ASHLEY SHARP SPENDS HER CAREER IN PUBLIC SERVICE AS THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF DWELL WITH DIGNITY. SHE HAS HELPED THE ORGANIZATION REACH NEW HEIGHTS, INCLUDING THE ORGANIZATION’S PARTICIPATION IN UNITED WAY’S 2021 SOCIAL INNOVATION ACCELERATOR PROGRAM
Being named a Social Innovator of the Year finalist, being honoured with D CEO’s Nonprofit and Corporate Citizenship Awards for Outstanding Innovation in 2021, being awarded the Best Place to Donate by D Magazine & attaining national recognition through their innovative Decade of Dignity dining series. Ashley was recently named an honoree of Dallas Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 and a finalist for D CEO’s Nonprofit and Corporate Citizenship Awards for Leadership Excellence for 2022. In addition to her professional career, she currently serves on the Mayor’s Star Council as the Engage Dallas Chair, is a graduate of the inaugural class of the UT Austin Lyndon B. Johnson’s Women’s Campaign School, is a professor at the University of Houston, and a member of the KERA Community Advisory Board. She is also a TEDx organizer and works with Annie’s List, Blue Sky Talk, Movement Maker Collective, and Young Entrepreneur Council. She is a past president of the Business Council on the Art’s Leadership Arts Institute and has been part of the International Rescue Committee, Dallas Summer Musicals, and Junior League of Dallas. She holds a BA in Arts Administration and an MPA in Public Affairs with a concentration in Nonprofit Management, both from the University of Texas at Dallas.
ASHLEY DISCUSSES HOW HER SOCIAL ENTERPRISE IS PROVIDING HOMES TO THOSE IN NEED AND PROVIDES ADVICE FOR ENTREPRENEURS SEEKING TO MAKE SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL IMPACTS.
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE INTERVIEW (LISTEN TO THE PODCAST FOR FULL DETAILS)
[Indio Myles] – To start off, could you please share a bit about your background and what led to your work in social enterprise?
[Ashley Sharp] – Absolutely! So, my journey is very non-traditional. I actually began my career in the arts as a dancer and I have always been passionate about aesthetics, art, fashion, and performing arts. But my real dream was to be a New York’s City Rockette, to dance at Radio City Musical Hall and do the whole Christmas spectacle. I even trained with them up in New York, you know, high kicks, red lipstick, the whole thing. So, the fact that I am doing entrepreneurship and innovation is definitely very far from where I started.
As the Executive Director of Dwell with Dignity, can you share with our audience the organisation’s purpose and how it is delivering social impact?
Absolutely, Dwell with Dignity is this incredible organisation that marries together human capital with the need to bring transformational design to those who are in need. A lot of times when you start talking about interior design in the social service world, you hear people say, well that seems like a nice to have not a need to have, but we have found that by providing interior design and a foundation for these families, they are able to not just thrive, but to grow generationally, to create wealth for their families, to escape poverty and homelessness.
BECAUSE WHAT WE OFFER IS THE FIRST STEP TOWARD SELF-SUFFICIENCY AND SECURITY. WE BELIEVE THAT INTERIOR DESIGN CAN CHANGE A PERSON’S LIFE. RIGHT NOW, WE ARE ABLE TO SERVE PEOPLE, COMMUNITIES, AND SOCIETIES THROUGH DESIGN.
What barriers exist for people experiencing homelessness to securing a home and income in the US?
I think that there’s so many different barriers that our families are facing. These are systemic issues and I think that’s part of the reason that we believe in collaborating with so many other organisations because we know that we won’t be successful if we operate in a silo. We know that working together is going to be able to turn around the greatest, long-term results for our families and our communities. It’s not just a single factor, it’s not just the fact that the living wage isn’t high enough, it’s not that we don’t have support for single working mums, or the rent prices have doubled in the last two years, it’s all of it together. I believe that it’s up to our cities, our corporations, and our non-profits to work together. We do believe in doing a lot of private funding to solve these systemic issues, but really what we need is a full well-rounded approach, as not one of us is able to solve this, but together we can actually make a dent. Our entire goal is to end the generational cycle of poverty, we don’t want our children to be having to face the same ailments that we are.
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur seeking to pitch their venture or idea successfully?
I absolutely love entrepreneurship now; it is my great passion and I love that non-profits can be included in this. My favourite part of social innovation is pitching, and I know a lot of people hate public speaking, but I think that’s one of the greatest things that you can learn, is how to speak and be compelling in front of an audience.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO IS YOU NEED TO BE ABLE TO TELL HUMAN STORIES. STATISTICS ARE GREAT, BUT YOU NEED TO CREATE THE QUICKEST PATH BETWEEN YOUR MISSION AND YOUR AUDIENCE AND THAT’S GOING TO BE THROUGH EMPATHY AND HUMAN STORIES.
