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A whole new ‘WRLD’

Fort Dodge friends connect through Selfie WRLD; Wilkerson founded booming business one year ago

-Submitted photo
From left to right: Ashley Wilkerson, Alison O'Brien, and Kendra Ollinger stand in Katie's Room, an art installment dedicated to friend Katie Lunn, who passed away.

Three Fort Dodge Senior High graduates have merged their longtime friendship into a business partnership. And that business is booming throughout the U.S.

Selfie WRLD is a photography studio/museum. It provides visitors with unique backdrops that can be used for professional or recreational pictures.

Ashley Wilkerson, of Ankeny, is the owner and founder of the company. She graduated high school in 2002 with friends Kendra Ollinger, of Lehigh, and Alison O’Brien, of Fort Dodge.

Wilkerson opened her first Selfie WRLD location in Des Moines at Merle Hay Mall almost one year ago on June 13. Since that time, 21 other franchise locations have opened in metropolitan cities throughout the country. Wilkerson said 10 more are getting ready to open.

Ollinger and O’Brien are co-owners of the Tampa, Florida location.

-Submitted photo
From left to right: Alison O'Brien, Kendra Ollinger, and Ashley Wilkerson pose in a Selfie WRLD room. The three women, who grew up in Fort Dodge, have been longtime friends. When Wilkerson birthed the idea for SelfieWRLD, Ollinger and O'Brien were quick to jump on board and now even co-own the Tampa, Florida franchise location.

Wilkerson’s inspiration for Selfie WRLD came about in the spring as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact businesses of all kinds.

“I had to sell my house at the beginning of quarantine,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve been a photographer for 11 years. All of my weddings were getting canceled. I wanted to do something creative for another source of income. I played around with some different ideas.”

Eventually, she discovered the Museum of Ice Cream in Los Angeles.

“It’s really Instagrammable,” Wilkerson said. “They have a sprinkle pool. It’s more for photos than ice cream. It was a really cool place for photos, so why not create a photography studio that anyone could come in and use and pay an admission to use cool, unique backdrops?”

At first, the Des Moines location was known as Selfie Station until there was an interest in franchising, she said. Then the name Selfie WRLD was adopted.

“We took out the O to make it unique and was easier to trademark,” Wilkerson said. “We went off of Juice WRLD (a famous rapper, singer and songwriter from Chicago).”

Wilkerson began franchising in January.

Ollinger said when Wilkerson told her about the idea, she couldn’t quite visualize it, but trusted her anyway.

“When she first was throwing out ideas, I am a very visual person so I said send me a picture,” Ollinger said. “Because it was a concept there wasn’t much for us to see, so I just trusted her. I swear everything she puts her hands on turns to gold.”

Next, the three ladies took a trip to Miami. There, Wilkerson showed them her vision at an empty location for sale.

“It was cool to see a space completely empty and have her walk around with her vision and she said you guys could go in on one with me,” O’Brien recalled. “We giggled and then by the end of the trip, we decided to do our location together.”

Ollinger and O’Brien liked Tampa as a destination.

“There’s a direct flight to Tampa from Iowa,” Ollinger said. “We love to vacation there. We also knew someone that would manage the store. We thought it would be a fun way to vacation together. We love the Tampa area.”

Taking trips and talking business has allowed the friends to spend more time together.

“One cool thing about owning a business together is we have spent more time together this last year than we ever have through our adult life,” Wilkerson said.

Aside from their involvement in Selfie WRLD, O’Brien works in human resources at Elanco in Fort Dodge. Ollinger works from her home in direct sales.

The three women have fond memories of growing up in Fort Dodge.

“The three of us became friends in fifth grade when we all came to the middle school because we went to different elementaries,” O’Brien said. “My tribe is all my friends from Fort Dodge from when we were little.”

The three played softball and sang together in Sonshine Singers for a time.

The friendships extend to their parents, too.

“We have a friendship but also have a good relationship from each others’ parents,” Ollinger said. “We had sleepovers. We have been through life together. Our memories aren’t just the fun times, it’s knowing we are there for each other through all the times.”

About 11 years ago, a friend and fellow FDSH graduate passed away.

“Her name is Katie Lunn,” Ollinger said. “Her parents live at Twin Lakes but she graduated with us also.”

Lunn died in a train accident in 2010 in Chicago. To honor her memory, a room is dedicated to her at the Tampa location.

“Her smile and laugh was infectious,” Ollinger said. “Her favorite color growing up was purple, so we did a room that has a neon purple. It’s actually been a favorite room by people who didn’t even know her. We are able to carry her with us if you will.”

