When her sister Katie was in treatment for breast cancer, Kendra realized the need for patients to connect with each other and with survivors. The sisters formed The Licorice Project to create just such a community of women who help each other with resources and emotional support during this difficult time.
Tell us a little about your background…
I have lived in Wilmette, Illinois, with my family for the past 25 years, not far from where I grew up in Glencoe, Illinois. My husband John and I just celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. We have four children ranging in age from 15 to 28.
I graduated from Williams College and spent the next year teaching English in Japan. After traveling around Asia for several months, I returned to the U.S. and pursued a career in international business. I completed a management training program at Irving Trust Company in New York and joined their international reinsurance unit.
My next goal was to go back to business school—I had to postpone this after the birth of my first child and my husband’s transfer to Tokyo. I spent the next couple of years in Tokyo raising our family and studying the Japanese language and culture. Upon our return to the U.S., we relocated to Chicago for John’s new job opportunity as well as for family reasons.
I finally realized my dream of going back to school when I started full-time at Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management in 1990, at age 29 (with a one-year old and two-and-a half year old in tow!).
After graduating from Kellogg, I worked at United Airlines (management training) and Rand McNally (marketing and sales). I loved working in the travel industry, but it was difficult to juggle my work and family, especially after the birth of my third child. I slowly made the transition from full-time to part-time to consultant before choosing to stay home with my family full-time. I immersed myself in my kids’ activities and many volunteer roles, particularly at my children’s schools.
I had been thinking about my next steps for quite a while, but with four kids spread out over 13 years, my life was extremely busy and full. I think it was when my sons were established in their own jobs and my daughters were heading off to college and junior high school, respectively, that I finally had time to think “Hey, what about me?”
I do recall one specific moment when I was in downtown Chicago and was suddenly struck by the city’s energy and excitement; I thought to myself “I want to get in on this act!
I sprung into action and signed up for a Job Search Workshop for alumni, hosted by Kellogg. I joined most of the social media platforms in one week and took an online advanced social media course offered through CSJM (Columbia School of Journalism).
The biggest leap I took was enrolling in HTML/CSS coding and design courses at The Starter League, a Chicago school whose stated goal is “to teach you how to solve problems you care about with technology,” which really jump-started my next act. It was a game changer.
What is your next act?
In 2012, together with my sister, Katie Clarke, I founded The Licorice Project (TLP), a community for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families and friends. We are a social enterprise with a simple, but mighty mission: to change the breast cancer experience. Our goal is to connect people locally, share resources, and spread unexpected joy. We address the practical, social, and emotional aspects of having breast cancer and strive to complement what the medical community and other cancer organizations are doing.
I love knowing that I am building a community and helping to make a difference. So many women have been touched by TLP. Many have met at our gatherings and gone on to become great supporters of one another and wonderful friends, too. One woman came the night before she started chemo and said it was “the best place she could have been” because she was surrounded by an amazing community of survivors. It gave her hope.
Others have come to our gatherings during the initial flurry of decision-making after a diagnosis and were able to gain knowledge and companionship. Survivors have benefited by finding helpful health and wellness resources and have appreciated the chance to mentor others and give back. Our website has helped breast cancer patients, survivors, and the families and friends who support them, find helpful resources. For example, a number of our community members have joined ROW (Recovery on Water) and have sent their children to Camp Kesem.
Why did you choose this next act?
The Licorice Project really started out as a project itself. One of the questions that were posed when I applied to The Starter League was “What problem are you trying to solve?” At the time, my sister Katie, also a long-time resident of Wilmette, was going through treatment for breast cancer. Even though she had excellent care and a great support network, it was still such an overwhelming experience. Throughout her journey, we constantly wondered what we could do to help solve this problem and make the journey less overwhelming for future breast cancer patients and the people who care about them.
Our initial goal was to help make sense of all of the information that you are flooded with following a breast cancer diagnosis (or really any kind of diagnosis). But the more we interviewed patients and survivors, the more we discovered that there was a great need for people to connect with others who had “been there, done that,” and could help manage expectations. Plus, there were many wonderful resources available, but it was hit or miss whether you found them.
So, we searched for a way to leverage technology not only to connect and empower people online, but also to facilitate those important offline relationships. The Licorice Project is our answer.
We host seasonal gatherings that give our community a chance to get together in person. We started off holding these events in our homes and soon members of our community and local businesses began offering to host them as well. These are mostly social events that give people an opportunity to meet face to face, although we have invited speakers from time to time, too. We have also introduced some casual get-togethers at local coffee shops for newly diagnosed women over the past year.
We often publicize events and activities for other organizations and sometimes a group of women from The Licorice Project will attend together. Last year, many of us were lucky to hear (and meet) cancer survivor Hollye Jacobs of The Silver Pen and author of Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer Against All Odds, Kelly Turner, Ph.D.