I think it’s so important to be vulnerable and a lot of times we don’t like that because it makes us uncomfortable, but the more stripped down we are, the more other people can relate to us. Especially when you’re new to this world, you want to seem like you have it all together but really, it’s okay to make some missteps. I think that failure is so underrated because you learn from every opportunity. Resilience is one of my strongest values and I think is something that every entrepreneur needs to be able to cultivate. Things aren’t always going to go well but what happens is you learn how to strategise, and you learn how to have a plan A through Z ready to go. And I think that what’s so exciting is that you want to go where the flow and the energy is. So maybe your first attempt isn’t the right one, but you learn, and you build up this muscle and you get faster at making these decisions. And then you’re able to really just deeply fall into your work, because you understand now that there is no barrier between you and the people who are trying to fund you, you’re on the same team.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO IS FIGURE OUT HOW THE TWO OF YOU CAN SOLVE AN ISSUE TOGETHER. IT’S NOT YOU VERSUS ANYONE ELSE, IT’S YOU TOGETHER COLLABORATING TO SOLVE A LARGER PROBLEM.
Where do you see opportunities in the next five years for impact-led individuals to create sustainable social change?
I think that’s such a great question and a lot of my time is spent thinking forward and thinking more strategically and something that I’m really passionate about for social impact organisations, especially non-profits, is this idea of finding a way to rebrand yourself to be the first in your category. A lot of times people don’t want to support something, or they don’t want to move forward with an idea because they think that it already exists. But it’s about the entrepreneur’s journey of branding something. There are other non-profits who provide furniture right for their clients however, we are the only ones who offer custom interior design services.
I THINK THAT THERE’S A LOT OF ROOM FOR GROWTH IN THE NEXT FIVE YEARS IN THESE REALLY SPECIALISED AREAS BECAUSE SO MANY ORGANISATIONS WANT TO DO TOO MUCH AT ONCE. THEY WANT TO TACKLE 25 DIFFERENT ISSUES WHEN THEY SHOULD BE FOCUSING ON ONE OR TWO. I THINK IT’S OKAY TO PAIR DOWN AND TO GO DEEPER INTO WHAT YOU’RE PASSIONATE ABOUT INSTEAD OF BEING SO WIDE.
I think that career coaching is really important as well as parenting skills, and financial literacy. However, we know that we need to be the experts in a single field and for us that’s interior design. And I think that that’s okay because we’re able to be so clear in our mission and our goals and that way we don’t have scope creep, we don’t have a problem where we’re trying to solve all the world’s problems. We had someone come to us and say, hey do you want to get into affordable housing? And I said, I sure don’t, I’m very happy staying in our lane because we are the best at what we do. So, I think it’s really important to drill down, figure out what your core competencies are and how those align to your personal values, because everyone should have a values framework that really is going to guide their work in social enterprise.
What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating positive social change?
I love supporting different organisations and I was on a call with someone in Atlanta, Georgia the other day, and I heard about something that had never crossed my mind before. It’s this incredible non-profit called Bagel Rescue. Basically, what they do is every single day bagel shops are throwing away roughly 3 to 400 bagels per store and at the end of the day they go to these bagel places, and they take them, and they give them to hospitals, first responders, or to individuals who are homeless. It’s just something so simple because there is so much waste in our communities, whether that’s the design community, hospitality, or in food. I think that that’s just simple. I think that kind of goes back to pairing it down, you don’t have to do the biggest thing, but you could do something that’s just, that’s small and meaningful because that would make the difference in someone’s day. I think that’s absolutely amazing. There are so many non-profits in Dallas alone, but I think that there’s some really important work that’s being done especially in our state about mental health and gun violence. Texas has been dealing with it, unfortunately on a very large national scale. So, we’re really trying to work with underserved communities who aren’t getting the mental health resources that they need. Because again it’s one of those systemic issues where we have to go back to the beginning and say, why are people not being heard? Why do they not trust health professionals? This is something that I think is really important for all of us to think of, to be really mindful of, and try to make a difference in this area.
To finish off, what books or resources would you recommend to our listeners?
I’m currently rereading Tim Ferris’s Tools of Titans. Sitting right next to me is his book Tribe of Mentors. Tim Ferris is one of my favourite podcasters and authors. I think what’s so great about this is that it’s really digestible. He obviously is a human Guinea pig, and his goal is to optimise himself in every way. That includes through health, wealth, education. I just think it’s brilliant because you can open any page of the book and read two pages and get more wisdom than going to a graduate MBA program. It’s incredible because he’s really distilling these incredible lessons from people who have had successes. I think it’s great because you can just read it for five minutes, you can read it for two hours and it’s one of those books that you can just keep going back to. I like to read it every year because every year I grow and evolve and something that I read before, maybe didn’t resonate so much. Now I’m going through a situation where it really is clicking with me so I really can’t recommend it enough. It is a very large book, it’s 700 pages, but again, don’t be scared you could just kind of tackle it in bits and chunk.