Iwish you had known my grandmother. Josephine Brent was born 1936 in a small town in Virginia. You would have loved her. She worked as a nurse and was a wife. She purchased a home and raised three daughters. I watched her fight breast cancer and go into remission. Never would I have imagined the cancer returning and her passing away in 2009. The day she died changed my life forever.
After my grandmother’s double mastectomy, the life-changing surgical removal of both breasts, she didn’t know where to go to find post-surgical supplies and bras. She shopped in a medical supply store.
Measurement and fitting were done behind aisles of bedpans and walkers. Breast forms and bras were only available in one color and in limited sizes. It was hard to find breast forms that matched her skin tone and sizes that matched her body type. The majority of American women purchase these wardrobe essentials in hospital gift shops or medical supply stores, where they are viewed as afterthoughts.
Furthermore, many women are not shopping because these items can be very expensive and no one tells them that their health insurance will cover these costs.
It is this reality for nearly 4 million American women who have a history of the disease and 270,000 who will be diagnosed this year. A recent study by the Federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that 60% of women do not have reconstructive breast surgery. It is important for these women to see themselves represented in the intimate space. The chest walls of these women may be scarred, but they deserve to be treated with dignity, including a range of sizes and skin tones.
After realizing little had been done since my grandmother’s diagnosis to improve selection or experience, I began asking “what if.”
I made a plan, invested my money, and we opened the doors of Cherry Blossom Intimates in 2018.
It is my mission to enhance the shopping experience and the quality of life of breast cancer survivors through my boutique and beyond.
Walking into the boutique feels like being in a lingerie store in Paris. The space is beautiful and bright, with lace negligees hanging from gold fixtures.
Fitting rooms are spacious, and the waiting rooms are furnished with soft lounge chairs. In addition to creating a beautiful shopping experience, we’ve created a place where breast cancer survivors can shop for intimate items that fit their lives and their bodies alongside their friends who have no experienced breast cancer. We all shop under one roof.
Additionally, the store is an accredited medical facility. The benefit of this is that we can bill insurance directly for the bras and breast forms of our mastectomy customers. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary paperwork and to create a truly personalized shopping experience for her. Our most important advantage is that we accept most major health insurance plans.
In addition to winning several pitch competitions, we have recently closed $2.5 million in venture capital to fund our expansion.
There have been challenges along the way. In the early stages of building the business, I attended my first Durable Medical Equipment supplier conference. The only black woman in the room was me, and I was certainly the youngest person in the room. During lunch one of my fellow conference attendees mistook me for a waitress and, in front of everyone, asked me to check on her food order. Perhaps she didn’t expect a young Black woman to own a medical facility. In that moment, I began to view the DME industry from the perspective of a twenty-something entrepreneur and as a woman of color who has a unique perspective.
As a result, I started integrating technology into our business in innovative ways. The product mix has been expanded with skintone selections. Our next step was to make custom breast prosthetics using 3D printing technology.
In the midst of a global health pandemic, it was of great importance to reach customers at their homes via a virtual fitting platform. As a result, I created Myya in order to connect women all over the country with certified mastectomy fitters who can help them get fitted for mastectomy bras and breast forms online.
It is now apparent to me that our differences in backgrounds, histories, and perspectives can enhance our capabilities as business owners and leaders. My unique perspective in the industry may not have been fully embraced if I hadn’t experienced this clear “you’re different from us” wake-up call at the conference.
My unique perspective has allowed me to build a company that addresses the needs of women. If my grandmother hadn’t shopped for bras in medical supply stores, I wouldn’t have seen the white space in the market. This successful business came together because of my differences not in spite of them.
While I am proud to be at this juncture in my business, there is still so much work to be done to make sure women continue to leverage their unique experiences in order to build successful companies in the future.
According to Pitchbook, in 2021, only 2% of VC dollars went to female founded startups, even though data confirms that female founded companies perform 63% better overall than all-male startup teams. I know that founders of color would have similar success rates if given the same opportunity and resources. Perhaps VC is faced with the challenge of preconceptions of women founders and founders of color. Or maybe they don’t realize the value and promise of different perspectives to illuminate new, profitable businesses. The development of new innovations, solutions, and growth cannot take place until we recognize that our unique differences can be our greatest asset.
All of this is more important to me than ever because 6 weeks ago, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. I wonder what the world will be like for her?
What will she be mistaken for when she starts her career? Is she going to be an anomaly? As my grandmother inspired me to create change, I hope my daughter finds inspiration, safety, and acceptance to pursue her dreams. It is important to me that she feels included, seen, and safe so that she can prosper without boundaries.
You and I are responsible for creating the difference between our grandmother’s world and our children’s world. It is up to us to be the leaders, the funders, the communities, and the resources who embrace and understand the opportunities that can arise from experiences outside of our own.
Creating endless opportunities for business and life is possible when we work together. Together we will undoubtedly make the world a better place for our children and my grandmother in heaven will thank you.
A modified version of this essay was presented at TEDx Pearl Street, Mavericks and Moonshots on June 9, 2022.