Sonoma County women balance entrepreneurial ventures and breast cancer treatments

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Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

Being an entrepreneur is not an easy task. There are numerous challenges, from securing startup money to promoting a viable business to attract customers.

Now imagine running your own enterprise and getting diagnosed with breast cancer. The emotional toll the diagnosis carries is overwhelming. In addition, there are physical challenges with chemotherapy, radiation and potential surgery.

How does a businesswoman do it?

Three Sonoma County women provide examples. As part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we profiled these women who have combined ingenuity, creativity and perseverance to navigate these obstacles and emerge wiser and healthier.

Helping parent-child communication

Sara Olsher had established her Mighty and Bright brand when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at age 34. With a background in psychology and illustration, Olsher created a board with a magnet set to help children communicate with divorced parents. The product serves as a calendar to let children know which parent he or she will be residing with during a given week, who will be picking them up from school, their weekly chores and other activities.

After her cancer diagnosis, Olsher was concerned about telling her daughter, Charlie, who was 6. “The first thing I thought about was my daughter’s tear-stained face at my funeral,” she said.

Her physician’s office was of no help to prepare for this difficult conversation with her daughter. “They didn’t have pamphlets. … They literally had nothing,” she said.

Therefore, Olsher created another magnet set for parents with cancer to keep track of weekly activities with their children. In effect, it was an act of self-preservation as much as a new product line for her.

“Your kid’s behavior is directly related to how you are doing from your own mental behavior,” said Olsher, who also works a day job in marketing for the Redwood Empire Food Bank.

The new set of magnets to plan activities with Charlie proved useful as she went through the medical gauntlet of chemotherapy, radiation and five surgeries that included removal of both breasts. She has to be on hormone-blocking medication for 10 years, but is now cancer free.

“You get so tired and you can’t think what to do with the kids and they start to melt down,” she said.

Olsher came up with another magnet set for children who are battling cancer, and she wants to make one for children who have a parent serving in the military. Her products are available online at mightyandbright.com and she hopes eventually to be able to sell them via Amazon.

Another business goal of hers is to establish a nonprofit focused on advocacy work and could donate her magnet calendars to children’s hospitals.

Olsher acknowledged her work can be difficult because it involves weighty issues between parents and their children. But the feedback she has received has made it worthwhile.

“People send me emails and tell me that my product has changed their kids’ lives. … I don’t think there is anything more gratifying than that,” she said.

Distilling gin, business strategy

Sometimes timing is everything. Tara Jasper was diagnosed in June with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy. Recently, she had another chemotherapy treatment.

Think Pink

This story is part of The Press Democrat's Think Pink series for the month of October. To read more Think Pink stories, click here.

The whirlwind of medical activity could have derailed her business, Sipsong Spirits, a Windsor distillery that produces a craft gin with 13 different botanicals.

“I can’t drink anything at the moment,” said Jasper, 41, who is married to Dane Jasper, the CEO of Sonic, the Santa Rosa-based internet provider. The Jaspers have three school-aged children.

In the spring, she wrapped up producing enough gin to last through the summer. Jasper also distilled more after her early summer surgery that gave her another six-month supply because she didn’t know how long it would take to regain her taste buds. She shares a tasting room with Sonoma Brothers Distilling.

“I kind of put myself on autopilot for the summer,” said Jasper, noting her business-related tasks were limited to things like tax preparation. “It’s definitely been challenging to continue my business.”

Most of her gin stock was distributed to restaurants and retailers before her June diagnosis. Her husband helped her with some distributor drop-offs. “I’m still not able to pick up a full case,” she said.

Her cancer has brought clarity to how she wants to grow her distilling business, and has inspired her to want to become an advocate for genetic testing for the disease. Her own test showed Jasper had a high probability for breast cancer.

Jasper had been working on a nonalcoholic version of gin earlier this year, but she concluded it would be better to produce a tea. It’s much less expensive than what competitors, mostly from England, are making and selling.

Since breast cancer probabilities increase for women who have more than one drink a day, making the tea became a greater urgency for her.

“That was a motivating factor for me,” Jasper said. “We can stay at the party.”

Jasper is finalizing packaging for the tea that features plants she uses in her gin. It should be available for customers to buy in two weeks. The tea could be consumed alone or as a mixer with increasingly popular nonalcoholic cocktails.

“I think what is happening is that my brand is evolving because of this cancer,” she said.

Paying it forward

The breast cancer diagnosis for esthetician Rita Olivares brought gratitude to the forefront, from her family to the clients she’s amassed over her 36 years in business, to a colleague who stepped in to fill appointments when she was too ill to work.

Olivares, 58, works as an independent contractor at Ambiance Skin Care in Santa Rosa providing waxing and facials. She received her diagnosis in April 2016, after which she had 18 months of treatments. She lost her right breast and had reconstruction surgery. She still has to take an estrogen blocker.

She has a support network with her immediate family. Her husband, Ernesto Olivares, is a former Santa Rosa police lieutenant and now a city councilman, who went to every treatment with her.

She didn’t want to give up her vocation. “I still wanted to work for my self-esteem,” she said.

Olivares found she had more supporters in addition to her family. They included Debra Bishop who shares a space at the skin care clinic. Bishop picked up some of Olivares’ customers when she was going through her treatment regimen. Her colleague even gave her a percentage of the money her clients paid for services while she was getting cancer treatment.

Olivares’ nearly 100 clients were understanding and many would inquire about her.

“I couldn’t believe how many people who cared about me,” she said. “I still have clients who come in and say, ‘How are you doing?’ ”

Since recovering, Olivares has reduced her workload. She also has made time to help some close friends and one family member undergoing cancer treatment. Drawing on her own experience, she’s offering them encouragement.

“You never know until you are in that situation,” she said. “I got to know how much I was loved and valued.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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