Raise Up Extraordinary Women: Ashley Zeldin

Ashley Zeldin

For the month of December, I’ll be shining light each day on some extraordinary women I know. They represent various fields and backgrounds, and I admire each for their passion and strength. These are bold, beautiful, brave women — artists, businesswomen, union organizers, nurses, writers, teachers, movie makers, designers, reporters, and all-around badasses.

Ashley Zeldin is a software developer and event organizer (and still occasional sportswriter) who builds worlds and communities. She has spoken about her entrepreneurial failures at conferences on three continents and was featured in the documentary GameLoading: Rise of the Indies. Though Ashley started on her path into production and programming in 2011, she only became a “real” video game developer in 2016 when a game she worked on was shut down (rest in pixels, Outcast Odyssey). Despite the volatility of careers in games and tech, Ashley teaches video game design workshops for kids and hopes the industry will value quality of life by the time they enter the workforce. Before she made games, Ashley was a sportswriter, general assignment reporter, copy-editor, “public relations professional” and public-access t.v. production assistant. She earned her BA in Print Journalism from the University of Southern California and her Master of Media Practice from the University of Sydney. In her free time, Ashley enjoys breaking a sweat—mostly indo-row, pilates or spinning—as well as exploring the outdoors. Ashley’s passion for her five-time Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins is rivaled only by her fondness for food.

1. What did you want to be “when you grew up?”  When I was 5, my mom took me shopping at the Sherman Oaks Galleria to find a Father’s Day present for my dad. I was tired, so, while my mom browsed Structure, I climbed into an overstuffed leather chair near the dressing rooms. As soon as I’d gotten settled, a large book on the coffee table caught my eye. Fallingwater. Indeed water was perpetually falling on the cover, lush evergreens framing a small waterfall with a modern-looking house perched above. I realized that a person—some guy named Frank Lloyd Wright—actually built a house into a waterfall. I hefted the book onto my lap and flipped past pages of essays, captivated by the photos. I decided I had to have this book ’cause I wanted to be just like him! Unfortunately, the uncooperative sales associate insisted it wasn’t for sale. My mom promised me she’d take me straight to Crown Books in Encino to buy the book to get me to leave the Structure store. After one more glance at the book, we left. Driving along Ventura Boulevard, my mom called my dad from her car phone. I heard the hesitance in her voice as she informed him of the price she’d noticed below the barcode: $55. That was a lot in the early 1990s! Yet we continued on to Crown Books. I never became an architect in the traditional sense, though in a way, I’ve built so much: worlds, communities, relationships. I’m still enthralled by beautiful buildings though!

2. What makes you the most proud of yourself?  I graduated with a print journalism degree in the mid-aughts into an industry in the midst of transition. So I did what a lot of millennials did during the global financial crisis: I went to graduate school. But I didn’t just go to graduate school, I went to graduate school on another continent. Living in Sydney, Australia was my first time truly on my own. I went from almost not completing my undergraduate degree (more on that later) to earning my Master of Media Practice with Merit—a.k.a. honors. I may not work in media anymore, but it gave me a solid foundation of ethics and integrity that informs everything I do. No one can take my education and experience away from me.

3. What darkness have you overcome? How did you find strength?  “Darkness” has been a near-constant presence in my life. I’ve experienced a lot of adversity, and I sometimes marvel that I’m still persevering in spite of it all. But I don’t know any other way than to persevere. As with many kids, middle school was hell for me. Some of the “popular kids” tormented me: they poured water over my backpack during volleyball practice, destroying my textbooks; they stole my outfit for my choir recital, ruining my performance; and so on. That experience made me reticent to let anyone see my vulnerability for a long time. Not even when I was devastated by my dad’s death. It was the first day of fall semester finals my junior year at USC. I was 19. I had no good coping mechanisms or robust support system. I almost didn’t graduate. Yet having to carry on in the wake of my greatest loss gave me the strength to end what took me years to realize was an unhealthy relationship.

Then I went to graduate school. I felt like everything was coming together for me in Sydney. I had amazing friends, a nice boyfriend, a quirky share house, an exciting job offer. So when I came back to Los Angeles to apply for a new visa, my world was turned upside-down when my mom was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I abandoned my life in Sydney to become her full-time caregiver. Fortunately, she’s 9 1/2 years in remission now.

I stayed in LA and worked in agency public relations and as a freelance journalist, but that wasn’t sustainable financially. The paradigm of the industry had shifted, and my passion was gone. I felt I lost my identity when I decided to leave journalism behind, but I was excited for a new beginning. I made a career change into project management in the video games industry, and for a while everything was good. Then I started an independent video game studio with my partner, and—long story short—we failed. I traveled around the world talking about it, inspiring others to talk about their failures, yet I didn’t entirely believe what I was saying about redefining success.

I believe it now ’cause I’m living it now, as I’ve had to redefine success for myself yet again. While shifting from project management into software engineering, I’ve dealt with some health issues. I’m still dealing with health issues, and I’m figuring out my next move. Yet I persevere. All I know is how to persevere. I tend to hide my darkness well, but I realized I have to talk about it. Honestly. ‘Cause where there is darkness, there is light. I’ve realized that being open about my darkness—shining light on it—is the best way to overcome it, and as a result, I’ve been able to be a positive influence on so many people. That—the impact I have on others—is what gives me the strength to look for the light.

4. Where will we find you on a Saturday morning at 10 a.m.?  I spend many mornings (and evenings!) at Revolution Fitness in Santa Monica, and at 10 a.m. on a Saturday I’m probably on a pilates reformer or a rowing machine.

5. What makes you smile the most?  I’ve been told I have “resting bitch face,” but when the Pittsburgh Penguins win a hockey game, I’m definitely smiling!

Bonus: What advice would you give your younger self?  The advice I would give my younger self is the same advice I give myself and so many (too many) other people I encounter now: take up space; don’t apologize for your existence; remember to breathe.

Today’s #OneGoodThing is sharing this extraordinary woman and my friend, Ashley Zeldin, with all of you! We are stronger together, so let’s shine a light on our extraordinary sisters! If you’d like to participate or nominate a woman to participate, please send me a note or leave a comment! What was your #OneGoodThing today? Please share in the comments! Kindness is Everything.

Day 364 of 365. And Day 1,460 in a row (here’s the first 366, & the following 365, & the third year of 365 good things)!

1 year ago today: Amaryllis progress

2 years ago today: A safer ride for the wet season

3 years ago today: Chanukah jelly donut holes

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