My name is Suzanne Sinatra. I am a woman, a friend, a sister, a daughter and I am the CEO and Founder of Private Packs. I fought breast cancer, and I won. October is breast cancer month, and before this year I never paid attention to this type of cancer or any other cancer ribbon, month, or drive. Why? The disease did not affect me or anyone in my family, yet.
Now I know breast cancer. It is a killer and it's savage. According to Breastcancer.org about 1 in 8 women in the United States (about 12.4%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2018, an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the United States, along with 63,960 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.
My name is Suzanne Sinatra, and I am the founder of Private Packs. I design ergonomic cool and heat personal packs for the privates - yes those privates. I selfishly created this product because I went for my usual Brazilian wax, and this time the esthetician ripped off all my hair and skin. When I got home, I opened my freezer, and it was as if my vagina said: “You're not putting peas on me!" I shared this with my friends and to my surprise, they shared with me their painful vagina stories and instances they could have used a personal pack.
Either after a Soulcycle sweat session, after childbirth, first lesbian sex, during their recurring UTI's or during their period or more. What shocked me was not that they had these experiences, but that I've known some of these women for over ten years and they never shared with me their intimate pain until I shared with them mine. Just as menstruation was at one time considered taboo (Thanks Thinx!), vaginal pain is sub taboo - we don't talk about it even to our fellow tribe members.
In 2015, I had my annual mammogram, and the Radiologist saw something that concerned them. They called me, wrote me letters begging me to come back in for more tests. I remember thinking “I don't have time for this, I'm building a startup." I decided to ignore them.
Fast forward to 2017. I was exhausted, more than usual. I was working on my startup before and after work until the wee hours of the morning and on the weekends. I wore my tiredness as a badge of honor. Yeah! I'm a great entrepreneur because I'm super tired and I have bags under my eyes that are the size of Casper mattresses.
In hindsight, that sounds so wrong. I can't even fathom today what made me think that living like that was actually living. But this is what many in the startup community consider as skin in the game. Investors want to see founders work this hard, and other entrepreneurs admire it. I felt that I had to go even harder than everyone else because I'm a first-time entrepreneur, I'm female, and I'm black. I purposefully did not take care of myself because I felt that being seen as a serious entrepreneur was more critical than my wellbeing.
Two months away from launching my Indiegogo campaign and still working full-time, a guy I was into broke up with me over text. Think Carrie Bradshaw and Burger 2.0. Pissed off and disappointed I hugged myself, and as my right hand swiped my left breast I felt it.
WTF! I ran to the mirror, and I saw that my left breast had a divet. I instantly knew what it was. Over the next few weeks, I had a mammogram and biopsy that left my body and spirit black and blue, but I couldn't dwell in that too long because I was simultaneously getting ready for a product launch, auditioning for a TV show, and I had a 9-5 job. It was too much, but I still kept going.
August 11th at 2:47 pm, my doctor called me and said the three words no one wants to hear, “Suzanne, you have cancer." The Mohammed Ali level of beating I gave my spirit commenced on that day; "You did this to yourself, you deserve cancer because you didn't take care of yourself, you're dumb, you were warned and being accepted by others meant more to you that your health." I was sad, alone and directionless. I had to find an oncologist. I now have a recurring disease, but I only had two months of savings, I didn't even have food in the fridge. How was I going to take care of myself with cancer? What was going to happen to Private Packs? Am I still going to feel like a woman? Was this the end of my dating life? Was I going to die? Was I going to die alone?
My doctor forced me to postpone my product launch. I am happy that for once I listened to them because the body changes came so swiftly that I didn't have the physical strength to launch a product.
The worst symptom of chemotherapy for me was losing my libido. My sex drive, sexuality, and sensuality – poof it was gone. I can only assume because I was single that my doctors didn't warn me or help me understand the effects of early menopause and the relationship between cancer treatment and sexuality. I became a shell of a person.
My last chemo was scheduled the day after my birthday. The end of this ordeal was near! However, I got another phone call that nobody wants to get from their doctor "Suzanne, we're stopping your chemo. Your cancer has spread and the tumors have grown. You're going to need surgery in a few weeks. Also, you will have to get a mastectomy instead of the planned lumpectomy and remove all of the lymph nodes in your left arm." I loved my breasts, They were beautiful 38D, identical twins. With removing my breast they also took what I felt at the time was my identity as a woman.
"I couldn't go to the women's march and risk getting sick but I made signs for the ladies to march with."
Suzanne Sinatra at the Yayoi Kusama art exhibit.
Throughout treatment and before surgery, I worked on Private Packs even though I didn't formally launch it there was a lot of work to be done. I carried my laptop to chemo, I attended essential networking events. I pushed my body, and I listened to it. If I needed to stay home, I did. If my body required rest, I rested. At 44, I finally started to respect my body and my wellbeing.
After my mastectomy, I had an identity crisis as a founder of a personal healthcare brand. Private Packs' mission is to create personal wellness products and educate consumers that their genital health and personal wellness is important to their overall health. Being a founder of a personal wellness brand made me feel like a fraud because I'm doing the complete opposite of what I created our mission to be. I did not look after my genital health, but I'm telling other people to do so? I felt like a phony, a bullshitter, a fake. Private Packs is a compassionate company. A difference maker. How was I going to do that if I did not walk the walk and talk the talk?
Five months after treatment I can proudly say that I have evolved as a woman and a founder because of breast cancer. I have stopped beating myself up, I am more confident because I live in MY truth. And that, yes, I neglected my health, but I woke up to what I was doing before it was too late. I love myself. I'm still a woman with one breast. I don't have my libido, and now I have vaginal atrophy because if you don't use it, you really do lose it. My doctor still has not spoken to me about sex and cancer, so I took the initiative to learn about it on my own. I referred to http://www.cancersexnetwork.org/ for information. Additionally, instead of watching Pornhub for a quickie I watch Make Love Not Porn because it is not a slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of experience. Toilet paper is too rough because of the vaginal dryness, so I use Unbound Booshie wipes that I store in the fridge and bathroom, and I use Womanizer's InsideOut because I need vibration 3-5 times a week to stimulate the pelvic blood flow and restart my vaginal moisture. I'm a woman.
Today, Private Packs is still on its mission, and my voice as its leader is from a place of experience and authenticity. I have persevered, I'm strong and I have overcome my own self-imposed roadblock because of cancer.
Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.