The Chemo Noir Story
The personal story behind the brand: CHEMO NOIR
After wrapping up a decorated collegiate & professional soccer career, Kat Casey got her first break getting a job working on the Jacksonville Super Bowl Committee. That opportunity catapulted her into a career devoted to telling stories, cultivating brands and changing lives. In 2014, after a painful business fallout, Kat was diagnosed with cancer. Her experiences & relationships gained during that year led to her creation of Chemo Noir, an organization that provides financial support to the families, friends & fighters in their battle with cancer.
It's fitting that Chemo Noir is our first story in our 'Every Hat Has A Story' series. Kat's first agency, Greenhouse Studio, created the first logo for DOME Headwear Co. and she's been instrumental in our company since day one.
Sit back, pour yourself a stem, and enjoy the Chemo Noir story. Cheers!
[Jeff] Welcome Kat Casey, so tell us a little about yourself?
[Kat] Hey Jeff, amazing as always to see you my friend. Well, I am originally from New Jersey and now find myself a Floridian. I was a professional soccer player and am working on getting my athletic groove back. I take great pride in my work and relationships. And I work very hard for a life of food, wine, fitness and travel.
To make a living, I am a creative consultant working with growth companies to evolve their internal and external brands, and by doing such ultimately grow their business. I am also the founder of Chemo Noir, my passion project and a nonprofit organization with the mission to host and inspire wine centric events that raise money to provide financial support to the families, friends and fighters in their battle with Cancer. I love what I do, and very fortunate for that.
Thanks for having me today, cheers!
Can you tell us a little more about the Kat Casey that started in New Jersey, what was your early life like?
I would say that I have a lot of fond memories of childhood in NJ with my family, friends and sports, and I love having been rooted from there. Some of my earliest and most vivid memories were at age 6, and that was a significant tipping point for me as a kid.
A lot happened that year that I feel shaped much of my trajectory. My parents got divorced, which was hard for me as the oldest sibling and in deep admiration of both of my parents. I gained a lot more perspective on it all later in life, but at the time it was a quite devastating.
Soon after that I went through the horrible reality of my babysitter, who had become like a big sister to me and was instrumental in my dealing with my parent’s situation, being murdered on her way to babysit me one evening. Really rocked my world and gave me way too much perspective on tragedy. And all the while I was in the throws of being tested at school for the gifted program. All these events shaped a lot of me. In fact I will never forget my first switch flipping.
I was called into see the school counselor, and she was telling me, “…you’ve been through a lot, and it’s ok if you have some struggles in school, and we hope you make positive decisions, and…blah blah…say no to drugs…” Well with that, my quick response was “call me back in here if I ever get anything less than an A…” I politely dismissed myself and never saw a B on anything until college. It was my first decision towards a determined life, and in retrospect, that year was pinnacle for me in so many ways and my first encounter with adversity.
Wow, that’s a lot for age 6. What are some other encounters of adversity that you faced?
There have definitely been a handful, but I can share two in particular.
One, age 27. That was the year I lost my father. It was such a crazy chapter. I was working for the Super Bowl here in Jacksonville, a job he was most proud of, and he passed right after Thanksgiving. I’ll never forget that phone call, that feeling or the years of void that followed. Crushed me.
My Dad sadly died of a seizure-induced aneurysm in his sleep at 57, not Cancer. He battled a lot of demons from Vietnam and years of alcoholism. But he was one of my very best friends in life, a proud Marine, an athlete, a successful entrepreneur and attorney, and I wish everyday that he was here to be a part of my life today. I actually have some unproven theories about my Cancer and my father’s [buried by the government] exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. He had a lot of complications later in life from that exposure, and I curiously wonder if there was any next generation carryover. It’s a possibility, but yet to be proven in my case.
Two would be, age 36. Lots happened that year. I was walking away from an agency that I put my heart & soul into as we had a painful fall out with an M&A. It was one of the more impossible decisions that I had to make because there were so many people so dear to me that were affected. It was the right decision, but a heartbreaking one. The whole series of events was intense and sad in a big way. So once we made it through the separation, I was in the throws of doing it all again, and determined to do it even better than before. That summer I lost my grandmother. She was my ambassador of Quan, and such a source of light and strength for me in life, especially being the first grandkid. Then, the week that I returned from her funeral was probably one of my biggest moments of adversity when I heard, “you have Cancer.”
And that’s much of why we are here today, and much of why I am happy to still be here today. As a result of many of these pivotal moments, I have always tried to find something positive through adversity. A big part of what makes me tick.
Cheers to that, and to say the least glad we are here having this conversation today. So with all of that life and adversity, how would you say Cancer changed you?
For those that have experienced it, the words “you have Cancer” just changes you. It’s an unexplainable thing, and I really wish more people did not ever have to hear it. I hope and pray in my lifetime that can be the case. But it’s something I never thought I would hear, especially at age 36.
I would say to the core, Cancer didn’t change me too much as I have spent my life trying to lay some pretty good ground work and take a lot of pride in that. But I did come out of Cancer deliberately more selfish, more vulnerable and exposed and knowing that I needed to ask and accept support. For those that knew my first 36 years, these weren’t on the list of Kat Casey traits.
