Before she got sick and everything changed, Angelle Albright lived a charmed life. At least she thought she did.
“I guess you could say I was a little egocentric. I would never have wished cancer on myself, but looking back on the trajectory of my life I would not change a thing. Breast cancer saved me. Without it, I would never had the opportunity to help others as I am doing now. But after cancer, I became a different person. My eyes were opened to a new way to live.”
The youngest of six children, Albright was Chief Video Editor at a New Orleans television station, then an English and journalism teacher before she took time off to raise a family. She was just 38 and had three children under the age of 9 when she got her diagnosis.
“I was given a 34% chance of survival. On top of everything else, I lost my long curly signature hair. I tried all kinds of wigs but somehow ended up looking like a bad female Howard Stern impersonator. Silk scarves slipped off my head and cancer turbans were not working for me, so mostly I wore an ill-covering bandana for warmth or I simply went bald.”
But Albright was one of the lucky ones and after a year of chemo and radiation and two years on a recently approved FDA drug, her cancer went into remission. She was never the same.
“I thought, ‘If God lets me live and I beat this cancer, I am going to do something to make a difference in other people’s lives.’ It was as if a light was turned on.”
The opportunity came a year later when the 42-year-old Albright met Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza at a book signing in New Orleans. Ilibagiza had hidden from the militia for 91 days in a 3×4-foot bathroom with seven other women. She prayed ceaselessly, to drown out the voices in her head telling her she would be killed. She was 62 lbs when she walked out of that bathroom and discovered she had lost everything.
Doing a story for a small religious channel, Albright accompanied Ilibagiza on her first pilgrimage back to Rwanda in 15 years.
“I felt compelled to go. I wanted to do everything I could to help Immaculée get out her message of peace. We connected on that trip, and I spent the next five years helping her with retreats and making videos to educate Americans about what happened in Rwanda and how they could help get the country and its people back on track. We raised a lot of money for some great causes through that outreach.”
While Albright readily gave her time and experience to work with Ilibagiza, she was less than enthusiastic to get involved in cancer causes. “I didn’t want anything further to do with it. I didn’t wear pink, didn’t run races. I wasn’t a breast cancer advocate at all. It was simply too painful; I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to be the person I was before breast cancer. Women hold on to the empowerment because there is nothing else to hold on to. You really change when you get cancer.”
But fate was not about to let Albright out of her grasp. Her sister, Danielle, was also diagnosed with breast cancer.
“The first thing I worried about was her survival, of course, but then I thought, ‘oh no, she’s going to lose all her hair and there has to be better alternatives than when I was going through it’. My mom and sisters treated Danielle to a trip to California to see our niece, Adrienne, and shop for scarves and turbans. Yeah, shopping for a cancer scarf… that’s not much fun. It’s definitely not like shopping for a baby’s crib or a wedding dress. And, just like my own experience, we couldn’t find anything suitable.”
Over a fateful lunch in between the frustrating wig and scarf hunting experience, Albright wondered aloud why no one had invented something that you could easily whip on, covers all the bald spots, stays in place and looks good. “Yeah,” they all laughed, “Like a chemo beanie!”
Ever the doer, their niece Adrienne was determined to find a way to make what Albright described. After a reconnaissance mission through the LA fashion district, she hand- delivered five prototypes to her aunt back in Louisiana before her hair ever fell out.
“Danielle got so many compliments it became obvious we were on to something. So in 2010 we [Albright, three of her sisters, her niece and her mom] incorporated Chemo Beanies. But really it was a bit of a goof. We weren’t thinking of it as a real business. It was more about just wanting to help women.”
How wrong they were. Today Chemo Beanies has surpassed over a million dollars in sales. Each woman put in a small amount to cover early production, and the business took off. “I went on a crusade. I was a little manic. I started using all the skills I had from working with Immaculée, trying to connect people to Chemo Beanies. Marketing was a little challenging at first because the public thinks that chemo hats already exist in droves. They couldn’t understand what was different about our patented design, and why we put a name to it using the scary word ‘chemo’ in the title. Women going through this journey need support, not judgment. That’s what you have to go through to get better. Wigs and scarves up to this point were meant to hide the fact that someone is going through chemo. We wanted to bring it to the forefront and make it something that people could use for support. By branding the term ‘Chemo Beanies’ women would know exactly what they need when they are faced with this crisis, and they could avoid the added emotional burden and have a solution to their sudden and often traumatic hair loss.”
As business started to come in, so too did the media attention. Chemo Beanie won 1st runner up in the Walmart Get on the Shelf contest and was awarded $250,000 from Chase’s Mission Main Street grant program, and won a trip to Google Headquarters. “Chase gave us the opportunity to complete the patent process and also attend conferences and conventions, which can be really expensive, but are vital to growing the business. The grant also gave us the freedom to give back. Last year we partnered with the Center for Restorative Breast Surgery in New Orleans and were able to donate 3000 beanies to Look Good, Feel Better.”
Today both Albright and her sister Danielle are cancer free and firmly believe they were meant to live to do this.
Referring to her friend Ilibagiza’s experience, Albright explains, “Everybody has their own ‘bathroom’, a life-changing event that forces you to reinvent yourself. For some it’s divorce, for others, a death. Cancer was my mine. I walked out of my own bathroom a stronger and better person, and I have no intention of wasting that gift.”
- You can build something from your home. Your cellphone is like the Library of Congress in your hand; there is nothing you can’t find out or do. It’s empowering.
- Attend as many conferences and conventions that you can. Get your product out there, especially to wholesalers.
- Don’t let the patent process trip you up. Make sure your ideas are protected.
- Use social media and video to help you reach your buyers. They are very powerful in this ever-changing world.