In recent years, Wilkerson has been faced with adversity in the way of her health.

In 2017 she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She received chemotherapy and radiation treatments at UnityPoint Health — John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines.

“There was a 70 percent chance it would come back in the first year and I am four years cancer free now,” Wilkerson said. “I was halfway through treatment and had an appointment with my oncologist and the tumor was still there. The next morning I had the scan and prayed and prayed that it would go away and I’d be cancer free and could be there for my kids. The scan showed my tumor was gone and my doctor couldn’t really explain it. Halfway through my treatment my tumor was gone, but I still continued with the treatments.”

“Ashley is a fighter,” Ollinger said.

Wilkerson remains appreciative of the support she received from the Fort Dodge community.

“Fort Dodge people really rallied around me during that time, too,” Wilkerson said. “They were there for me the most. They really helped me get through that time.”

Her battle with cancer has served as motivation to continue chasing her dreams.

The three women try to live their lives based on a Katie Lunn inspired quote — “Live always, do what you love.”

“We all have very strong work ethics and it’s OK to dream,” Ollinger said. “From a young age, we have all worked together in a sense.”

Fort Dodge remains an important place to the women.

“There’s really something to be said about Fort Dodge and the community and the way people support each other and remain friends,” Wilkerson said. “I don’t see that same camaraderie from other towns. There’s something about the Fort Dodge community that is unmatched. A lot of the people we graduated with have remained friends. That community raised us to be there for one another. We love Fort Dodge.”

And the Fort Dodge connection goes deeper.

Wilkerson said the Des Moines location was sold as a franchise to two Fort Dodge graduates.

“St. Louis will be owned by a Fort Dodge grad,” Wilkerson said. “Fort Worth, Texas, will be owned by a guy that was in our same graduating class.”

Family is important to Wilkerson.

Her father, Rick Sandquist, is Wilkerson’s franchise manager.

“He’s always been business-minded,” Wilkerson said. “So when he retired from AD (Iowa Central athletic director), I knew he would find a way to stay busy and I’m keeping him busy.”

Wilkerson describes her mother, Annette Sandquist, as her “creative sidekick.”

Wilkerson’s boyfriend, Austin Driscoll, of Clinton, has been supportive since the idea for Selfie WRLD was sparked.

“I met Austin in Des Moines,” she said. “We started out as friends. He lost both of his parents to cancer when he was younger. We had a special bond. When we were friends we were talking about how we should own a business together. So it’s kind of cool that we started dating and actually started a business together and it’s going really well.”

Driscoll serves as chief operating officer for Selfie WRLD.

“He’s been with me on this since day one,” Wilkerson said.

In terms of Selfie WRLD, each location is a little different. Some of the locations are 3,000 square feet, while others are 9,200 square feet.

Des Moines has 12 rooms, while Orlando has 35 rooms.

“We create as many photo ops as possible,” Wilkerson said. “Even with 12 rooms there’s 27 different photo ops.

Admission ranges anywhere from $18 to $27 per hour based on the location.

Even though selfie is in the name of the business, Wilkerson said she understands why some people don’t like the word.

“A lot of people hate the word selfie,” she said. “To some people that means narcissism. This is a do-it-yourself photography studio. Professional photographers come in and do photoshoots. It’s not just selfies.”

And while each Selfie WRLD location has its differences, there are rooms that can be seen at all the locations.

“We have six required rooms that you will see at every Selfie WRLD,” Wilkerson said. “A retro diner is a required room. People are allowed to make it their own color scheme. That’s one of our most popular rooms. There’s a jukebox in there. At every location that’s one of the more popular things.

“When I first started Des Moines, we ended up doing an all red room with a red couch. We have swings. We like to have a lot of interactive options, something they can pose with or do. It’s more of an experience than just a photography studio. You can actually swing on the swings there.”

It’s often been said that one shouldn’t mix friends with business. But these friends don’t seem too worried.

“We did this strictly for fun,” Ollinger said. “We said this from the beginning, ‘friends first, business second.'”

And business seems to be trending in the right direction. Wilkerson said she has dozens of franchise requests.

“My franchise attorney said he’s never seen anything like it,” she said. “It’s growing really quickly now.”

Fort Dodge will likely not be one of those locations.

“We want them to be in areas where they will really thrive in the bigger cities,” Wilkerson said. “People drive to come to these. Lots of people have come from Fort Dodge to the Des Moines one. We have talked about doing a pop up one in Fort Dodge but we like to stay in the bigger areas for the most part.”

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