Manager and attorney Ashley Villa never expected to run her own firm, let alone her own talent management business focusing on women who are carving out new horizons in the digital space. But her journey led her away from her initially planned career path, that of working for a traditional law firm, all the way to starting her own company, Rare Global. The firm is focused on the goal of crafting careers for female digital influencers that go beyond posts on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, all the way to brand sponsorships, advertising partnerships, multimedia deals and proprietary brand creation. Villa, who is a second-generation Chinese American, has helmed Rare Global since she founded the company in 2014, creating a company that is run by women for women, with a focus on clients from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.
We asked the 37-year-old CEO to share some of her secrets to success as she built her business in the past nine years (in what is still a male-dominated world). She did not disappoint us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Ashley Villa on changing careers
It’s a big leap to go from being a new attorney working at a law firm to launching and running a big company as CEO. So how did you go from passing the California bar to creating a business that represents 20 different clients in the digital space?
Ashley Villa: To be honest, I didn’t set out to be the CEO of my own business. I remember some of the internships that I had during law school and I remember one of my bosses actually told me, he said, “You’re very entrepreneurial, I could see you having your own company.” And I remember thinking and saying, “Oh, no, my main goal is just to work at a law firm, make a really good salary.” And just have my two weeks of vacation, that the two weeks of vacation per year is going to be my moment… that’s going to be my joy for the year. I saw work that way, for quite some time. It was just a means to make money.
What changed your mindset?
AV: I initially thought I wanted to do trademark law. I did a little of that and realized it’s very, very boring—at least for me! So I ended up working at Lionsgate in the corporate office under the general counsel. I started managing the different film production companies, making sure that they were created as a corporation, doing contracts and organizing the business end.
From there I was able to get another cool job at a company called Sierra/Affinity, which is a film finance company. So that was the first time I started learning licensing deals, license deals for movies. And I learned a lot about contracts. My boss, Virginia, she was my first woman mentor. I never really had a mentor before that, but she taught me everything about contracts. She’d sit me down and just tell me all the things that I needed to work on. And that was when, I think, I started to change my perspective on work. I started to think about work, to see work as a world where you can learn, not just do, but to learn new things.
It’s still a big leap, leaving a secure paycheck and going out on your own. How did that evolve for you?
AV: My sister actually started posting on YouTube about 10 years ago. And she was getting some traction, and so was her best friend, whose name is Jenn Im. At the time she didn’t have a lawyer and my sister asked me to help find her one. But I couldn’t find her one, because no one at the time focused on digital media. So I just started helping her on the side, to be honest, just a side gig. Just as a favor. And Jenn now is, in my opinion, probably one of the most well-known Korean American YouTubers in the world [currently with over 3M followers], and influencers in general, she is this amazing content creator.
Jenn started asking me to help negotiate some of these deals for her, what we call MCN deals [Multi-Network Channel advertising]. I started getting these other clients too, Jenn’s friends would hear about me and they would say, “Oh, can you help me with this contract?” And I started becoming known amongst all these beauty YouTube fashion girls, that I was the person that could help them with their contracts.
All about Rare Global’s mission
And that’s when Rare Global was born?
AV: Actually, I started negotiating so many deals with this one MCN company, StyleHaul, that they asked me to become their in-house counsel, they hired me full time. That was my next job. And then after a year—they knew the whole time that I was managing my own clients on the side—I was doing their contracts, and I started taking on more of what I saw as a manager role, it had kind of morphed. Then Jenn said, “It seems like you’re a manager now. So, do you want to be my manager?” And that was it, that’s when I launched Rare Global as a talent management company.
That was almost ten years ago and now you have 10 employees and now represent 20 content creators, who are mostly women and mostly people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. Was that always a goal for Rare Global, to represent diversity?
AV: We have all different types of women that we represent. I think that we have probably a higher percentage of Asian women than most companies, because I’m Asian, right? We also represent Latin women, we have Gabriel Zamora, who’s a Latin man who does makeup. We represent Pokimane, she’s Moroccan and she’s the number one most-watched woman streamer on Twitch [with 9M followers]. So we do have quite a diversity of different types of ethnicities.
What exactly do you do for your clients?
AV: I think in digital media, a lot of people think, Oh, I can be a manager. It’s easy. I just do deals, right? I just answer emails, right? That’s not the case, you need to have a strategy.
We sit down with our clients and together think about what goals they want to hit in their careers. They want to have long-term careers, this is their actual full-time career job, it isn’t something that they’re just doing for posting on the side. This is a multimillion-dollar business for a lot of them. And they need to make sure that they’re gonna stick around. So helping them be really thoughtful on the content they create, on the brands they even work with, is our job. Most of our clients actually pass on 90% of the opportunities we get offered, because they just want to work with brands that actually resonate with their own personal brand.
Speaking of goals, what are yours for the future of Rare Global and your own life?
AV: I want to be a talent manager. In my career, I have tried a lot of things. And at the end of the day, I just zoned in on this. And I keyed in on this particular job and I really like it. So there’s no broad strategy in my life to be anything but a talent manager. As of now, I mean, things can all be changed and people change, but my goal is to continue being a talent manager, it’s truly what I love to do. And my main goal for my company would be to find women who want to be talent managers, and to raise them up, mentor them to become talent managers, too. I’m a firm believer that certainly the way women get ahead in this world is only by women helping women.
Ashley Villa’s final piece of advice
Finally, what’s your top advice for someone trying to start a company, be it talent management or elsewhere?
AV: My top advice is to try to get as much work experience as possible. So try to figure out what types of fields you’re interested in, by going and doing lots of internships. I think that that really is where it starts for a woman who’s just starting out at work to be successful. But I want to preface that by saying, while it is great to get a lot of experience, women should be very thoughtful around the opportunities that they take. Remember, every time you accept an opportunity, that is time away from your learning about something else. So be really thoughtful about the opportunities that you move forward with and be a person of your word. When you say you are going to do something, do it.
Photo courtesy Ashley Villa