Interview by Sarah Shumick
Name: Sarai Veronique Exil
Profession: Manager, Diversity and Inclusion for Big Lots Stores, Inc.; Chairman of the Board and President of Student Success Stores
Neighborhood: Victorian Village
Education: BA in Communications from Ohio State University
Quote: “I want to live in a world where people can be 100% of themselves each and every day, so that they can reach their highest potential.”
Connect: LinkedIn | Instagram | Twitter
If Sarai Exil’s experience in Americorps at City Year Columbus taught her anything, it was, “to value service above self, to believe in the power of young people, and to honor the idea that my humanity is tied to yours.” Exil spent two years with City Year, moving on to accept a role with Big Lots as a philanthropy and events associate. Today, Exil is the Manager of Diversity and Inclusion for Big Lots Stores, Inc. and on the founding board of Student Success Stores, both roles for which she is well prepared and for which she feels an immense passion.
Through Student Success Stores, Exil is able to truly give back in a meaningful way with 18 other idealists working to provide access to food, clothing, school supplies, and hygiene items to students in Columbus City Schools. Solving problems with folks from every walk of life for the betterment of our city gives her the energy she needs to stay steadfast in her mission of equity. “I’ll serve on this board for however long they will have me,” she said. Exil exudes energy, passion and immense gratitude for her many mentors, saying, “I’m grateful for each and every one of their lessons.”
Give us a snapshot of your career path:
I moved to Columbus in 2011 after I decided to serve in AmeriCorps through City Year Columbus. I was placed at a high school east of highway 71 – Linden-McKinley STEM Academy. During my two years of service, City Year taught me to value service above self, to believe in the power of young people, and to honor the idea that my humanity is tied to yours. My experience with City Year showed me how systematic our inequities are as a country. At the end of my service, I had a fire in my belly for equity.
I stayed in Columbus and worked full-time while I earned my Bachelor of Arts in Strategic Communication. After I graduated, I started a part-time temp gig at the Big Lots Corporate Headquarters as a philanthropy and events associate. I worked hard and fast with a heart-led and people-first mindset, and my company rewarded me with two promotions in my first year. In the past four years, I’ve been able to lead Big Lots’ day-to-day philanthropic efforts and dip my toe in Events and Internal Communications, all while learning from the best team around.
In the beginning of my career at Big Lots, I joined the founding board of an organization called Student Success Stores. Through Student Success Stores, I am able to truly give back in a meaningful way with 18 other idealists working to provide access to food, clothing, school supplies, and hygiene items to students in Columbus City Schools. Solving problems with folks from every walk of life for the betterment of our city gives me the energy I need to stay steadfast in my mission of equity. I’ll serve on this board for however long they will have me.
I’m a passionate and enthusiastic individual, and I truly believe in people and their potential to change the world we live in for the better. I want to live in a world where people can be 100% of themselves each and every day, so that they can reach their highest potential. This passion for equity brought me to my newest journey. At the end of November 2019, I was asked to lead Big Lots’ first-ever Diversity and Inclusion journey. I’m honored to help lift the voice of our associates across the company.
So far, my career has taught me to never doubt that vulnerability and passion can make a BIG impact in the lives of others. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll learn on this journey.
What gets you up in the morning? And what gets you through the workweek?
A banana. My Daily Podcast playlist on Spotify. And most importantly, people. The people I work with at Big Lots truly feel like family. The people I serve with at Student Success Stores are brilliant go-getters who inspire me daily with their persistence in changing the lives of children in poverty.
What advice or mentors have helped guide you along the way?
I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by people who advocate for me. Todd Tuney and Lourdes Barroso de Padilla changed the trajectory of my life with the opportunities they gave me in City Year. They really showed me the impact of envisioning and storytelling in helping to open minds to new ideas. My former boss, Jeremy Ball, gave me a seat at a table that I still can’t believe I was invited to – the Big Lots Foundation. While we made philanthropic gifts throughout our community through the Big Lots Foundation, he reminded me daily that my perspective mattered while also holding me to the highest of expectations. Michelle Cramer is my newest advocate, and her energy and constant support is giving way to a new chapter in my professional development as a non-profit leader. I’m learning from her to take a moment, reflect, and celebrate. I’m grateful for each and every one of their lessons.
Where do you go to unwind?
Paulie Gees. Estilo Brazil Café. Mi Li Café. Kai’s Crab Boil. Mezze. Japanese Oriental Restaurant. I pretty much wind down with food.
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up?
Marine Biologist. But then about four years into that dream, I thought long and hard about what it would be like to be face-to-face with a Blue Whale, and I panicked.
What books or podcasts are you reading/listening to right now?
The Daily and Up First are the podcasts I begin my day with, and I love love love to spend my Sunday listening to Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast. I enjoy keeping up with politics and global issues that are impacting humankind.
What does it mean to you to be chosen for the Next Up Columbus award?
I’m very honored to be chosen for this award, and to be nominated by someone I so highly regard. Hope Hill has a BIG heart and brilliant ideas, and it was a pleasure to serve with her in City Year.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them?
Man, oh, man, there’s too many places to count! I think one place that’s capturing the pulse of entrepreneurship, gender and racial equity, and community in Columbus is Zora’s House, a coworking and community space for women of color in Columbus, Ohio. Check it out if you desire connection among women of color who are uplifting each other into success.
The Next Up Columbus Awards highlight emerging leaders who are connectors and ambassadors in Central Ohio and who are making a positive impact on the future of Columbus. Special thanks to the Columbus Young Professionals Club, Discover Financial, and Zipline Logistics for their support of this awards program. Meet the entire “Class of 2020” »