Angelle Albright: Easing the Burden of Baldness

Angelle Albright
Angelle and her her sister Danielle sporting Chemo Beanies

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. (more…)

Katie Mehnert: Seeing Pink among the Oilfields

Katie MehnertIt’s no secret that it’s a man’s world on the oilfields of Texas and around the world. But former energy exec and marathon runner Katie Mehnert has plans to change all that. In Pink Petro, she has created an online digital channel that aims to empower women in the sector through mentoring, networking, and sharing of information.

“I want to bring Silicon Valley to the energy sector as a whole to power a fresh approach to female development in what’s been a very male-dominated industry. Women need more seats at the STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) table and Pink Petro will be a vehicle to that end. Together we’ll use our collective voice to reenergize the sector and its reputation,” she explains. (more…)

From the Corporate Grind to Free Spirit

Courtesy of Martin Edwards
Courtesy of Martin Edwards

For the past ten years, I’ve been a serious nag. Yes, I can admit it. My poor husband never heard the end of my pleas for us to leave the UK for sunnier pastures. I never really had a concrete idea of what we would do or where we would go – I just knew that I didn’t want to be trapped on the corporate ladder for the rest of my life. My spare time was literally taken up searching for our escape in the form of the next perfect holiday. Seventeen years at the same company was beginning to take its toll and, as I started to creep towards 40, the realisation hit me that it was now or never.  There just had to be more to life …

When my husband and I went on holiday to Thailand in April 2013, freshly qualified in scuba diving and eager to put our new skills into practice, little did we know it would be a major turning point in our lives. Within seven months, my husband, Jon, had qualified to become a scuba dive instructor and I had handed in my notice to Vodafone, the UK telecom giant. Our house was sold … wow … that was pretty scary, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Life begins at 39, right? (more…)

Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Christine Bienvenu: Reinvention in the Face of Adversity

CB profileIf it takes a special kind of woman to stand up to breast cancer, remain positive, question experts’ recommendations, and take control of her own care, then surely it takes an extraordinary woman to turn the whole experience into a career opportunity. Meet Christine Bienvenu.

At a time when most teenagers are contemplating college options, the then-17-year-old Bienvenu moved from Montreal, Canada, to Switzerland. In the land of Emmental cheese and punctuality, she had the opportunity to do an apprenticeship directly after high school. “Not everyone is made to sit in a classroom, the hands-on experience is very valuable for a lot of young people trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. It worked for me,” Bienvenu notes.

Already fluent in English, she requested to substitute the language class requirement with a volunteer opportunity. She worked at a local senior center and liked it so much that she realized she wanted to continue the work outside of mandatory class hours. “I felt like a fish in water,’” Bienvenu recalls. After high school graduation, she signed up for a 3-year apprenticeship in a nursing home. And for the next 15 years, worked as a social activities coordinator in three different nursing homes, at one of which she met her husband, Alain. “In case you are wondering, he was the chef, not a patient. Who says exciting things don’t happen in nursing homes?” jokes Bienvenu.

In support of Alain’s long-time dream to open a restaurant, Bienvenu took a break to support him. Together, they worked a grueling 16–18-hour days, 6 days a week. “It was struggle, especially with a small child, and not particularly rewarding as the income was just enough to cover our expenses. We went into it a little too wide-eyed and optimistic.” So after two years, they decided to let go of the dream.

Bienvenu returned to the eldercare sector and found a job again as an activities coordinator, which she held for five years until a restructuring was announced. Her new contract required her to work irregular shifts. Her husband, head chef at a restaurant in Lausanne, also works non-standard hours. Between them, they agreed it would be impossible to manage the hours and two young children, so Bienvenu demurred, “I saw it as a sign to take a break and stay home with my little ones.”

And then came the terrible news. With no familial history of breast cancer and only 35 years old at the time, Bienvenu was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). Considering her age, they had to move fast. Within one month of the diagnosis, Bienvenu underwent a tumorectomy in her right breast in hopes of saving it. Another month later, she started 18 weeks of highly aggressive chemo. Unfortunately, the tumorectomy revealed that her entire right breast had pre-cancerous cells and so she ultimately decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. “It was a pretty intense time. When you are on the wrong side of the statistics, you just go with what you’ve got. You don’t really have a choice. I was ‘out to lunch’ for several days after chemo treatments and the children were so young. My husband, sisters, and mother had to pick up the pieces.”

At the time of her treatment, many of the cancer resources available for women suffering TNBC were targeted at older women, and Bienvenu had a hard time finding helpful advice. “The issues facing older women with cancer – not to detract from that – are very different. They don’t tend to have young children at home. The issues between husband and wife are not the same at 55 or 60 versus 35 years.”

She also found the Swiss support group meetings she attended to be anything but supportive. Generally Swiss people and are not known for their willingness to question authority. “I found everyone to be so passive in the discussion. It was always, ‘Well, my doctor says this…my doctor has it under control … But I’m not a passive person! I’m a proactive person, I like to get answers and do things for myself.”

