Sonya Keshwani joined the Columbia University Strategic Communication Faculty as a Course Associate in the fall of 2019, bringing with her experience as a career appointee in the U.S. government and a Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communications from Georgetown University. She also brought with her formidable experience as a breast cancer survivor and “cancer-preneur,” having started StyleEsteem Wardrobe, a line of fashionable head wraps for cancer patients.
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we sat down with Keshwani to learn more about how she started the two-year-old business and what she has learned about entrepreneurship, combating cancer, and teaching during that time.
Tell us about StyleEsteem — how it came about and how it is going.
My entrepreneurship journey, or rather, as we like to call it in the community, “cancer-preneurship,” started in 2018 when I was diagnosed with an early-stage breast cancer. I was 29 years old at the time, didn’t have family history and certainly was not at an age where that was on my radar. And so, when I found a suspicious lump while taking a shower, I was very proactive about getting it checked out.
At the beginning of treatment, my doctor told me, “you’re starting treatment now and by the time you come back for Round 2 of chemo, your hair will start falling out, so you better go buy a wig.” I wore the wig for a short amount of time before I realized not only is this an issue where my appearance is changing, but the treatment is also creating other side effects. When hair falls out, your scalp becomes really sensitive and painful and you feel like it is burning. You get really bad migraines. It was very bad and it seemed like putting the wig on every day, commuting to work, being at work for 10 hours, was too much.
"I thought: If I can do something to change my life by substituting a wig with something more comfortable, I’m going to try to do that. I decided that if the answer to my problem didn’t already exist, I would have to create it myself.”
I thought: If I can do something to change my life by substituting the wig with something more comfortable, I’m going to try to do that. I started looking online for headwraps and I couldn’t find anything I liked. There weren’t any designer options. There were things on Amazon where the models did not look like me. I couldn’t relate to this woman, she doesn’t look like me. It also looked really boring. I was like, no, if I wouldn’t wear this before cancer, I won’t wear this during cancer.
So, I decided that if the answer to my problem didn’t already exist, I would have to create it myself. I started to visit a fabric shop next to my infusion center in Astoria, Queens. Each time I’d go home from treatment, I’d bring several yards of fabric with me. It would take me a week to recover from each round of chemo, so I would be sitting, teleworking, and I’d also be sewing headwraps.
I wanted to create something that had the style, something like a turban, more classy and elegant. When I came up with these styles, it really changed my life because it was much easier to go out. It made me excited to dress up, to have friends over, to go on walks.
I decided I wanted to share this with other women. That’s how I decided to launch StyleEsteem, because I wanted to create a space where women could shop for head wraps the same way they shop for clothes. Having options for daywear and evening wear, different seasons. When I launched, I also committed to doing one-for-one donations. We’ve also started creating content and support groups around hair loss.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned in entrepreneurship?
To someone who is in the beginning phase: don’t overthink it. Don’t let overthinking hold you back from taking action. It is always going to be scary, it is always going to be a lot of work. Don’t think you need everything planned out before you move forward. Having enthusiasm and dedication to move forward with your ideas is the most important thing.
Then, I really believe at this point what the consumer really looks for is: Does this company truly know what I need? How well do they understand my problem? There are plenty of websites with head wraps, but it made me feel like I didn’t belong. So my response was to make a community. In August, we had virtual support groups for women going through hair loss. We had influencers from the cancer community come on - like Melissa Berry of Cancer Fashionista and Anna Crollman of My Cancer Chic - and were supported by Dr. Jennifer Montes of Evolve Pink. We created that space. We want to create opportunities for women to connect with each other and find tools to thrive in this difficult time in their lives.
Has the pandemic impacted your business at all?
I’ve seen this pandemic as a chance to connect with people in a different way. The ability to go to conferences and events, that was definitely gone. Instead we are taking time to get people educated and aware of hair and scalp health. We’ve spent time creating content to help cancer patients foster their hair health.
These days, I believe what the consumer really looks for is: Does this company truly know what I need? How well do they understand my problem?”
A lot of people are not allowed to take family when they go to treatment. You’re sitting in that chair for hours and hours, getting all kinds of toxic medicines and usually a familiar face is a comfort. When you can’t have that, it’s tough. Being able to create a reminder that you can dress in a way to bring you joy when you go to places that are scary was important to us. StyleEsteem also made masks that are named after healthcare heroes. That’s what we’ve been doing, shifting into different spaces where we can create something empowering that helps in the current situation.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and we’re wondering if you had any advice for the SPS community?
There are two things I think are important to consider. During Breast Cancer Awareness (BCA) Month, the “A” can stand for “Awareness” or “Action.” In terms of awareness, I want you to be really aware of your body, aware of your monthly self-exam. Early detection is a huge factor in the amount of time and options you have in treatment.
As far as “Action,” be very scrutinizing about where you are putting money and “supporting” breast cancer. Most companies, it feels like there is a level of transparency that is lacking: where is your money going, who is it supporting, what is it doing?
If you do want to support, there are two organizations that I would recommend: METAvivor, because all they do is fund Stage IV Breast Cancer research, the only breast cancer that kills. The research they do has helped so many women get into treatments that prolonged their lives way beyond their prognosis. I have also been involved with Susan G. Komen of Greater New York City as a Power Ambassador the last two years. I love this organization because they help so many women and raise a lot of money to fund a lot of different initiatives. They fund research but they also fund free screenings and patient services for communities all over New York City—no insurance or documentation required. Now more than ever, especially during the pandemic, it is so important to support organizations that are removing barriers to healthcare access and prioritizing the research that saves lives.
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