How Kristen Carbone Is Creating Community for Women Affected by Breast Cancer
Kristen Carbone, Founder and CEO of Brilliantly, is dedicated to helping women embrace life with breast cancer through the help of innovative products and thoughtful content.
Brilliantly started out of the personal experiences Kristen faced after her mother died from metastatic breast cancer. As a result, Kristen opted to receive a preventive mastectomy and reconstruction surgery. Instead of staying silent, Kristen felt the urge to help other women who were navigating similar struggles. She’s now accomplishing this mission through Brilliantly, an organization that aims to provide women a space where they can feel a sense of belonging during some of the most tumultuous times in their lives.
We asked Kristen about her experiences that led to the founding of Brilliantly, her biggest achievements, and how her definition of success has evolved since becoming a founder.
Q: Tell us the story behind Brilliantly’s founding: How and why did you start working on Brilliantly?
A: Brilliantly started with trying to solve a problem for myself. My mother Lisa died from metastatic breast cancer at age 49. After years of expensive and emotionally taxing screenings, I found a lump and learned more about my potential hereditary risks. As a result, I had a preventative mastectomy and reconstruction in 2013. In the years following, I faced a profound shift in my identity and connection with my body. For example, I constantly felt cold. Turned out, I wasn’t the only one dealing with this discomfort—a relatively common result of implant reconstruction.
After countless failed attempts to jerry-rig something, I set my mind on designing a sustainable solution to help women like myself feel physically better. Through countless conversations, I also recognized that the opportunity to help women feel better was much bigger. I have started a portrait project, a corrective exercise program, and hosted numerous events about quality of life issues this community faces. I wanted to broaden the scope of what’s out there for navigating life after an experience with breast cancer.
Q: In what ways has your upbringing or past experiences contributed to how you operate as an entrepreneur?
A: Before I started Brilliantly, I worked in the arts. Being in a creative, collaborative environment impacted how I approach problem solving and honed my ability to be financially scrappy. I’ve been able to effectively bootstrap and keep costs down over the past four years of R&D on Brilliantly Warm (our app-controlled warming wearable that launched in June), which allowed me to get to market on almost half the budget of other connected wearable devices. I also recognize that in order to have a positive outcome and excellent product, one needs a process that is rigorous, mission driven, and nimble. These are all things I learned from my creative background.
Q: What’s one thing you wish you had known before starting Brilliantly? What’s been the hardest and most rewarding part of your entrepreneurial journey?
A: I had no idea how much time it would take to get a product company off the ground. It took more than four years. That includes the major COVID-19 setbacks—including to prototype, conduct user testing, trademark, patent, and create a plan for getting to market. Initially I thought it would take about a year! In that time though, I’ve been delighted by all the new learnings.
This has been the most challenging professional endeavor I’ve ever encountered. I think if someone had tried to tell me about the amount of personal sacrifice, in addition to the cost and timeline, I would have thought they were joking. That said, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. All of the hardship has certainly been worth the personal and professional growth. I’ve formed friendships, worked with some truly brilliant engineers, designers, and advisors, and gained confidence in myself that has positively impacted every part of my life.
Q: Have you struggled with self doubt as an entrepreneur? How do you navigate this?
A: I’ll be the first to admit that I almost never know what I’m doing. But I always trust that I will be able to figure it out. When I first started Brilliantly, I made a list of the things I’m not good at and a corresponding list of people I knew who were experts at those things. Then I invited those people to dinner and shared my idea for Brilliantly Warm. That was the first meeting of what became my advisory board.
In moments when I can’t see a clear path forward, when I find myself using the butterknife of my experience for a machete-sized problem, I call on my advisors. With their support and encouragement, I’ve navigated countless pivots, and managed to launch Brilliantly Warm despite the significant impact of COVID-19. The saying “it takes a village” exists for a reason and I like to joke that I have a whole city.
Q: We dare you to brag: What achievements are you most proud of?
A: I am most proud of being happy. After my mom died, I doubted that I’d ever feel truly happy again. After years of grieving, having a mastectomy, getting a divorce, and struggling to understand my own needs, I finally feel well. Of course there are moments, especially because of the taxing nature of being an entrepreneur, when my self-care falls by the wayside. Thankfully, I’ve figured out ways to reset and continue finding love, joy, and happiness.
Q: Has your definition of success evolved throughout your journey as a founder?
A: I’ve always been very goal-oriented and I didn’t used to understand how each step toward a goal is its own success. It’s taken a long time to commercialize my idea and I’ve had to be purposeful about framing each milestone as an achievement.
One of my advisors recently reminded me that I should schedule moments to celebrate. Just last month we had a little gathering to toast the launch of our pre-sale campaign for Brilliantly Warm. I’ve been finding small ways to celebrate the little achievements like a quiet moment of gratitude or a glass of something bubbly.
Q: What resources or people have contributed the most to your successes?
A: Having regular calls with other founders was critical and made this whole experience less lonely. I recommend Dreamers & Doers to every woman founder I meet. I simply can’t say enough good about that community. I’ve learned so much from their Office Hours, made friends at meetups, and had magnificent opportunities to share my story.
Q: What would you tell your younger self if you were to start your entrepreneurial journey all over again?
A: Don’t forget to have fun, even if that means slowing down a little. For as long as I can remember I’ve been rushing toward an achievement. Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that the process of getting there is my life.
Q: How would you describe the journey you’ve had in a few sentences? And would you do it all over again?
A: I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I dove into this head first and have had some really painful moments, enormous financial stress, and some health scares. It’s been more exhausting than having newborns. But serving this community of women has allowed me to explore my grief, form life-long bonds, and learn skills that will help me with every obstacle I encounter. I don’t know how this story ends, but I sure am glad to be writing it.
Kristen is a member of Dreamers & Doers, a private collective that amplifies the entrepreneurial pursuits of extraordinary women through thought leadership opportunities, authentic connection, and access. Learn more about Dreamers & Doers and subscribe to their monthly The Digest for top entrepreneurial and career resources.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.