Scrolling through Sasha Exeter’s Instagram feed, it’s tough not to be inspired by her photos (and also slightly intimidated!). Strong, fearless and totally badass, she’s the editor of the Toronto-based lifestyle blog So Sasha, a successful brand storyteller and a fitness model to boot. And although she’s now working alongside big name brands like Nike, Mountain Equipment Co-op, General Motors and Schwinn bikes to create unique content for her loyal followers, Sasha’s success didn’t come without a lot of hustle and a fair amount of struggle.
Following graduation, Sasha immersed herself in the corporate lifestyle, working long hours and jetsetting around the world to work her way to the top. “It was hectic,” she admits. “I was splitting each week in three different time zones. I had done so well in my career, certainly on paper, but I really wasn’t happy. I ended up running myself into the ground.” It was then that a pre-existing kidney illness flared up and Sasha was hospitalized, forced to leave the workplace for over a year and unable to maintain the active lifestyle she had enjoyed since childhood. As she healed physically, Sasha realized it was up to her to make a change and began to carve a new path in life that would fulfill her in more ways than a paycheque alone ever could.
Find out how Sasha went from climbing the corporate ladder to becoming one of Canada’s most sought-after creative brand ambassadors, and how being diagnosed with a serious illness took her from rock bottom to fearless renegade.
You consider yourself to be a brand storyteller – what does that mean exactly?
It’s basically a social influencer that has grown into a brand ambassador through prolonged relationships and a genuine interest in each brand. I pitch ideas and create content surrounding certain companies, products or services and tell a story in my own voice through my blog and social channels.
As your website So Sasha has grown, you’ve partnered with some pretty big heavy-hitters in the fitness world – when did you become such a rockstar athlete?
I actually started playing tennis when I was five and had a bit of an unorthodox childhood because of it. I was going to school half time and then was training the rest of the day and travelling. To be honest, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the sport as it was a job at a very young age – I didn’t have the same teenage experience that other kids got. And then I got a full athletic scholarship to college in the US, where I went to Indiana State and then Howard – the hectic lifestyle just continued on from there.
What made you decide to leave tennis?
In college I was diagnosed with a kidney disease and was told that I couldn’t play anymore. It was upsetting, but I was also relieved that I could just be a student – not an All-American student athlete, but just a regular student. I went to my first keg party and discovered sorority life. It was such a different experience to what I was used to growing up.
I got healthy when I entered the workforce and then I had a relapse and that was really tough for me. That was my rock bottom – I was in a legal battle with my employer over my leave, my relationship was falling apart, and I was generally depressed. Plus, I was embarrassed. I had gained 30 pounds and I didn’t want to work out in front of people. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like my body was mine.
I can’t even imagine how hard that would be for an athlete. How did you pull yourself back from that rock bottom?
Well, my doctors told me I needed to do some form of physical activity, so I took to running because I could control the environment. I ran outside my house at ridiculous hours so no one would see me – that’s how embarrassed I was.
I remember the first three runs I couldn’t even make it around the block, which hit hard because I had always been so fit. I just recall being so out of shape and trying so hard to get around that block that my mind wasn’t able to think of anything else, which was a nice mental retreat from everything I was dealing with at the time. So every day I looked forward to having that time to myself – it started as 20 minutes and quickly worked up to an hour. In two months I was able to run 10k.
And then you got the opportunity to lead your own run group with Nike!
I know, right? I started working with Nike a year and a half ago when they were putting their run program together. Then the opportunities just began to build.
Things really took off last summer as I was asked to run the Nike San Francisco half marathon. The thing was, no one knew I was suffering from any ailments (my kidney illness was now paired with fibromyalgia). A few weeks before the race I told someone at Nike and she convinced me to talk about it and share the story with my readers. So I ran the race and beat my goal, and that’s when I decided to come out about my illness and my personal story on So Sasha.
The response was crazy overwhelming. I hesitantly pushed it live and it’s still the most hits I’ve seen on my site.
That’s not surprising – people connect to real stories.
100%. If you appear to be too perfect and have everything put together, people can’t relate to you. Because I look fit and healthy, people don’t assume I’m dealing with an illness. And that’s what pushed me to inspire people to be active. I was able to motivate people who could see, “Okay well if she’s doing it, I don’t have an excuse.” I didn’t realize how many other people in the world suffer from what I’m suffering from, and to recognize that I could be an inspiration for them was a very emotional moment for me.
How did this affect So Sasha?
I think that post was a huge turning point for me and my blog. There are probably just as many people starting a blog in a day as there are women giving birth. What it comes down to in the end is your content and your voice. Just be you. Don’t try to be somebody that you’re not, because your readers will see straight through it.
I left the 9-to-5 world because I was tired of searching for happiness in a place I knew I could never achieve it – in a paycheque and a dollar amount.
Were there other Toronto-based bloggers doing the fitness thing at that time?
Not really. When I entered the blog world, I was covering primarily fashion. A little bit of travel and beauty and lifestyle, but mostly fashion. But everyone and their dog was doing that, too!
So I just went back to my ‘why’ – why did I start this to begin with? Why did I leave my six-figure job? People were always asking me what I did in terms of food and nutrition, where I train, what I wear to train, and so my content slowly started to merge in that direction about a year and a half ago. The rest has been history.
Did you ever imagine this job could exist for you?
Not at all! It was just a creative outlet as I returned back to workforce after my leave. I had done strictly business writing in the past and had always worked in corporate environments, so blogging was supposed to be for fun. Because I didn’t have that journalistic background, in my head I was thinking, “Are people gonna think this is a joke?” But I got over the fear and pushed it live with a little nudging from loved ones. It was slow for the first 3-4 months and then things just picked up from there.
You’ve been a brand storyteller full-time for over a year now – congrats! What pushed you to leave your 9-to-5?
I was just tired of searching for happiness in a place I knew I could never achieve it. I was trying to find happiness in a paycheque and a dollar amount, but no matter how hard I worked, I was just never happy. At first I tried to juggle both a full-time job and my blog, but I knew I would never get to where I wanted to be with So Sasha if I stayed there. Every week, day and minute that went by, I was just wasting time – it was simply a matter of ‘now or never’.
Where do you see your personal brand growing?
I’m still shocked at where I am now, so it’s tough to say where I’ll be next year or even five years from now. A long-term goal would be to have my own athletic apparel, but a shorter term goal would be to have an e-commerce site and collaborate on some custom products with fitness and nutrition brands that I’ve worked with over the years.
That’s such a great fit for you! Before we wrap up, are there any pearls of wisdom you can share with people who find themselves stuck in a similar life rut?
It’s simple: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”