What would you choose to do with today if tomorrow you were to find out you had a 3 inch tumor in your brain?
That’s no abstract hypothetical, my friends. It’s the real-life story of my incredible friend and fellow female entrepreneur, Katie Schloss. She was one of my very first entrepreneur friends (fun fact: we became friends in college), and despite creating a prolific jewelry brand, licensing it to a major retailer, and working for a whole host of female-founded start-ups, Katie found out in 2017 that she had a life-threatening brain tumor.
What came next is a stunningly beautiful story of resilience, profound shifts, renewed purpose, and a calling to work for the higher good of others. I am so grateful to share Katie’s story with you all to close out 2020 on Caro’s City as the ultimate reminder of how we can create meaning from adversity, and draw strength and identity from situations that, in the moment, rock us to our core.
You were one of the very first people who I know who became an entrepreneur; I literally remember being at your West Village apartment that you were running your jewelry business out of. I’d love for you to share about how you made the decision to start your own business before it was something it seemed like women our age were doing, what that business was, and how your entrepreneurial journey evolved from there.
I was definitely an entrepreneur before it was cool! I started a business for two reasons. First, I had a really great idea. My sister was studying abroad in Europe, so I came up with the Map Necklace, a customized necklace where you could select any address in the world and I’d engrave those moments and locations onto a piece of gold or silver. From my experience working as a publicist, my company received a good amount of press coverage and I became one of Henri Bendel’s Open See (a “casting call,” if you will, for new designers) success stories. My necklace and a big quote from me were featured in the window right on 5th Avenue. Someone from A.JAFFE, a legendary engagement ring brand, walked by and offered a licensing deal to me. I ended up working for my licensee before consulting for a wide range of female entrepreneurs.
The other reason I started my own business was a little bit darker: I really struggled at my first job out of college. I grew up with an auditory processing disorder with acute dyslexia, which I made up for by waking up early, staying up later, and working harder than absolutely any of my other classmates. In school, I had been granted time and a half for all in-class quizzes and tests. There is no extra time in the real world, so I had a lot of trouble doing a “normal job.”
It wasn’t until I turned 30 that I found out why. As it turned out, I likely never had a learning disability. What I had was a 3” congenital brain tumor. Your entire brain is 6”, so to say that this was a large (albeit benign) tumor would be an understatement. At the time of my surgery, my neurosurgeon told my family that he had never seen a tumor like that before. My mom, confused, asked if he meant the size.
“No,” he said. “I’ve never seen a tumor like that in someone living before. We typically only see tumors like that in autopsies.”
After a life-threatening illness though, you are never exactly the same. When you have the vantage point of looking backwards at the vista that was your life, you see what matters and what doesn’t; what kind of person you want to be and who you don’t.
That’s how I found myself applying to social work programs to become a psychotherapist. I took a class in coaching earlier this year, so now that I’m certified, I’m in the process of launching a coaching and consulting business, while I pursue my master’s from NYU.
What was it like building, growing… and then licensing a business? You had poured so much of your time and energy and funds into this business, and then, what was it like to stop and say “what’s next?”
It was really exciting, but I was also really exhausted. At the time, I had my engraving machine set-up next to my bed, so I could half-sleep, half-engrave every single night. When you are creating and shipping your own products, you don’t have a scalable business, so the most exciting part of licensing my company was being able to see how far I could take it without having to worry (as much!) about how I was going to do it.
For example, I landed a partnership with theSkimm, which generated 73,000 unique visitors to the site in one day. I would never have been able to support that much traffic working on my own without the site crashing. I would never have been able to engrave and ship each order, if I were doing it on my own. Having an entire team to work with was the biggest luxury I could have been granted as a first-time entrepreneur.
In all honesty, if I hadn’t gotten sick, I probably wouldn’t have stopped. Or it would have taken me much longer to stop. It wasn’t as much “what’s next?” as much as it was “what am I physically capable of doing?”
