Top career advice from a millennial entrepreneur and cancer survivor
Liya Shuster-Bier’s career has been a whirlwind.
The New York native, now 34, went to Dartmouth on a scholarship, worked at Goldman Sachs and a startup in Boston, then attended Wharton business school to receive her MBA, all at the age of 30.
In January 2018, six months after graduating and returning to the startup world, Shuster-Bier was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Despite six rounds of chemotherapy, by the end of the year her cancer had returned. This time, she would undergo both radiation therapy and a stem cell transplant to get rid of it, the latter so aggressive that she would spend the next 100 days regaining the strength to simply walk around the block.
Shuster-Bier has now been in remission for three years. Shortly after regaining her strength, she quit her job to found Alula, a marketplace for products that help cancer patients manage symptoms and side effects of their treatment, such as constipation and dehydration. The company raised $2 million and now has four employees.
If there’s one thing Shuster-Bier has learned from her harrowing journey and one career advice she’d like to pass on to others, it’s “don’t be afraid,” she says.
She tells the story of radiation as one of the moments that helped her achieve this fearlessness herself. The treatment is one that many people do even while working.
“You walk into the waiting room and you can tell what everyone is doing during the day,” she says. “And then you’re going to change into your radiation therapy gown and then you’re all literally in the same radiation therapy gown, with your buttocks sticking out, sitting, waiting for the radiation therapy room.” Then everyone goes through the same process, one-on-one with the radiation machine “which literally gives you poison,” she says.
“And I constantly had this moment like, no amount of money in any of our wallets can save us from this moment,” she says. “We are all here.” It made her realize that she didn’t have to be limited by other people’s expectations or what society told her was possible.
At the time of founding her company, for example, it might have scared her that companies founded solely by women obtained only 2.7% of venture capital investments in 2019, according to PitchBook (2% in 2022). Or that months after she founded her company and even as she tried to get venture capital herself, the world plunged headfirst into a pandemic. Theoretically, this would make his chances of success very low. But after beating cancer, she realized that all that mattered was what really happened after she tried. Because it could beat the odds regardless.
“Why should you believe in any of the limits?” she says she realised. “They’re all fake. And in the end, they don’t matter.” She was able to build her business independent of both and what others might have advised as a result.
Her journey made her realize, “Hey, if you only have so much to live for, you might as well live on the edge,” she says, adding that “that’s where all the fun is.”
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