Creative Women: Ashleigh Axios -- International Speaker, Strategic Creative & Advocate for Design's Ability to Break Barriers & Create Positive Social Change

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Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson

Ashleigh is the Design Exponent at Automattic, a company with the mission of democratizing publishing and a passion for making the web a better place. She's also a board member for AIGA, the professional association for design.

Ashleigh's passion projects include the summer 2016 brand and web design for AmericanVoterGuide.org, co-leading DotGovDesign -- a community group and conference dedicated to connecting and empowering government designers and chairing Racial Justice by Design -- an AIGA collaborative effort exploring the intersections of race, equity and design.

Prior to her role at Automattic, Ashleigh served as the creative director and a digital strategist at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, where she created meaningful opportunities for engagement, dialogue and understanding between the administration and public.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
In many ways, I didn't start at the top. I started where perhaps far too many people start, with a small view of my ultimate options. I didn't always see myself as a leader or winner. Those were words for people who had more than me -- more support systems, finances and confidence.

But I fought hard to get to where I am. I fought my own deeply-ingrained perceptions of who I was and my ultimate value. In the process, I discovered just how much value and influence I had all along.

Now I'm the type of leader who believes in the power of all voices and perspectives. I'm the kind of leader who wants to champion the unlikely heroes, see everyone around her rise to their potential and fulfill their leadership capabilities.

Your most recent project was AmericanVoterGuide.org. What was the inspiration behind this?
One of the reasons I left the White House before the end of the administration was to more fully participate in this election season.

If you don't mind, I'm going to name a few things that have been bugging me about where our nation is in its history of voting enfranchisement.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Shelby v. Holder, nearly dismantling the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court ruled that sixteen states with some of the longest histories of voting discrimination no longer needed to pre-approve their voting changes with the federal government. As a result, this year will be the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.

As a reminder, the VRA is one of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, so this change is noteworthy.

Since Shelby v. Holder, our nation has witnessed one of the greatest attacks on voting rights since the Jim Crow era, with many states taking individual actions towards voter suppression.

We're seeing laws severely limiting early voting, states passing strict voter identification laws and implementing new restrictions on voter registration. Instead of the federal government blocking these laws before they're implemented, as was done with the full protections of the VRA, the Shelby decision allows discriminatory laws to take effect and cause confusion and disenfranchisement.

These are laws that may keep youth who have come of voting age from getting their driver's license in time to vote. There are laws that in some cases strip away the ability of members of hard-working families to vote early when they can't get away from work on election day. These are voter suppression tactics that are rot in the heart of our democracy.

On top of this, this presidential election cycle has been particularly difficult for the American people. The focus of the media, social media streams, debates and household conversations have been leaning towards criticism of the candidates' tone, demeanor, delivery and a bit shy of the substance around the issues that will affect Americans when one is sworn into the highest office in the land.

AmericanVoterGuide.org is focused on helping activate voters by sharing direct and clear information on where each presidential candidate stands on the major issues, where and how to register to vote, where the state-level candidates stand on the major issues and what other measures will be up for a vote on the local ballot. This website is a tool to bring the power back to the American public, fighting the challenges of our day with education.

What impact do you think and hope the American Voter Guide will have on Millennial voters?
I hope this tool will bring knowledge and empowerment to the youth vote. I remember taking a shuttle from my college to my polling place when I was first able to vote in a presidential election and it's tense. We study and carefully reflect for every other major decision in our lives, yet it's somehow hard to know where to turn in doing so for something as big as the U.S. presidential election. This tool should help young voters be able to cut through the noise and see the information needed to make their first vote an informed one.

You previously worked at the White House leading design at the Office of Digital Strategy. What were the highlights and challenges during your tenure?
The Office of Digital Strategy (ODS) was an innovation that President Obama himself brought to the White House out of the success of the 2008 presidential campaign in using technology, social channels, clear communication and design to connect the public with the candidate in an authentic way. The mission of ODS is to Connect People with Purpose, or to find meaningful ways to engage the administration and public given the impact of technology on where people get information, how they engage and how they dialogue with one another. We were effectively a startup in the heart of the White House.

It was challenging to change the culture of the White House, which has some deep-seated processes and structures in place, many for very good reasons. But we had the support of the President, which made our work possible and incredibly fruitful.

