5 Reasons Cancer Inspired Me to Become an Entrepreneur

June 01, 2021
5 Reasons Cancer Inspired Me to Become an Entrepreneur

Written by Ashley Yesayan

Cancer changes a person. In addition to the physical reminders it leaves, cancer sculpts us into people who understand more deeply, hope more desperately, and live more passionately. Little did I know following my own diagnosis how much these changes would influence my life and what I would feel called to do with my career.

I was diagnosed with a serious and invasive form of breast cancer in 2017 at age 35. Three painful surgeries and a year of treatments were grueling on my mind and body, and their side effects landed me in the hospital more than once. In the end, though, I realized that there was nothing I could do to change my circumstances, but I could change how I reacted to them. I decided to stop being fearful, and to use that energy to pave an easier path for those that would come after me in this disease.

From VC to Founder

When I wasn’t frantically researching my prognosis, contemplating my mortality, or sick from treatments, I was a consumer-tech focused VC investor at Revolution in Washington, DC.

In the 10 years prior to my diagnosis I spent my time investing in and scaling high growth venture backed consumer technology companies including Alarm.com, one of 2015’s top performing IPOs, and numerous other industry defining portfolio companies like Temperpack, Optoro, and CustomInk.

Over my time at Revolution, my investment teams and I had deployed billions of dollars into consumer facing technologies designed to add more choice, control, and convenience to everything from buying plants to finding insurance, but when I found myself looking for resources to help navigate a cancer diagnosis, I was startled to find that little existed.

OneVillage was born of this experience, which left me feeling alone, frightened, and marginalized as a result of the lack of resources, community, and content that I had become accustomed to in all other aspects of our otherwise tech-enabled, consumer-driven society. 

A Different Understanding of Ableism

As buzzwords like social justice, equity, and inclusion permeate our consciousness in today’s environment, it’s easy to forget about another “ism” that is frequently left out of conversations – ableism. 

The baseline fact is that the world wasn’t built with disabilities in mind, but without having a disability it’s hard to understand just how far ableism extends in our society, and how people are experiencing those disadvantages.

Ableism is manifested in the physical, when there aren’t enough handicap accessible ramps in a facility, for example. And it is also manifested when there isn’t anyone designing software for people who are ill and have basic needs that could be met with technology but are not.

What’s Missing in Cancer Care

One of the things I was startled to discover following my diagnosis is that going through cancer (or any other unexpected life changing event like heart attack, stroke, or death in the family) shares some logistical similarities with major life events like having a baby or getting married.

Suddenly, you find yourself in a situation where there is an overload of information to learn, products to buy, and services to procure. And, cancer care doesn’t end with treatment. 20% of survivors are left with PTSD (the actual number is likely higher), and typically there is no plan given to the patient on how to go back to their “normal” life following what can be years of treatment.

Although the number of people in the US going through cancer every year (6 million) is actually larger than the number of weddings every year (2.5 million) or the number of babies born every year (4 million), a sizeable gap exists in the tech-enabled resources available to these demographics.

Unlike the multi-billion dollar industries that have been built around making weddings and babies easier to navigate, online resources don’t exist for cancer or other less happy, unexpected life changing events, outside of some light online content and eCommerce alternatives run by foundations and non-profits. This leads most institutional knowledge sharing to occur through 1:1 interactions between patient: survivor and patient: patient coordinator at local hospitals today.

The 1:1 patient: survivor exchange isn’t scalable or efficient for numerous reasons (and is further complicated during the current pandemic), nor is it particularly advantageous to the patient who must identify these people from within his or her own network, which is oftentimes ineffective or awkward.

The 1:1 patient: patient coordinator relationship is the substitute that exists today for a portion of what OneVillage provides. Patient coordinators are not found at all hospitals, typically only the best funded ones, and they are managing hundreds of patients at once, so they aren’t guaranteed to be able to provide the right information at the right time to the right patient. Most importantly, though, the patient coordinator doesn’t provide a scalable way to activate the patient’s support network who all want to help but don’t know how.

