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Ashley Hackshaw’s mantra: ‘Choose Joy’

Entrepreneur, blogger and cancer survivor inspires others to see life differently.

By Cherin C. Poovey (P '08) Wake Forest Magazine
Ashley Swenson Hackshaw: erring on the side of positivity
Ashley Swenson Hackshaw: erring on the side of positivity

Ashley Swenson Hackshaw (’99, MBA ’03) describes her life as normal and mundane. But thousands of readers who follow her entertaining and inspirational blog, Lil Blue Boo, find it anything but that.

A wife, mother, entrepreneur, crafter, do-it-yourselfer, writer/designer/photographer and lifestyle blogger, Hackshaw is also a cancer survivor with a self-prescribed philosophy for living each day. Her secret? “Choose Joy.”

“I think ‘Choose Joy’ sums up how I try to live each day,” says Hackshaw, who lives in Palm Desert, Calif., with her husband Brett (’98), whom she met during her junior year at Wake Forest, and their 5-year-old daughter, Sienna (aka Boo.) “I know life isn’t always full of rainbows and unicorns, but I know that I have a choice to consciously err on the side of positivity.” Her choice has been to celebrate life daily on her popular lifestyle/parenting/crafting/clothing line blog, Lil Blue Boo, and its subsite, The Cancer Chronicles.

Ashley Hackshaw and her daughter, Sienna, prepare to raft down the Truckee River in Nevada.

Hackshaw, who double-majored in math and art, went from a career in investment banking to pursuing her passion in the creative world. She never thought cancer would be a part of her story.

But shortly after her father, former Deacon golfer Norman Swenson (’69), died, she suffered what doctors thought was a miscarriage, only to learn she had uterine cancer. Next came an emergency hysterectomy followed by several rounds of intensive chemotherapy; currently she is cancer-free.

“Choose Joy became my motto after I found it written on a piece of paper on my dad’s desk following his unexpected death in May 2011,” she says. “He had been playing in a golf tournament in Korea and on the way back he fell asleep on the plane and never woke up again. It was a shock to everyone because he was so healthy and full of life.”

“With the ‘Choose Joy’ paper laid out, it was like he had left my family a message. I was extremely blessed to have grown up with parents that had a very positive outlook on life, but the ‘Choose Joy’ saying helped to pass that message on to others.”

Hackshaw says the idea behind the concept is that even though life can be hard, whether from financial trouble, difficult relationships, health problems, death, every day we have a choice: to let things bring us down, or to Choose Joy, move on and just be thankful that I’m here. “I think Choose Joy and Pro Humanitate are very similar mottos: that we have a choice in our behavior and how that choice affects others,” she says. “By living in this way, I know that I’m always moving forward.”

Lil Blue Boo started out a few years ago as a place to log projects and things she made. Over time it slowly evolved into a lifestyle website offering “fun and elegant art projects: along with cute children’s clothing patterns. It has been listed on Babble’s Top 50 craft blog list for two years, where it won “Most Creative” and Hackshaw was honored among “The Moms Who are Changing Your World.” She donated the prize money to the local domestic abuse shelter.

“It’s taken more a personal turn but it’s all-inclusive with everything and anything that I love and want to share,” she says. “One day you might find a step-by-step DIY project and the next day you might find a personal story about parenting. There are ongoing series related to small business, photography, art, and products I love.”

Lil Blue Boo gets over 1.8 million page views a month and Choose Joy resonates with a majority of those visitors. Hackshaw originated the “Choose Joy” purple wristband and there are over 24,000 being worn around the world to help spread the message.

“I also try to be very aware of how my attitude affects others, even just the most fleeting interaction with a random person on the street. Sometimes it’s as simple as smiling at someone or asking how their day is,” she says.

Hackshaw thinks her “normal and mundane” approach is what resonates with people, like posts about her fear of driving other people’s cars or some of her obsessive tendencies. In The Cancer Chronicles, she shares the good and the bad, talking candidly about cancer treatment and posting photos of her surgical scar. The most rewarding part of her job is getting an email or letter from a reader showing a project they finished or saying that her writing somehow inspired someone to look at life a little differently.

There’s a large burden that comes with writing such a public blog, she points out. “I don’t want to disappoint my readers. I feel an urgency to write every single day, and everything I put out there is subject to criticism. I don’t blog about politics and I try to stay away from controversial topics for that very reason. Life is too short for unnecessary confrontation.”

Lil Blue Boo is a constantly evolving project whose readers never know what they are going to get on any specific day, says Hackshaw. “That’s the best part. I can change directions or add a new topic or series whenever I feel like it. Going forward, I still want to focus on encouraging people to find their creative streak. I think everyone has it in them to be creative — whether it’s through photography, cooking, painting, quilting — or even accounting.”

Hackshaw’s Wake Forest memories go back as far as she can remember.  Her dad was always taking the family to basketball games and football games and loved the golf program. Brett’s parents, (Barry Hackshaw ’70, MD ’74) and Kathy Sirkel Hackshaw Gonzalez (’71), and his sister, Christy Hackshaw McFalls (’92) are alumni. “Our 5-year-old daughter is a Demon Deacon through and through,” she says.

“Some of my best memories are from freshman year. I loved the whole experience of starting college, finding friends, and figuring myself out. And the friendships made that year are still there,” she adds. “I loved every second of every class, critique and studio time spent in Scales. Professors Page Laughlin and David Finn really had a lasting influence on my creativity. When I went back for my MBA in 2003, even though my focus was finance, the first thing I did was try to get more time in the painting studio with Page with a self-study on the business of art.”