authority in the feminist media space, Asha regularly provides commentary and expert opinion. Her keynote addresses include International Women’s Day for Accenture, March for Moms and UCLA, and she has moderated panels for UN Women, Mount Saint Mary’s University, and EmpowHer Institute.
0:53 Megan Ingram (MI): This week Asha Dahya joins the podcast, GirlTalkHQ founder, and Editor in Chief, a daily female empowerment blog promoting women's voices & stories, who is also a TEDx speaker, author, and producer with nearly two decades of experience creating content for major broadcast and digital platforms. In 2020, she released her first book titled Today's Wonder Woman: Everyday Superheroes Who are Changing the World, where she interviewed 50 women and girls from around the world. This week, we discuss what inspired her to work with female founders, what speaks to her about brand storytelling, and how she empowers women to break the rules and not be afraid. How's it going today?
1:28 Asha Dahya (AD): Hi, thank you so much for having me.
1:31 MI: Yeah, it's so great to have you on. To kick it off, I love hearing about stories. So I'd love for the audience to hear more about your story from on-air host to founder.
1:43 AD: Yeah, absolutely. So, as you can probably tell, I have a different accent than the standard American accent. I was born in the UK, raised in Australia, and moved to Los Angeles where I'm now based in 2008. I started my career in media, straight out of college. I did a film and media degree back in Australia and fell into TV hosting or presenting as it's called in Australia, straight out of college. I also had an agent and I was always doing auditions. So that's how that lined up. But once I got my foot in the door, the ball just kept rolling and I would do different auditions. And I worked for a major broadcast network in Australia then went onto the Disney channel and MTV and it was really good, it was like doing a whole other university education. Working in kids television and pop culture, because I learned how to put a segment together and write scripts and how the whole sausage is made like how TV is made, the basics of it. So it was really great. It was a really great training ground for me. And I moved to the US in 2008 to further my career, to just see what opportunities were out there. Australia is obviously a much smaller market than the US or in the UK and Europe. But of course, as everyone remembers, 2008 was a crazy year. The economy crashed later that year. And it ended up being the worst time to move to a new country and start my career in a whole new way. Remember the industry changed a lot and that's when digital media really started to boom. And so I had to figure out, okay, I've moved here. I've set down my roots. Now, am I going to adapt or am I going to just wait for something? Wait for the phone to ring because essentially that's what the industry was like previously, you wait for your agent to ring and they would put you forward for auditions. And now the industry has completely changed. People back in 2009 and 2010, people were starting blogs, starting YouTube channels and Tumblrs and all these different digital platforms and avenues to share content that they were passionate about. And so I thought, all right, well, what am I passionate about? What am I going to do with my background and my experience? How am I going to stand out from the rest? At the same time I was going through a divorce. I was married for the first time, very young, and I was part of a very conservative religious community and ended up leaving that world and that marriage. And both of those things were kind of happening at the same time. And it really became a way for me to reevaluate not only my career, but who I was as a person, what I wanted to put out in the world and what kind of community I wanted to build. So I started GirlTalkHQ.com as a Tumblr blog back in the day when Tumblr was a thing. And I thought, I'm in this place like I'm at a crossroads in my life. I felt really isolated from other women and girlfriends because being part of the church community that I was in, it was very close knit. And once I left that, my family was cut off from me. That church was very large and it became my family. So I thought, well, what better way to try and find encouragement, then look for other stories of women who have been through similar things that I have, and collect them all in a blog and share some encouragement with other people out there? And then that has just evolved along the way into a platform where women and girls can share their stories and just become a way for people to know that you don't just have to be a celebrity or someone notable, someone wealthy to be heard or seen. Everyone has a story to share, everyone matters, and you never know how your story can inspire other people. So today that's what GirlTalkHQ aims to do. And my own story is still evolving and unraveling. And I love that I get to curate this platform where other people are sharing their stories and hopefully inspiring and encouraging others.
5:50 MI: Yeah, you touched on it a little bit because my next question was going to be what inspired you to work with female founders, but I'd just love to know a little bit more about what makes you passionate about devoting yourself to amplifying female voices and just being able to work with all these awesome female founders?
