Lead(H)er: Gina Ashe, CEO of ThirdChannel
“I am so in love with and passionate about the Boston tech community. They’re some of the greatest people on the planet. The innovation, creativity and smarts coming out of Boston is simply unparalleled,” said Gina Ashe, the CEO and Founder of ThirdChannel.
Growing up in New York City, big city life was ingrained in Gina’s personality. As a child, she loved the fast-paced environment and the many different walks of life she encountered every day.
“I’m still fascinated that ten million people live in such a small space and actually get along pretty well. New York is still my favorite place even though I’ve lived in Boston now for fifteen years.”
Although she considers herself a New Yorker, Gina also spent part of her younger years in the Midwest.
“People tell me the Midwest has softened my edges because I was a pretty hard core city girl. It’s funny—when I drink too much, that Midwestern twang will come out,” Gina laughed.
While in the Midwest, Gina attended an all-girls convent academy where she thrived in the competitive learning environment.
“We were all planning to take over the world. Being a young girl, there’s so much social pressure on how you look and how you behave. It can make it hard to accel, because you’re weird. During high school, I didn’t have to deal with that. I was able to dig in and learn and compete with my friends and I think it has made me a great competitor in life.”
After graduating high school, Gina moved back to New York to attend college at Columbia University where she originally planned to study art.
“I remember my father saying, ‘Are you kidding me? If I’m paying for you to go to Columbia, you’re going to study something that will help you get a job.’ So I just picked computer science. I wish I could tell you I was smart enough to know that we would become a digital society, but I just got lucky.”
Studying computer science, Gina learned to program in a male dominated space—a common theme she would continue to experience for the rest of her career. After graduation, Gina followed the crowds to Wall Street.
“Everyone wanted to go straight to Wall Street, so that’s where I got my first job—pretty wild. Those were the days when everyone was on the trading floors, screaming, yelling and trading. When I finally got my badge, there were 900 men and I think there were five women. It was pretty much a guy’s world,” Gina explained.
On Wall Street, Gina made decisions, bought and sold in about five seconds.
She described her job as fun, crazy and physically exhausting.
After trading for a while, Gina realized she needed more knowledge and expertise to move up the food chain. She decided to go to business school at NYU Stern to study finance and became an analyst shortly after.
Although Gina loved working on Wall Street, digital marketing kept catching her eye.
“Even though I spent all my schooling doing computer science and studying finance, I used to look at what was going on in the marketing world. I thought it looked like so much fun.”
With her computer science and analytics background, Gina was able to land a job leading the healthcare team at a big New York, ad agency, Omnicom’s Rapp Collins.
“Working at a NYC ad agency was great training but it was a brutal environment. Wow, it was just like on the TV shows. Everybody wants your job. Everybody is backstabbing you. But it was exciting too.”
After spending time on Madison Ave, Gina married and started thinking about a move.
“My husband and I started looking into other cities. When I got an offer to come to Boston, I took it. At first, I thought that I had ruined my career. I’d gone from an incredibly posh advertising agency on Madison Avenue to working at Sermo in a one room office on Sydney Street with a bunch of engineers in sweatpants and purple bean bags,” Gina laughed.
Shortly after, the company took off. Their physician crowdsourcing engine was incredibly disruptive in healthcare and in the first year and a half, they had about 25% of US physicians on their platform.
“Soon, we were cutting large exclusive deals with top pharmaceutical companies. It was probably as exciting and as hard on my stomach as trading was. I was hooked.”
After Sermo, Gina went on to start her own content discovery network called Krush.
“It started with my sons because they were really into the hottest action sports and outdoors gear. That really helped me learn retail. I discovered that I’m really passionate about this space and I’ve been in retail seven years now.”
With Krush’s crowdsourcing algorithm, retail brands customers were able predict what was likely going to sell the next year. This information really helped customers trim and fine tune their new collections before they were released to the public.
“Unfortunately, Krush didn’t make it. Building a data company was a long term play and the investors I partnered with wanted a faster play. I should have chosen a VC that could stomach the ups and downs of early stage, have set better expectations and raised more money,” Gina told me.
From Krush, Gina went on to join Redstar Ventures. Working with Jeet Singh and Joe Chung, she built ThirdChannel from the ground up.
“Sometimes entrepreneurs and their investors aren’t aligned. That was a lesson that I learned the hard way. Luckily, Redstar’s model is different. It’s beautifully aligned and I’ve been able to build ThirdChannel successfully.”
The idea for ThirdChannel stemmed from an old challenge in retail—successfully selling brands’ products through to consumers across many different retail locations.
“People don’t realize that over 90% of sales happen in physical stores. This huge, fragmented network of brick and mortars is a four and a half trillion-dollar market. It’s really hard to get your arms around.”
ThirdChannel’s technology lets brand teams see what's happening with their products in the thousands of stores that carry them. By collecting and analyzing real-time data from field teams on the ground, it reveals opportunities to optimize store environments and yields real, measurable lifts in sales.
“We’re there to help brands optimize the store environment so consumers buy. The retailers win and the consumers win so that makes it really fun for me. My geek is showing but it’s okay to be a geek these days,” Gina smiled.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Brianne Shelley: How do you manage stress?
Gina Ashe: I’m committed to having a career and a family and then you throw an early stage technology company on top of that. People ask me if I’m glutton for punishment. My mother says I live three lives in one body.
To manage stress, I talk myself through it a lot. I’ve learned to say, “Okay, what’s really happening here? Why are you feeling stressed?” It could be a comment someone made, it could be a piece of data I just saw, it could be a sales number I just looked at. If I can identify where the stress is coming from, then I can usually figure out what the source of it is and solve it right away.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
GA: I don’t drink caffeinated coffee any more. It’s been about five years. I’ve learned that I sleep much better without it. I love coffee though, so I invest a lot in very good decaffeinated coffee. That said, I am a secret Five Hour Energy addict.
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
GA: Construction. I tile, plaster, paint and do demolition. Friends hire me to redo their bathrooms. It’s something really physical so I can see the results quickly. I use my brain all the time and I just need to do something different. I’m a great tiler if you ever need your bathroom done.
BS: Where’s your favorite spot in Boston?
GA: I love to be at the top of tall buildings looking at all lights of the city. The Top of the Hub is one of my favorites. There’s a beautiful view up there. For a while after 9/11, they wouldn’t let people up there and it broke my heart.
BS: If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
GA: This is going to sound corny, but I think it’s the fact that I can still hang with my two sons, literally. Last week they had me hanging on a rope off the side of a cliff in the Azores. I was hiking through waterfalls where I almost drowned, rappelling down a cannon, closing my eyes and jumping off of 40 foot ledges into the water. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. Honestly, my biggest accomplishment is probably surviving my sons. I take great pride in their adventurous spirits. They have no fear and can make their way anywhere.
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?
GA: No, I was a bit of a reluctant entrepreneur. I never would have thought that I would end up in high tech. I kind of thought I was going to stay on Wall Street forever.
BS: What is one piece of advice you would give to a recent college graduate?
GA: Spend your time pursuing things that you love, work hard and get good at them. If you do that, you’re going to do a great job. You have to get up and do it every day and even things you love can be hard some days. When you’re passionate about it, you’re going to hang in there and you’re going to excel at it. That’s success.
Images courtesy of Gina Ashe.