In the beginning, we made personal introductions via email, but last year we created a Closed Facebook Group that makes it easier than ever for people to connect with one another. Many women who have met online have formed offline friendships where they text or talk on the phone, meet in person, or work out together.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Taking the first step to found The Licorice Project was a little nerve-wracking. I really felt like I was putting myself out there, especially when it came to using technology. At the time, I didn’t own a laptop, my computer skills were somewhat rusty, and I certainly didn’t know much of the tech lingo. I forced myself to learn new skills and stretch beyond my comfort zone.
Why did you call your organization The Licorice Project?
While participating in our first breast cancer walk, Katie and I were touched by those who came out to cheer us on and give us treats—like licorice. That inspired us to begin our own family tradition of handing out licorice to walkers in Chicago as they passed through our neighborhood. This simple gesture made people feel happy and upbeat and brought a smile to their faces.
The name is symbolic and reminds us that it’s often the small things that make a difference. It is our hope that The Licorice Project will improve the lives of everyone affected by breast cancer by connecting, sharing, and helping each other, and by spreading unexpected joy along the way.
Who else helped launch The Licorice Project?
Jen Dolan and I had a child in the same class and she lived around the corner from me. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just months before my sister, so I reached out to her to see if she would be willing to talk to Katie. It was so helpful for her to meet with someone who was just ahead of her in the process and, in fact, this was the type of experience that inspired us to create The Licorice Project.
Later, when we decided to start this organization, I learned that Jen had a great deal of experience with websites and social media. She was instrumental in helping us define our vision and get The Licorice Project up and running. Jen is an attorney who has since returned to work full-time, but continues to have an advisory role in TLP.
One of Katie’s medical providers contacted her to see if she would be willing to speak with Naomi Damask, another young mother with breast cancer. At the time, we were in the process of interviewing people and Naomi offered to share her experience with us. Once she heard about our vision for The Licorice Project, she jumped on board and offered to help. She has since moved to Minnesota, but she is still very involved and is hoping to set up a local TLP community in Minneapolis.
I also want to give a shout-out to my son’s friend, Kelly Pratt, who designed our logo and our initial website. She helped us take the first step.
What challenges did you encounter?
There have been lots of challenges! One of the main ones was trying to start a company on a limited budget. We followed The Lean Startup methodology developed by Eric Ries, which meant we did most of the work ourselves. It took a lot of personal time, energy, and money as well as the support of some very wonderful and generous people who were willing to share their time and talents because they believed in our cause. We are still a small team trying to make a big impact.
Another challenge was that we were dealing with a very sensitive topic. There were times when I got caught up in the startup mentality and felt like we could, and should, be growing more quickly. We had so many ideas for how we could expand and help more people in more ways! But, our priority was always to be respectful and put the needs of our community first, which meant taking things a little slower. I think it paid off because we’ve grown organically and at the right speed for our audience. Now, we’ve moved beyond helping friends of friends and are being recommended by many medical providers. We’ve achieved our initial goal of creating a platform where women can find the people and information they need at a very difficult time in their lives.
Now that we’ve proven the concept, our next challenge is to focus on making sure that we can sustain The Licorice Project going forward. We are social enterprise, but not a nonprofit (although many people assume that we are one) and have been self-funded to date. We decided early on that we wanted to be part of the growing movement that believes that you can be a business with a social mission. We wanted to focus on growing our community and not fundraising.
We’re exploring partnerships and sponsorships as well as a few other revenue-generating ideas. We have aspirations of offering this type of community in other geographic locations.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
There have been quite a few times when we wondered whether we should keep going. My sister was still undergoing treatment for breast cancer when we started The Licorice Project, so we had to make that a priority.
Honestly, I have to give her a lot of credit for being willing to go on this entrepreneurial journey with me at all! Starting a social enterprise was not easy and it took a great deal of time to build a website, get up and running on social media, set up our newsletter, organize and publicize events, create marketing materials, etc. However, every single time we questioned ourselves, serendipity intervened. Someone always seemed to reach out at that very moment to let us know how we were making a difference. That inspires us to this day.
How supportive has your family been?
Many of our family members and their friends have pitched in by giving feedback, helping us brainstorm, creating content, and making important introductions. My husband, kids, and extended family are all proud of what we’ve accomplished with The Licorice Project. They’ve all been there to witness first-hand the challenges and hard work it has taken, and to celebrate our successes. That being said, I will say that it has been all-consuming at times, especially because I was so passionate about getting it up and running. I definitely had to take a step back and learn to balance my work and family time (read: turn off the computer!)
Our father is a physician and a polio survivor, so he understands the importance of this community from the perspective of both the patient and provider. Our mother passed away 10 years ago, but I know she would have loved The Licorice Project. She lived with multiple sclerosis for more than 40 years and had a huge network of friends who supported her during that time as she raised five children and dealt with a challenging illness. We learned about the importance of community, of helping others and accepting help from an early age. In many ways, our mother and her friends inspired The Licorice Project.
