How a Battle with Cancer Kick-Started my Career as an Entrepreneur
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As the daughter of a successful mid-life entrepreneur who actually launched his business the year I was born, I believe the entrepreneurial spirit is in my DNA. It just took a bout with cancer to give me the drive to act on it.
Working for various companies over the years, I was someone who approached every job as if I owned the place, putting in more effort and time than my clock-watching colleagues. And while my entrepreneurial spirit infused my work ethic, my dreams of starting a business went unfulfilled -- until the summer of 2005, when I was in treatment for breast cancer.
Today, this last day of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I address how entrepreneurialism and cancer converged in my life all those years ago to build something good out of something terrible.
Diagnosed that spring of 2005, I had been going through a difficult job transition and a financially devastating divorce from which I was still recovering. I was living paycheck to paycheck, and my career plans had stalled while I underwent treatment.
With no paycheck, no savings and a steep monthly COBRA premium for health insurance, for me, my five children and my new, self-employed husband, I watched our family go into financial free fall.
I was desperate. We were facing the potential loss of our home to foreclosure, my car to the repo man and the shut-off of our utilities. I needed relief from what is now known in the cancer world as “financial toxicity”: the emotional, mental and physically debilitating -- often life-threatening -- financial side effects that cancer treatment may induce.
When my attempts to get help were met with blank stares, I became determined to give the help, not just get it. That's how I became an entrepreneur: I decided to take action. Here's how I went about it.
The first step
I believed I could make a difference in the lives of breast cancer patients in active treatment and unable to work -- women (and men, too) facing the same financial distress our family was experiencing. Believing I could make a difference, I took $50 and purchased a book called How To Form a Non-Profit Corporation.
This 1.5-inch-thick book, chockful of small print and bold-faced sub-titles, resembled a legal document someone would tote into court to plead a case. It wasn't exactly the manual I expected to use for launching a non-profit.
Something else I didn't expect: the confidence I felt in my ability to bring my idea to market, buoyed by my background in journalism, marketing and public relations. The trouble was, I had absolutely zero interest in reading through this giant volume of rules and regulations.
So, recognizing a CEO's need to delegate, I handed the manual to my logical, linear-thinking, dot-the-i’s-and-cross-the t’s husband. “Here, read this and tell me what to do,” I said.
Next, I realized the need to raise seed money. My first effort: I traded a knock-off of a Saarinen-designed kitchen table for our heart and ribbon logo.
Second: I decided on a launch event: placing for sale on eBay a painted plaster cast of my bust before surgery. It weighed 32 pounds and was cast in dental stone.
Third: I dealt with the paperwork of starting our business. My husband wrote the organization's by-laws and filed papers with the IRS for our 501(c)(3) tax-exempt designation.
Next, I spread the word. For the first five years, I worked part- and full-time jobs, spending lunch hours, evenings and weekends speaking at any and every Kiwanis, Rotary and Optimist Club looking for a free speaker. Armed with that dental-stone bust, and an octagon-shaped sign in pink labeled BUST STOP, I shared my nightmare of financial devastation.
I described my dream of starting an organization that would help provide breast cancer patients and their families with 90 days of non-medical financial relief so they could focus on healing and returning to the workplace.
Slowly, donations began to trickle in, as did requests for help. In the spring of 2007 we began making our first payments to cover the bills of women recipients in Michigan. A vision board I made that same year included the logos of several for-profit companies I believed could help us launch nationally. Ford Motor Company's "Blue Oval" was the most prominent.
By 2010, our annual budget was approaching $40,000. We hired our first part-time grants processor to supplement the work of our all-volunteer staff, which I led as an unpaid CEO
In 2012, Ford's Team Detroit, which runs the Blue Oval’s Warriors in Pink, an organization which to date has dedicated $130 milion in the fight against breast cancer, stepped in to help. The organization decided to diversify its charitable giving, inviting The Pink Fund to become one of its four charity partners.
Ford’s game-changing investment in our mission propelled us from serving Michigan women only, to growth as an organization which to date has helped more than 1,600 families nationwide, providing them more than $1.7 million dollars in bill-payment assistance, to cover the cost of housing, transportation, utilities and insurance.
My father, long deceased, would be proud to know that the daughter he spawned in mid-life herself gave birth in the second half of her life to a small, but mighty and esteemed non-profit. Today, that non-profit gives help and hope to hundreds of women and their families every year. And many of those women? Entrepreneurs themselves.