It feels like you were living life, growing, working… and then things came to a screeching halt when you were diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2017. Can you share a bit more about what this experience was like for you?
At the time (and to this day), I told people that it made sense: I always felt like something was wrong with me. It felt like I was missing a vital piece of information, and then I had it. When I finally saw a picture of the tumor, my entire brain had filled up with fluid, and that’s exactly how it felt. When people were speaking, it felt like they were on land, able to connect with each other, and I was underwater in the ocean, only able to catch every 10th word.
I had the surgery about two weeks later. When they called my name, I assumed that I would be wheeled into the surgery room, but I had to walk instead, one foot in front of the other. The room looked exactly like the set of Grey’s Anatomy, complete with a viewing box for medical students up above, and there, in the middle of the room was a cold, metallic table with chisels and suction tubes and clamps and scalpels, all neatly lined-up on a tray just on the side—and it was all for me.
The surgery was long. It was over 9 hours, which is the longest a person is generally permitted to stay under general anesthesia. The next memory I have is seeing both of my parents’ smiling faces. It was all white. It was just white space, me, and my parents. And I was alive. I had made it. And that was all that mattered.
How do you feel that your identity shifted and your mindset was affected after your brain tumor? Emerging from that experience, what did you feel had changed for you internally, in how you look at yourself and the world?
None of the same things mattered after that. I went from being very me-centric to ultimately becoming more other-oriented. I cared more about helping others than my own personal gains.
David Brooks has a really great book called The Second Mountain. In it, he writes about how in life there are two mountains. Your first mountain is all about striving. That’s where you create your first business, maybe you get married, maybe you have kids, but it’s very keeping up with the Joneses. You achieve and you achieve and you achieve and you reach the top and wonder—is this all there is? He then writes about the valley of despair (hi, brain surgery!) before finding your second mountain. The second mountain is a mountain of purpose and that is very much where I am now that I’m in school.
I think that resilience is such an incredible skill that we human beings have, and I’d love to hear more about how your experience made you into a more resilient human, and how you were able to create meaning from this experience?
Growing up with a learning disability, I’ve always been a hard worker. I knew that was the deal: I would have to try harder than absolutely anyone else. All of those years in school, all of those years of starting my business, they were all just preparation for what came next.
During that time period, it felt like everything I touched turned to dust. There was just nothing left—my boyfriend, some close friends, my business, my body—nothing left, nothing left, nothing left. Until there was nothing left but a wide, open plain upon which to build: I could make my life anything I wanted. I was untethered in a good way. Tied to nothing, I got to decide for myself what I wanted that life to be, now that I had a second chance at having one.
When you go through something, you have two choices: you can feel very sorry for yourself or you can choose a life of purpose and meaning. And I will, for the rest of my living breathing days, will always choose a life of purpose and meaning.
Ultimately, I hope to always create purpose and meaning through my career. I hope to start a private practice where I work with people with learning disabilities and brain tumors, while coaching and consulting entrepreneurs, writers, and young professionals. But I want to do more than that. I want to become an activist and advocate for MRIs for people (particularly students) with learning disabilities and price transparency to reduce costs in the healthcare system. I want to create a nonprofit that connects current patients to survivors for 1:1 mentoring. I want to write articles and books and be a voice and not just a body in this world. My goal right now is to tackle one goal at a time while never losing sight of the big picture.
Not being a victim is how you find purpose and meaning in your own life while encouraging others to find purpose and meaning in their lives, too.
Any final words for readers as we close out 2020 and head into a new year?
You are the world’s leading expert when it comes to your own body—no one else. So, if you think there’s something wrong, keep being your own best advocate and continue looking for answers until you find them.
I also love the Steve Jobs quote: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” When I was lost and had no idea how I was ever going to get a job again, I didn’t see how the dots would ever connect in the future. But looking back now, I see how they all connect—it’s like everything I’ve ever done has led up to this moment—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.