Here are the five reasons cancer inspired me to found OneVillage:

    1. Fear of death > Fear of founding a company. There are few things like being imminently faced with an incurable illness and your own mortality to inspire fear in a person. After that, the fear of starting your own company doesn’t loom quite as large.
    2. The desire for a purpose driven life. If you’ve spent much time contemplating your mortality, you likely found that it inspired a number of questions as to what your purpose is. It wasn’t until my experience with cancer that I realized how important it was to me to leave the world a better place than I found it.
    3. I was one of the lucky ones. Within minutes of sharing my diagnosis with friends and colleagues, I was on the schedule with some of the nation’s highest regarded oncologists and specialists, and my insurance allowed me to be treated at one of the nation’s premier hospitals with extensive patient coordinator resources. People in rural towns or without the support network I had wouldn’t have found the experience as easy or painless.
    4. The market is huge and underserved. Cancer doesn’t just affect the patient. It affects everyone around them. On average, people have 8-9 close friends in addition to 15 family members, all of whom want to help, but most of them don’t know how to.

OneVillage helps patients and caregivers to plan for their treatment and navigate side effects, and empowers the community to help when it is most needed by allowing them to gift useful on-demand services like prepared meals, black car rides to the doctor, and house cleaning. It also helps patients and their caregivers to streamline sharing of information and coordinating help from extended groups of friends and family, which can be exhausting for many patients and their families.
    1.  There’s no time like the present. With each year the number of digitally proficient patients and supporters searching for solutions to challenges related to cancer increases. Already, nearly 50% of people diagnosed with cancer are under age 65.

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    But even patients who are diagnosed today at age 70 were in their 40’s during the early innings of online technology, and most consider themselves at least proficient in technology. Older demographics are becoming more tech savvy as well. A recent study indicates that 56% of people aged 75 or more were laptop users, and approximately 40% of them use a tablet regularly.

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    There will never be fewer cancer patients searching online for tools and resources to help them with their journey than there are today, so there’s no time like the present to build out a platform to help meet patients and supporters where they are.

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    OneVillage democratizes access to support and community for all cancer patients and their supporters everywhere. We offer a lifestyle content-driven destination platform that:

    • Aggregates all the relevant tools, content, products, and services that a patient and their caregivers and supporters need
    • Allows patients to find local professionals specializing in cancer treatment and care and to read reviews about what other patients have said about them
    • Enables patients to plan for treatment or end of life considerations, and channel gift spending into things that matter in making day-to-day life easier, like rides to the doctor, prepared meal delivery, dog walking, child care, and a variety of other helpful on-demand services, or to charity donations toward a cancer charity of choice.
    • Provides a curated eCommerce platform that offers a practical, stylish, modern take on the little known, but essential apparel, wigs, and other specialty items a patient needs during treatment
    • Enables community building and social sharing with other patients and supporters in similar situations, where information, tips, and support can all be shared. 

    About the Author

    Ashley Yesayan is the founder and CEO of OneVillage, a marketplace connecting cancer patients and their supporters with the content, tools, products, and services they need to make life easier before, during, and after treatment. She founded the business based on her own experience with breast cancer, which she beat in 2017.

    Prior to founding OneVillage, Ashley spent 15 years building and scaling high-growth venture backed technology companies including Alarm.com, one of 2015’s top performing tech IPOs, and numerous other industry defining portfolio companies such as TemperPack, Optoro, and CustomInk. Most recently, Ashley was an investor at Revolution where she focused on consumer-driven tech-enabled businesses in marketplace, eCommerce, media, and software categories.

    Earlier in her career she managed new business launch and incubation at Red Ventures, the leading global player in data-driven consumer marketing, and worked in the investment banking group at Wells Fargo Securities.

    Ashley earned a B.A. in Economics and English from Wake Forest University and an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School. She grew up in South Carolina and has traveled to 42 countries.

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