Hacker, designer, and activist, Ashley Qian aims to make the tech world more inclusive with a children's book

At first glance, art and entrepreneurship may seem like two fields that only superficially intersect, such as when a startup designs a logo or when an artist sells her work on sites like Etsy and Redbubble. At least, as a writer and dancer who sometimes feels out of place in the career-driven milieu that is Duke, that’s how it seemed to me. “Entrepreneurship” itself is a difficult concept to define. According to my dictionary, an entrepreneur is simply “a person who organizes and operates a business, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.” However, I’ve spoken to several student entrepreneurs at Duke who point out the limits of this definition.

My friend Becky Holmes (Trinity ’15) challenges the notion that entrepreneurship is all about business. She’s a dancer who is currently working full time on her raw food startup, ElloRaw. She believes that art and entrepreneurship actually come from the same place within a person. You don’t pursue either because someone has told you to. The inspiration for a project comes to you, and through hard work you make the idea a reality. To a large extent, your success is based on self-motivation and attention to detail. And hopefully, your finished product leaves the world better than it was before.

Until I heard Becky’s perspective, I’d always imagined art and business as the two endpoints on a “creativity continuum.” On the artistic end was spontaneity, emotion, and intuition. And on the business end, all I saw was a nebulous web of dark gray things like “soulless acquisition of money” and “deadline.” I knew that arts entrepreneurs existed, but until I met fellow students like Becky I had only a vague idea of how the two seemingly opposed disciplines intersected. The idea that art and entrepreneurship might actually be two embodiments of the same creative impulse was groundbreaking.

To find out how widely this perspective is shared, I spoke with current Duke students and recent graduates who are interested in arts entrepreneurship. This is the first in a series of profiles where I’ll share their perspectives and highlight their current projects.

Ashley Qian

The first person I talked with was Ashley Qian (Trinity ‘15), who is currently working in San Francisco for DIY, an online learning platform for kids. When she joined The Cube, Duke’s entrepreneurship-focused student living group, as a sophomore, she was discouraged by the enormous pressure she felt to immediately begin work on a project that could be traditionally recognized as a “business.” While this attitude has changed in recent years, she describes the organization’s original stance as being, “You’re not a real entrepreneur if you don’t have a company and you don’t have profits.” But to Ashley, the business side of entrepreneurship has always been secondary. The important thing to her is that it provides her with a platform to share her art and make the world a better place.

If you’ve heard of HackDuke, the 24-hour coding marathon where teams of students create projects for social change, then you’ve seen how Ashley translates her passions into real-life initiatives. She co-founded the hackathon in 2013 and created its brand and identity. The logo she designed, instantly recognizable on T-shirts around campus, features an adorable costumed mascot named HackKitty.

Ashley has been drawing ever since she was a kid. These days, she focuses on depicting minorities in positions that American society doesn’t often celebrate them in. She believes it’s especially important to present alternative social realities to kids because the futures they imagine for themselves are often influenced by the messages they’re surrounded with as they grow up.

These concerns are at the core of Ashley’s current project, a children’s book that explores white privilege and identity politics. It’s an outgrowth of a realization she had at the end of her senior year, which is that what she most cares about is the representation of women and minorities in tech.

“I wanted to make this really interactive game that’s story-driven and teaches concepts in math and science but through trial and error and experimentation. And all the characters are super diverse and have really rich stories that are inspirational for how things could be.”

Ashley Qian profile: ashley-qian-chars-drawn.jpg

Line drawings of cartoon children drawn by Ashley Qian

Studies for a children's book

Studies for a children's book, by Ashley Qian

It was through sharing the sample designs for these characters on social media that Ashley was approached by Abhishek “Bobo” Bose-Kolanu, a PhD candidate in Literature at Duke, who liked her drawing style and wanted to collaborate on the children’s book. Ashley enthusiastically accepted. “Impacting kids through social commentary is more interesting and important to me than any company.”

At first, Ashley and Bobo imagined writing and illustrating the entire book from start to finish before sharing it with others. However, they soon realized that their work would have a greater impact if they took a more entrepreneurial approach. They’re currently working on a mini-version of the book that ends with a cliffhanger, to be released like a trailer on their social media networks. The idea is to build a fanbase and launch a Kickstarter campaign. This approach is not only an avenue for fundraising, it’s also a great way for the team to get lots of feedback during the creative process instead of afterward.

“A big thing in entrepreneurship is iteration and feedback,” Ashley says. “It’s super helpful to have, especially when you want your art to do something specific.”

In Ashley’s view, entrepreneurship is a mindset, just as the creative nature of art or the logic of computer science is a mindset. She tells me that the benefit of her education at Duke, where she majored in computer science and women’s studies, is that she’s learned how to enter into many different mindsets. This ability allows her to process and solve problems in multiple ways. While I’ve always believed that art is a powerful tool for tackling social issues, my talk with Ashley forced me to look beyond the creation of art itself and to consider the problem-solving exercise of commanding attention for the finished product.

“As an artist, you can create something, just put it out there, and move on,” she says. “But an entrepreneurial artist is like, ‘Wait a minute. If I make this art and no one looks at it, then how am I to say that I’m actually making a difference?’”