6:07 AD: Yeah, that's a great question. I think for me personally, I didn't just want to hear from women. I was craving stories of women because growing up, we live in a world where when you hear technology, you think Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. And when you name these specific industries, a male name automatically comes to mind. But then you dig a little bit deeper and then you hear about the Marie Curies and you hear about the Whitney Wolfs, and you hear about all these women who have done these pioneering incredible things that have often been rendered invisible or mute by the men who control those societies throughout history and even today, who holds the majority of the power? So now we're living in a time when digital media is totally disrupting all that. And it's really exciting to see. And the other aspect of why I'm passionate about it is because my heritage, my background is Indian. And so growing up in Australia, which is very multicultural, but when you look at mainstream media, TV, magazine, obviously digital media wasn't around in the nineties when I was growing up, the majority of people you see are white people. And so I never felt like I fit in or I quote unquote belonged, and growing older and then getting into media myself, I realized, oh, there's a way for more people like me to be seen and heard. And that is getting into positions where you can open those flood gates. And so for me, it was about wanting to see the stories of women who I needed to see growing up. But now I have the opportunity to do that for the next generation or other women out there who want to see themselves represented in the media and entertainment they consume. So for me, that’s what drives me to seek out these stories of women who may not necessarily be celebrities, but they have really powerful stories and can relate to so many more people.
8:06 MI: Yeah, that's so awesome. And it's really cool that you really do have a really cool background and story. What lessons have you learned from going through all this that have helped you on this journey?
8:19 AD: I feel like there are so many lessons and many that I have to admit that I probably resist because lessons can be hard. I think some of the lessons that I've learned is that it's okay to be vulnerable and to be wrong and to make a mistake. And that doesn't make you a failure. I think we live in a world and a society that is so driven by certain standards of quote unquote success. And that it's such a narrow definition, so that if you don't measure up to any of those, you suddenly feel like, oh, I don't belong or I'm an imposter, that's where impostor syndrome comes from. There's such a narrow definition of who belongs and who's right and who's successful. But I think one of the things for me is not competing with others, it was a huge one because I would see these other women in the hosting industry or in the digital media industry. And I thought, why don't I have as many followers as them? Why aren't I booking all these jobs? And it took me going through a divorce and moving countries and going through a financial crisis in this country to realize I have to carve out my own path and not worry about what other people are doing, because if I'm building something that is true to myself and truly authentic, then the right people will come along. So being authentic, not competing, not looking at yourself as a failure, just because something doesn't work out. And it's okay to try different things that don’t work out. No worries, move on to the next thing, and keep trying. So those are the biggest lessons for me.
9:55 MI: Yeah. That's great, and it's so great to hear you talk about authentic storytelling. That's obviously a big theme for me personally, and the agency. I'm a big believer in building authentic relationships. How long have you used authentic storytelling to build your brand and empower female voices?
10:13 AD: I think without authenticity, whatever it is that you're trying to sell or share or encourage people with. It's just not going to work because people are very savvy. Audiences are savvy and they want to see the real you, whether you are a major, huge, huge, huge, global brand, or you're an individual with a YouTube channel. I think we can spot authenticity a mile away. And so now that we live in the age of digital and social media, if you're not driving with authenticity, and also there's genuine individual stories that people really, really want to connect with, whatever it is that you're presenting out into the world may not land in the way that you hope. And we see a lot of brands doing it nowadays. Brands like Ben and Jerry's or others that are really trying to take that step forward for social justice messages. But in that process, they're revealing the values and who they are as company owners and people. And I think that's really, really what people are connecting with. So, if you aren't being authentic, then I think it's important to question what it is. What is your motivation? What are you putting out there into the world? And also, what are you afraid of? I think sometimes we're afraid of being authentically vulnerable because it makes us look bad or somehow like a failure. The more we do that, the more we realize, oh, we all go through those things. We all stumble and fall, but it's how you react to that and how you embrace that and how you share that with the world that makes all the news.
11:48 MI: I completely agree. And I also liked that you were talking a little bit too about creating what that channel means for you, because I've seen people do it successfully with 2000 followers and others with huge followings. So it’s also about what that means to you and how you can create that story that's being truly authentic to whatever it is that you have to say. Another thing, being candid and opening communication is something that extends beyond that and is something we talk a lot about in business. I've seen it go so wrong for people who, when they aren't authentic to who they are, and they're not being candid and they're not being open. What tips would you give to people to create more open and transparent communication?
12:32 AD: I'm definitely not an expert in branding the way a lot of big corporations are. So if I was to speak to someone out there and give my advice, it would be to just to try something new, don't be afraid of trying something new because the only way to move forward and to grow your audience or grow your community or grow your following is to try something new. And if what you're doing is not working, try and figure out the reason why. Don't just dig your heels in and be like, no, this is what we're going to do, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I think it's important to constantly reassess what you're doing as well. And self-reflection, and self-evaluation is also really important because then you can think about your motivation going forward as well. I think that's always key to knowing what the right thing is to do, what is your motivation? What are you trying to achieve? What are the messages you are putting out there and what kind of people do you hope to attract? What kind of audience are you trying to reach?