We were able to get the administration online, connecting more individual administration officials to social media than ever before -- so that more individuals can share and dialog with the public. We created and continually improved We the People, a petitions platform, that for the first time in our nation's history, enables any individual to exercise his or her first-amendment right to petition the U.S. government on the issues that matter to him or her and be guaranteed a response if the petition gets the needed public support. We also worked hard to break down the complex policies and proposals of the executive government to keep the public informed.

These are just some of the highlights and were also challenges in their own way -- as the first of anything usually is.

How do you think that design, particularly in the public and government spheres, can break down barriers, create positive change and encourage individuals to become interested in public service?
I'm of the opinion that design is ultimately about improving the human experience. Whether that's a mobile designer making it easier for you to start the process of renewing your passport, a service designer who redesigned your Veterans hospital experience to reduce your wait time and have the visit centered around you the patient, a furniture designer who formed the chair meant to comfortably support you while you wait for your number to be called or a communication designer who makes it easy for you to file your taxes by taking you step-by-step through what is needed.

Government services, interacting with the government -- as we all need to, doesn't have to be terrible. Some of these experiences can actually be made easy or even pleasant with the right care and attention. That's design.

The same is true for the civic process. We need more designers of all types working in the public spheres just as much as we need more of the public willingly participating in the civic areas of our democracy. When participating doesn't suck, more people will be willing to get involved.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
I might give the same advice to women of other industries or to men, but somehow this feels especially pertinent to women in my line of work -- either design, social good, digital or government spaces.

Know your worth. Be your own best advocate. Let your actions, choices and words reflect your values. Remember that even in the most difficult situations, we always have choices; own yours.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
One of the most important lessons I learned was actually one that President Obama shared with a class of interns during his second term in office. He told them to focus on what they wanted to achieve and not on a title or position.

If you focus on a title or position and you don't achieve it, you'll likely be devastated. But if you focus on getting quality education to more kids or getting affordable healthcare into place, issue areas, even if you don't achieve the title or position, you'll have multiple paths toward success and you'll leave a lasting legacy in your wake.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Well, I can't honestly say that I do. The thing about a work/life balance is that the variables are always changing and recalculations happen each day, sometimes multiple times a day. It's not a fight that you can win and then just sustain or maintain.

However, I'll say that for me it's been incredibly helpful to have a life partner in my husband, Nathaniel Axios, who shares my values. When I communicate and do my best to manage expectations on top of living and working from the place of our shared values, things become a lot more understandable.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Equity.

We don't get paid as much as our male counterparts for doing the same work, women of color especially so. We are often charged more for the same goods and services as men. We are increasingly making up more of the college-educated population, but are still lacking in leadership positions in the most influential institutions, companies and public offices. This results in short-sighted family leave policies, business models and even building design - which doesn't recognize or support the true nature of the needs of its employees. It seems we have to work twice as hard to get about half as much.

There are many improvements being made in public policy and in societal standards, but it's not enough. There's a lot more work to do and everyone in our society plays a part, whether they're aware or not.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I might not have switched over from fine-art to a design focus without exposure to people who had done so successfully, who allowed me to get a glimpse into their world. Similarly, I think I also need to help others, which design and mentoring both enable me to do, in order to keep the negatives of our world from pulling me into depression. So, I'm thankful to have mentors and to be a mentor to others.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg for how passionately and eloquently she's expressed so many of her dissenting opinions and for how refreshingly liberal she is at the age of 83.

First Lady Michelle Obama for her poise and ability to cut through to the heart of an issue when she speaks.

The late, great Maya Angelou who is still shaping people today with her words, like these words to live by: "My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style."

What do you want to accomplish in the next year?
I recently started an incredible new role at Automattic, a company passionate about making the web a better place, working with the mission of democratizing publishing. Employees at Automattic are called Automatticians, and they're some of the friendliest, supportive and collaborative people I've been introduced to, let alone had the pleasure of joining. After getting up to speed, I'll be finding ways to bring more compassion, equity and the design ethos to each of Automattic's products.

I'm also on the board of AIGA, the professional association for design, and will be helping ignite further conversations and action around the role of design in combatting racial injustices in our communities, workplaces and in the design industry. There's been too much division along the lines of race, so this year will be a great time for collaboration, healing and solutions.