Frustrated by the lack of information and the “old-school paternalistic approach” and knowing that she was not the only young cancer survivor in Switzerland with different needs, Bienvenu struck out to find like-minded people, women and men who would understand her. “I needed to find people who were like me, going through what I was going through, and with whom I could discuss things I couldn’t speak about with my family for fear of hurting or scaring them.”

She turned to the internet, specifically online cancer communities or forums and social media. What she found was very helpful and guided discussions she had with her oncologist. She questioned some of the advice she was given and started seriously considering a double mastectomy after she read that TNBC could be more effectively treated by removing all of the breast tissue. “I respect doctors but they are only human. Several heads thinking together on how to tackle a problem is better than one. There is a need to be more critical of traditional treatments. For me, it made perfect sense, the more I take off, the less chance I have of relapse.”

Her oncologist was not in favor and the surgeon was up in the air, so the no-nonsense Bienvenu got a second opinion from a Professor at the breast center in Lausanne, who also thought the double mastectomy was the better option. After weighing the pros and cons, the fact that there was no way to detect pre-cancerous cells made Bienvenu decide to err on the side of caution and undergo a double mastectomy. The dread of wondering whether the left breast would also one day present with TNBC won out over keeping it.

Through it all, she remained active on social media and maintained contact with people in the breast cancer community abroad. Although the online resources were remarkably helpful, they were targeted at a North-American audience. “It was very healing for me, but when it came to ‘translating’ all the advice to my context, I started to see the gaps. While the issues may be the same, the Swiss way of handling them is not. Much of the information on protocols, insurance, doctors’ approaches, financial aid and so on is quite different.”

And so the seed was planted for Seinplement Romand(e)s – an online breast cancer platform across social media – and in it, Bienvenu found her calling. If she could not find the support she needed, she would create it – as much for herself as for others. It was not going to be easy as the Swiss, even today, are apprehensive of social media.

To help get started, the resourceful Bienvenu turned to the Swiss disability insurance program for assistance in job retraining. It was clear she would not be able to return to her profession due to physical limitations that would restrict her from pushing wheelchairs, lifting elderly patients, and the like. At first, officials resisted. “They wanted me to train to be an office manager as they didn’t see the benefit in social media training. It was only the beginning of many battles I would have.” But Bienvenu was tenacious and finally won them over. She received financial support for a 1-year program in social media and online communities, which she started in 2012.

With her health back on track, she threw herself into her classes, “I absolutely loved everything about the courses. I finally found where I was supposed to be and it felt great to feel professionally competent again!” Her thesis was essentially the business plan of Seinplement Romand(e)s. The platform merges many channels of communication and is a place where French-speaking people can come to find information and support, share experiences, and exchange ideas with other patients about their situation. It is open to both men and women (thus the “e” in parenthesis indicating the feminine noun). “I wanted to make it inclusive because not only do men suffer from breast cancer directly, but they are usually the ones left keeping the household and family going while the woman is going through treatments or recovering.”

It hasn’t been an easy ride, but the resilient Bienvenu continues to push on. Two weeks before she presented her thesis defense for her diploma, she relapsed and had to start another 15 rounds of chemo and radiotherapy. Offline she reached out to lot of associations and women’s groups to try and broaden the community across Switzerland’s six French-speaking cantons. “That was a frustrating experience. Decision-making in Switzerland is highly centralized. There are 26 cantons, each with its own cancer organization. I got the same answer from everyone I approached: ‘Oh, that’s an interesting idea, but social media? We are not ready for that.’ But then my thesis advisor suggested – instead of going top down – to create the community from the bottom up. And so that’s what I did.”

And finally, the “top” is noticing and coming to her. Her community is growing all the time and Bienvenu has become very active in the whole Health 2.0 for French-speaking Switzerland and France. She will speak at Doctors 2.0 & You this summer and works in collaboration with the Geneva and Lausanne University hospitals on various 2.0 projects. She was chosen to translate Dave DeBronkart’s book Let Patients Help! in French. “Social media has enabled me to meet fascinating people that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to meet and to get involved in incredible projects that I could never have imagined. It’s ironic that being so ill has enabled me to find skills I never knew I had, and invest in a passion that would grow into a career.”

Disability pension is a key form of support for Bienvenu and has enabled her to keep Seinplement Romand(e)s independent. “I want this neutrality so it can be open to everyone. I could probably cash in, I live in the country of pharmaceuticals after all! But right now, I am satisfied with the recognition that I am helping others. But honestly, it’s not even really the recognition. I do it for the community. I’ve made some wonderful friends, the journey has just become so fascinating. Who would have thought?”

Christine Bienvenu Tips for Surviving Tough Times:

  • Have confidence in yourself and your gut feeling. Trust that above all! You can respect experts in the field, be they in the medical sector or otherwise, but your own personal experience counts for a lot.
  • It’s OK to take no for answer as long as you have a valid and logical explanation why the answer is “no”, otherwise keep pushing.
  • In my situation, educating myself was crucial for me to stay strong and be considered an equal partner in my care. This can be applied to any situation really. No one can know everything, stay humble, and bring knowledge to the table.

Have questions for Christine Bienvenu? Post a comment and we’ll make sure she sees it. You can follow Christine on Facebook.