Small Biz

Ashleigh Wilson elevates people over profits

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By Julie A. Palm

Once on the management fast track at one of the oldest companies in the vertical transportation industry, Ashleigh Wilson is now disrupting the sector with her San Francisco-based startup, AuditMate.

Vertical transportation is better known to most people as elevators and escalators. Wilson’s goal: to create a human-centered company that succeeds by “doing right by others.”

Wilson notes that virtually everything about her is “disruptive” in a sector controlled by a few long-established companies, run mostly by men — and mostly by white men. Wilson is young. She is a woman. She wears big, funky glasses and has hair that might be pink one day and orange the next. In her LinkedIn bio, Wilson describes herself as “Elevator Nerd. Founder. CEO. Human. Queer.”

But what is most disruptive about Wilson is not her age or sexuality or eyewear. It’s how she’s trying to change her industry and build her corporate culture. With AuditMate, Wilson strives to make transparent a part of the industry she believes has been opaque for too long: maintenance contracts. The company audits and manages elevator/escalator contracts and inspections for property owners and managers. The idea, Wilson says, is to make it easy for companies to ensure they are getting what they pay for when they sign long, expensive service contracts.

Transparency. Trust. Safety — both physical and psychological. Wilson believes these are keys to corporate success, not just for AuditMate but for all companies. “AuditMate envisions a world where all businesses treat the people inside and outside of their organizations with respect, dignity and their best interests in mind,” the company’s website says.

Wilson developed AuditMate through an incubator at StartOut, which supports and empowers LGBTQ entrepreneurs. She’s now a programming board member for the organization. “It was life changing for me,” Wilson says. “When you’re an under-represented founder, you may not know about building a valuation or accessing venture capital. I have a degree in finance and economics, but they don’t teach that stuff. To be part of a board that makes that sort of information available to everyone at free events is important to me.”

Moving up in the elevator world

Wilson grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Her parents sold cleaning products door to door and supervised sales crews, moving from country to country. She got her start in business spending about $50 on a mop, bucket, broom and other cleaning supplies. Her family was bemused by her choice to start a cleaning service. “I was a messy kid,” Wilson says. But she liked being her own boss, and the money was pretty good. “I’m a salesperson by nature,” she says. “I didn’t really like cleaning houses. I liked the act of finding clients and helping clients.”

Wilson earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and economics and, later, an MBA from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. “People asked me what I wanted to be and I’d say, ‘a CEO.’ I knew I wanted to run an international business and change the world, somehow,” Wilson says.

She started on the C-suite track when she went to work for Schindler Group in 2014 as an account manager and then moved into an executive development program. She was being mentored by the CEO of the company’s U.S. division and worked on global research, reporting to executives at the company’s global headquarters in Ebikon, Switzerland. One day, she thought, she’d be tapped to lead Schindler’s U.S. operations. She had a background in the business. Wilson’s stepfather worked in the elevator industry for 40 years and she liked accompanying him to job sites.

But a multinational corporation that centered profits over people didn’t “align with my values or my morals,” Wilson says. She quit and took about nine months off. One night, while meditating, she got the idea for AuditMate and set out to build a company that centered people and turned a profit. Here’s one way that plays out in practice. “If a customer doesn’t need our service, I’m honest with them about that,” Wilson says. “If they’re getting what they pay for from their maintenance contract and they have someone to manage it well, we tell them, ‘You don’t need us.’”

“Be excellent to each other”

AuditMate pledges to donate 1% of profits and one day per quarter to its communities. Its 13 employees, all working from home, enjoy unlimited paid time off. “I want people to be excellent to each other,” Wilson says. “I expect you to take days off when you need it. I also expect you not to take it — unless it’s an emergency — at a time when it will screw your team over.”

But Wilson admits being excellent to each other isn’t always easy. Neither is running a startup. “I let the perfectionism veil drop,” she says. “I tell my team: ‘Fuck it up fast.’ We know we’re going to make mistakes. Starting from nothing is hard. So, we do something and if it fails, we try to make it better.”

As an example, Wilson tells this story: After a big growth spurt at the company, she noticed her expanding team would sometimes bring up issues X, Y and Z — small things — while they were supposed to be meeting about big thing A. “And I started getting snippy,” she recalls. Her team came to her and said, “You say, ‘people first,’ and that you care, but you’re not reacting in a way that makes us feel heard.”

“I got a big reality check. I had to look at what I was doing to make people feel that way,” she says. The solution was to create a log where people can bring up issues, and she’s pinged every time someone adds a comment.

“Everything we do is rooted in connection,” she says. “When we feel like we belong and are supported, when we feel heard, we do our best work. It’s only when we feel safe that we can create and innovate.”

Julie A. PalmJulie A. Palm (she/her) is chief wordsmith at Palm Ink LLC in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She specializes in writing, editing, publications management and communications consulting for a variety of clients, including trade magazines, business journals, colleges and universities, ad agencies and small businesses. Follow her on Twitter @julieapalm.

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