13:38 MI: Yeah, totally agree.
13:40 AD: I hope that answered your question.
13:41 MI: Definitely. I want to pivot a little bit into brand storytelling. I know you touched on it a little bit earlier. It's also a very big point with me and the agency and what we're about. So I'd love to hear what speaks to you personally about brand storytelling and also just empowers you to raise up all these great female voices.
14:04 AD: Yeah. So brand storytelling for me is something that I've really become keenly aware of in the past few years. When you hear stories of specifically female founders, I'm going to focus on that because that's my bread and butter, I guess. Being someone who's really passionate about feminism and equality and social justice, when I look at certain people, women who have created brands and created these followings and done really amazing things, it’s automatically something I'm attracted to, but then beyond that, what is the motivation behind that? Who are they as people? I know that people have seen stories about how the Wing founder and Thinx Underwear founder, the founder and the toxic culture that ended up being exposed by different stories. And I think it's also important to keep ourselves accountable as women that we can't just ride on the coattails of feminism and say, look, female empowerment. I've risen to the top of the success mountain. But meanwhile, I'm still doing all the same toxic things that we want to get away from as women and try to create a more equitable environment. And then I look at stories like Whitney Wolfe Herd who is the founder of Bumble and whose company just went public. And you see a story being discriminated against in the tech world and being one of the founding members of I believe Tinder. Then she founded Bumble as a whole different type of dating app, just her story. I was already married by the time I knew what Bumble was, but hearing her story and how Bumble came about, and now she's a mom and being in the tech industry, that, to me, was something like, oh, that's going to attract so many more people and make it so much more relatable. So I think brands need to be really honest and open about who they're trying to target and also be open and honest to their target audience and their consumer base. Once you start to put the walls up, I think you then start to see incidents, like what happened with the Wing and what happened with Thinx Underwear. Then people start to talk about the toxic stories that come out. So I think wherever possible, be authentic, but also be accountable to the people that you're trying to reach and the people that you hire and the people that you work with because there's so many more avenues for stories to get out there.
16:49 MI: Yeah, totally. As someone who took a big risk in 2020 and went out on their own, obviously it's been a year of incredible change. I've seen a lot of women going out there, and doing some really awesome creative things on their own. What does not following the rules mean to you and what has guided you on this path and throughout your career?
17:16 AD: Not following the rules to me, I guess, equals authenticity and being true to yourself because it's so easy and I've done this and probably still do it every now and then. I have to really catch myself and be like, all right, what am I doing? But you know, not following the rules is. What is your path and what are you passionate about and what do you want to do going forward? And that doesn't mean you have to have the entire plan laid out. It can just be what is your next step? Or what are your next few steps? And the more we look at what other people are doing, the more we compare. It really muddies the waters a little bit, and it can make it very confusing as to what our path looks like. In a world and a society where we're told to follow the rules, it's simply just doing your own thing. And being true to yourself is breaking the rules and making your own set of rules. And so that rebellious act in and of itself can be revolutionary, not just for the world, but for yourself. Understanding that you are creating the world and the career and the opportunities that you really want to see going forward. So I think breaking the rules is making the opportunities that you want to see and doing it the way that you want to do it. As somebody who has worked in film and TV for a long time, there are traditional gatekeepers to getting a job, or selling a TV show, or getting a film made. But now I'm part of all these different organizations like Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Women in Filmmaking, and Women in Film. And I see so many of these innovative, creative, badass women. For instance, the Sundance Film Festival was the festival to get your film out there and get us started as a director. But that's changed so much now. And now there isn't just one way to become the best version of you or to become a success. You can create those opportunities and you don't have to measure up to someone else's version of success. It's all about what you want.
19:18 MI: Yeah. How can we, as women leaders encourage and support other women to take those risks and to not be afraid?