How is your sister’s health now? How do you work together on The Licorice Project?
Katie is doing very well. She sees her oncologist and surgeon every six months. Like many breast cancer survivors, she struggles with lymphedema, which will be an ongoing challenge. This is a condition that many people in The Licorice Project deal with and the community is wonderful about supporting each other and sharing information.
Katie’s background is in teaching and mine is in marketing and finance, so we focus on our strengths. Her main role is that of a mentor/connector and liaison with medical providers. I oversee business development, content creation, and social media/marketing/communication responsibilities. We both organize events. Naomi helps with social media and business development, too. In the end, we all roll up our sleeves and pitch in where needed.
How do you promote your organization?
Most people learn of our community through word of mouth or their medical providers. We have TLP cards and flyers that are given out to newly diagnosed women. We also build our community through social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter. (Twitter is a particularly great way to connect with other breast cancer and healthcare organizations.)
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Done is better than perfect—still working on that one myself! Perfectionism has to go by the wayside when you are starting a company. There are so many new skills to learn, obstacles to overcome, and opportunities to pursue. It can be overwhelming at times, but you have to keep moving forward even when you know it “could be” better. You have to start somewhere—and the good news is you can always iterate.
Taking a step or two forward can feel risky, but every time I have done so, a new opportunity has come my way.
Ask for help, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Like many women, I struggle with this and I need to practice what I preach more often. It’s also important to delegate. At first, I was so eager to learn that I wanted to do everything myself. But the more I’ve outsourced tasks that aren’t my favorite or specialty—like web design and accounting—the more I’ve had time to focus on my strengths and the happier I’ve been. I wish I’d figured that our earlier! Now, we’re hoping to get some interns on board who can help with social media, blogging, and posting on our website, so that we can focus on more strategic issues.
Always keep learning! I am a passionate lifelong learner who loves a challenge. I always thought my “formal” education was complete after business school, but taking classes at The Starter League opened up a whole new world for me. Every time I attend a conference or a local class or event, I feel so inspired and energized. I really thrive on learning something new every day.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
It’s easier than ever to pursue your entrepreneurial dreams. The landscape has changed so much even in the past couple of years. There are many free or inexpensive tools to help get you up and running. Take advantage of them! Reach out to other entrepreneurs, too. They have been in your shoes and are usually more than willing to share ideas and experiences.
Everyone can make a difference. You don’t have to solve the world’s biggest problem. Just pick something you are passionate and about and take the first step. My sister and I simply wanted to help other people, but now we’ve created something that has grown far beyond us. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how our community has taken on a life of its own and how everyone supports one another.
What resources do you recommend?
I attended The Starter League in Chicago. This is a fabulous school for people who want to start building something. Beyond the classes (which are awesome), there are many opportunities to hear speakers and learn outside the classroom. Plus, you become part of a large, supportive, growing network of entrepreneurs, developers, and designers.
I was introduced to Jen Fournier of Via Digerati when she was assigned as my mentor at The Starter League. She has been an invaluable resource to me (she redesigned our website and newsletter). Her contributions go far beyond design since she has a great sense of business and marketing, too.
There are many organizations in the Chicago area (and most cities) which host events that cater to entrepreneurs. Some of the ones I found particularly helpful and interesting are Built in Chicago, Technori, Enterpreneurs Unpluggd, and Startup Grind. There are always interesting events at 1871 (the hub for digital startups) and MATTER (the hub for healthcare startups). We also participated in the Chicago Lean Startup Challenge to prove our concept and help get The Licorice Project off the ground.
Twitter is my go-to resource for finding companies and organizations that help women who are pursuing entrepreneurial paths. There are too many to name them all, but some of the organizations I follow are iRelaunch, Ellevate, Mom 2.0 Summit, Mompreneur, and Project Eve.
What about resources for women fighting breast cancer?
Our website is a great place to start. We highlight our favorite resources that are specifically geared toward breast cancer, but we also like to think outside the box and share other types of websites, too.
Check out our website’s Resources page.
You can also find local Chicago-based resources.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Absolutely! In fact, I have already started on my next act, which is a company called Up n Running. Everyone knows that technology is moving so quickly—it’s hard to keep up! I founded this company with Gieriet Bowen, one of my Kellogg classmates, because we both experienced this problem first-hand. Up n Running helps keep people “in the know” on technology and social media. We recently launched our bi-weekly newsletter, The RUNDOWN, which features “tech you can use.” We also teach Twitter to people/professionals who would like to drive engagement and/or revenue using the platform.
Contact Kendra Olvany at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Up n Running: http://upnrunning.co/
I love a good breast cancer help story!!! Congratulations to Kendra an all involved.