Undergraduate Academic Affairs

May 14, 2014

Entrepreneur Kirsten Rogers aims to take a bite out of cancer

Undergraduate Academic Affairs

In 2013, David Rogers was retired and living his dream, having made his boat his home, sailing with his wife through the Sea of Cortez, when he became very ill. He was advised to return to the States, where he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Photo of Kirsten Rogers and her father

Kirsten Rogers with her father.

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, most people feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Not so David’s daughter, Kirsten Rogers. Kirsten (‘05, ‘10) set out to research all she could about how to best support her father. “I picked up on gaps in his treatment, particularly around nutrition,” she recalls. “He was being told, ‘Eat a hamburger, have a milkshake. Just get calories in.’”

Each year, about 650,000 cancer patients receive chemotherapy in an outpatient oncology clinic in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control. Kirsten was astonished to learn that 80 percent of chemotherapy patients never meet with a nutritionist. So she began educating herself on the importance of good nutrition during chemotherapy. She also began studying labels, doing her “due diligence,” as she puts it, often sitting in an aisle of the nearest Whole Foods for hours, granola bars sprawled all around her, scrutinizing the ingredients.

She would bring back to her father’s hospital room food that she had chosen as both appropriate and delicious, catering to his tastes and trying to account for the side effects of chemotherapy. “When you undergo chemo, your taste buds change every four to five days. They essentially reset,” Kirsten explains.

The nurses and other patients on her father’s ward were so impressed by the boxes of food Kirsten was assembling, they encouraged her to turn it into a business. And so Chemo Bites was born.

Chemo Bites is a food delivery service that tailors gift boxes of healthy snacks for cancer patients. Once she established her business and saw that it was viable, Kirsten started a Kickstarter campaign to expand her offerings, developing the product line and publishing a digital cookbook. She reached her goal of $9,000 in a mere 48 hours (and went on to raise $11,616 total).

Kirsten is quick to point out that she has no background in nutrition, and readily admits that she surrounds herself with “wonderful people who do have the expertise.” What she brings to her business is a background in service, having been heavily involved in volunteer projects at the UW. A Mary Gates Leadership Scholar as an undergraduate, she worked at Noel House, a women’s shelter, leading writing workshops that helped battered women process their struggles and cope with the difficulties of living in a shelter.

She also managed volunteers from the Carlson Center, both at Noel House and after college at OneWorld Now, an international leadership program for high schoolers. Half of the volunteers would come with a “I’m-going-to-change-the-world attitude.” The other half gave reasons like, “If I do 15 hours, I don’t have to write a paper.” But inevitably, by the end of a project, students from the latter (very honest) group would come up to her and say it was a life-changing experience, and that they intended to continue to volunteer. “Service learning should be mandatory!” she exclaims.

Kirsten also brings a personal passion that started with helping her father and has extended to simply fighting cancer with good nutrition. “Creating a business with a service component was one of the core values I started with,” she says. A common question she’s often asked, then, is why Chemo Bites isn’t a nonprofit. Kirsten says that while she brings the heart and soul of a nonprofit to Chemo Bites, she simply wanted it to be self-sustaining. “I got tired of chasing grants, always chasing funding.”

For now, her small business is doing well. “We’re small and scrappy and growing,” she smiles. She has partnered with well-known brands, like Simple Squares, and says that choosing partners who have philanthropic missions has been a key to her success.

Now that Chemo Bites is off and running, Kirsten is designing thematic packs and exploring the idea of offering boxes designed to help with specific side-effects. To this end, she is thinking of applying for a research grant so she could work alongside an oncology program.

Perhaps most importantly, her father is also bearing up well. He has just started the process for a bone marrow transplant. “We are being ‘responsibly optimistic,’ as they say.” Kirsten says. Having a personal stake in all this helps her connect with her customers, which is probably the most rewarding aspect of the job.

“I reach out, I check in, and we start a conversation. I’m small enough that I can do that,” she says. “I don’t just want to be a business, I want to be a community.”