19:29 AD: Encouraging other women I think it starts with sharing your story and not just the good parts, not just the highlights, but the low lights. Sharing how many steps it took for you and how many mistakes or missteps you took along the way to eventually find what worked for you. Sometimes it's a lot of trial and error, and that's okay. I don't think we as human beings are meant to start one thing from the beginning and always be successful. And if you don't, you're never going to make it. So I think the more you can share your story with other people. Mentorship is a really big key too. I think that's becoming more of an issue among women and we're recognizing, especially in the corporate workplace, in order to disrupt those very male standards of leadership and power and success, we really got to mentor one another because that's a lot of how men became successful and how they become CEOs and how they get into those positions. So the more we do that with each other and encourage each other to be open and honest and to just take that leap of faith. And I think that we'll see a lot of changes in that sense in our own lives and with the women that we're surrounded with. And I'm often reminded of that study. I believe it was a Harvard study. Don't quote me on that because I could be wrong. But the study that looked at the way men and women apply for jobs and there's a whole list of qualifications and men will see that say there's 10 qualifications. Men will see that they fit three to five of those qualifications and there'll be like, oh yeah, I qualify for their job. Women will look at the list and see, oh, well, I tick eight of those boxes out of 10, so I'm not gonna apply for the job. We need to be confident where we're at and who we are and give each other that encouragement to take that leap forward.
21:23 MI: Yeah, I think that that's really great advice, and I would echo all of those things that you said. The last bit of time here, I want to touch on a little bit because I do think you have a really cool path and I know you're passionate about feminism. How has it shaped the way you think about diversity and political issues in general or as a whole?
21:46 AD: Feminism has been such an interesting journey for me, and I'm constantly learning new things. And once I left my conservative church environment where feminism was seen as essentially the devil, I was free to now discover it for what it really was and learn about the history of the movement, see where we are now, what are the issues that people are fighting for? And it's just been a really fascinating journey to me. And I've really found my passions in this movement, but I think it's also really opened my eyes to the connections between social justice and what's happening in politics. And really allowing me to refine what my feminism is in terms of what are the issues that I really want to focus on. So I think that that's been really important to me and diversity is important to me because as a woman of color who grew up in countries where I never quite felt like I fit in, but all those women I knew were out there somehow just weren’t represented. It means that I now have an opportunity to create that space. So when I released my book last year, Today's Wonder Women: Everyday Superheroes Who are Changing the World. That was one of my contributions out there to show what feminism looks like. It doesn't just look like the Hillary Clintons, or the Melinda Gates, or Gloria Steinem, these figureheads that are very, very often held up as the leaders of the feminist movement, et cetera, et cetera. The progress that we see and the gender equality that we see being made around the world is often through the work of everyday women who are doing, getting out there, creating organizations, doing the action, doing the grassroots work, and they don't often get the kudos. So my book is filled with 50 stories of women and girls who are doing that today in their communities and various different countries. And I love that I get to not only learn about these women and be inspired by them, but also share these stories with the world. So for me, feminism, and politics, and diversity, they often intersect with one another in the work that I'm doing, not only through my book, but also a GirlTalkHQ and the film projects that I work on from time to time. So it's really exciting for me to be able to continually learn and evolve and redefine what feminism is.
24:13 MI: Yeah, that's really awesome. Last question. How can we as female founders, leaders and entrepreneurs better support and motivate each other to create change?
24:24 AD: I think the best way to create change is to listen to each other, give each other room to be human and flawed. We won't always be doing the right things or have all the answers. But the more we are united and the more we encourage one another and try new things in the name of gender equality or diversity or encouraging and mentoring each other, I think great things can happen. So I think being bold, but also being naive and just being open to one another as well as the journey. I think when we think we have everything, we think we have it altogether. When we think we have all the answers I found personally that that's when we're more likely to stumble or make a mistake and feel really stuck. But when we're open to what the opportunity in front of us may hold and what the person in front of us can teach us, then we see exciting things happen. And that's what I found in my life. I learned so much more and I'm much more inspired when I take the opportunity to listen and learn rather than be like, this is what's going on. This is what's happening. Knowledge and being equipped with all that information is important, but we should never think we've arrived. We should always think we're on a journey and we're continually evolving and listening and learning.
25:55 MI: Yeah. Well put. It's been so great having you on the show today. I really appreciate you taking the time to come on. Where can listeners find you?
26:06 AD: Yeah, so you can check out GirlTalkHQ.com. I am on Twitter and Instagram, just @AshaDahya. You can also check out my book, todayswonderwomenbook.com. It's available in hardcover as well as on Audible. So pick your poison as they say. That's how you can find me and get in touch. If you have a story to share, I would love to hear from you.
26:30 MI: Awesome. Well, again, thank you so much for coming on. And it was a pleasure talking with you today.
26:35 AD: Thanks so much, Megan.