I have carried much of that into this next chapter in life, and definitely into Chemo Noir. I am more aware and deliberate of putting myself first and work-life balance. I am watching myself do better work and bigger things when I am my best me. I knew that Chemo Noir was going to be about my story, at least to get started. I was so stubbornly private with my Cancer journey, and now I am sharing my story and actually writing a book about it. It’s been incredibly challenging for me to embrace vulnerability like that, but I am giving it a big hug and hopeful for great things. The support piece was really hard for me at first, but now I love it. I almost didn’t know how to ask for help because I was so independent and stubborn. Just ask my Mom, ha. But wow, when you find yourself unable to take out your own trash, unable to drive, unable to do most things you take for granted, and HAVE TO succumb to needing help it changes things. Chemo Noir isn’t Chemo Noir without me asking for help. I needed a CREW of volunteers, I needed great partners, I needed a solid board, and I needed financial backing and fundraising.
Considering the challenge, fear and relentlessness of Cancer, this it’s been a fruitful and wonderful epiphany on the other side.
So tell us more about where Chemo Noir comes from.
Well here’s the short story, I am just three years Cancer free, but it was not without a fight. And, when I was in treatment and could stomach a little comfort food and some Pinot Noir with peeps, I would call these my Chemo Noir nights.
Being a survivor, I will always have Cancer and I see it everywhere. And Cancer impacts everyone. So I knew I wanted to do something with Chemo Noir that was inspired by my own experiences.
What compelled you to bring this to life?
I am a brand marketer by trade, and I know a good idea when I discover one. It’s rare when it’s my own because I make a living helping other people bring their brands and stories to life. But I knew I needed to do something with Chemo Noir. I knew by the way it made me feel in my own journey, and how others reacted to it when I first kicked it around. And it’s truly awesome to see a beautiful tribe blossoming around it all.
With all of the Cancer organizations out there, what made you want to start one and how is Chemo Noir different?
So many causes are Cancer specific, and so many fund research efforts, and we are still fighting for a cure. I wanted to do something that was financially supportive, Cancer agnostic and age agnostic. The financial burden through Cancer is immense, even with insurance. I personally experienced it, and I knew there was a need.
And wine brings about community, and I love wine, so I figured let’s provide help, and also enjoy some good wine and good cheer for a great cause.
What is your goal with Chemo Noir?
My goal was to create a lifestyle brand, a community and to eventually bottle wine. And it’s so amazing that this is all happening in our first year of existence.
My goal was never out of the gates to start a nonprofit. I started with the notion to bottle wine, but I knew that doing events and building a lifestyle brand would have bigger, quicker impact than going the wine route. So I did it in reverse. Started the nonprofit, and now working on a private label program to bottle wine in the future with proceeds to benefit the Chemo Noir mission. I dream big, and feel like it’s the start of an empire.
What do you mean by creating a lifestyle brand?
I didn’t want to just start a nonprofit that just collected checks and operated solely around money. Of course, I want to raise lots of money to support our mission, but I really wanted people that touched the Chemo Noir brand to feel like they were a part of something, part of a movement.
My hat has a great story, and I want people that wear it to know they are a part of something bigger. I mean it's a great hat, but being active, taking care of your best self, embracing life, enjoying good wine, helping people battling Cancer and being a part of a community is essential to my vision. I think about beating Cancer every time I put it on.
What has been some of your challenges or unforeseen obstacles in starting Chemo Noir?
Well, honestly, so far so good. If you asked me 5 years ago if I would start a nonprofit, especially one that is a Cancer focused organization, I would have said no. And not because I don't care, but because there are so many out there, and so many that I have supported and continue to support over the past decades. And also because I never thought I would get Cancer. But life changes and gives you unpredictable opportunity sometimes, so here I am.
But I will say I had NO idea what went into starting and properly structuring a nonprofit. From the IRS processes, to accounting, to tracking everything, to the insurances, etc. It’s quite a feat to launch one of these things street legal. Luckily, I was able to really take the branding and marketing piece on myself, and I tend to run it as a business, because it’s what I know, but to get it going and set up was quite an undertaking. So here’s hoping I can keep it growing and thriving, and people love our wines in the [near] future. Wine with impact pairs well with anything, right.
What motivates you to keep doing Chemo Noir everyday?
Future impact. Chemo Noir started with my journey and story, but I hope in the future we have so much impact, that the Chemo Noir brand evolves into the impact story. This Cancer fight is hard enough, on everyone involved, and money is stressful in life, so we want to provide some financial relief so that the focus is on the FIGHT and not the stress of finances. Every ounce of sweat equity I have put into Chemo Noir will be so worth it when we get to deliver impact.
So, what a piece of advice would you give someone as a result of your experience?
You really never know. You never know when your life can change forever, or be taken from you. So don’t wait. Don't wait for those pivotal moments to make you live your dreams, or do something that you have always wanted to do. Do it now, do what makes you happy and live a life full of your best you and many experiences.
Photo Credit: Kellie Smirnoff @ The Laughing Freckle