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For most, a tearful phone call from an oncologist’s office would be cause for alarm. Megan Sullivan has received plenty of them since she founded her business two years ago, and she’s prepared to get even more.
Sullivan, 27, DAAP ’15, M (DAAP) ’16, is the founder of With Grace B. Bold, a clothing line inspired by the battle her mother waged with breast cancer when she was 9 years old. The garment that bears Sullivan’s mother’s name, Ann Elizabeth, has given dozens of women a convenient way to conceal the surgical drainage tubing and collection bulb typically required during recovery from surgery. But it serves another important purpose: Fashionable and luxurious, the garment helps women reclaim their self esteem and feel like themselves again.
The Ann Elizabeth is a thoughtfully designed, fashionable top that addresses the obstacles women recovering from breast surgery commonly face. Because such women can’t lift their arms above their head during recovery, the garment wraps, tied together on the inside and fastened on the outside with two snaps at the shoulder. A system of stabilizers hold the tubing in place, and pockets inside the garment are perfectly contoured to fit the drainage bulb. The soft, bamboo-knit fabric — all natural to prevent irritation to healing incisions — drapes to conceal the form of the drains, and the full neckline includes fabric that puddles and adds volume to the chest.
Sullivan’s business gives customers the option of buying or gifting a garment to someone in need. In addition, Sullivan provides a range of garments to each new hospital that partners with her business for them to gift to their patients. The program has resulted in more than 50 women (and counting) receiving an Ann Elizabeth after their surgeries. So when Sullivan hears emotion in the voices of the doctors calling her, she understands why.
I’ve gotten great traction here, and now it’s just how can I take this and turn it into a nationally — or even globally — recognized brand.
Megan Sullivan Founder, With Grace B. Bold
“I just hear over and over, ‘I wish you could have been there. I wish you could have seen the look on her face,’” says Sullivan. “I wish I could meet every single woman that gets one of the garments. The fact that I’ve never met them, that I’m a stranger to them, and I’m able to impact their journey and make them feel special — it warms my heart. It brings me to tears just thinking about it.”
Despite having worked on the line since she decided to make it her capstone project in the University of Cincinnati’s fashion design program at the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning six years ago, Sullivan considers her business to still be very much an early-stage startup. She turned to Aviatra Accelerators, a Northern Kentucky-based nonprofit dedicated to educating and supporting female entrepreneurs. After participating in Aviatra’s 10-week LAUNCH program recently, Sullivan won Aviatra’s Flight Night Pitch Competition and $5,000.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about my business than I was that night,” says Sullivan, who called the cash prize “just an added bonus” after the lessons she learned from other businesswomen in the program.
Next for With Grace B. Bold: an expanded product line and an expanded customer base. Sullivan says she has received inquiries from doctors at cancer centers in Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.
“I’ve gotten great traction here,” she says, “and now it’s just how can I take this and turn it into a nationally — or even globally — recognized brand.”
Sullivan’s efforts to expand her customer base go beyond geography. She plans to introduce a headwrap to her product line that will be cut from the same fabric used for her other garments.
“It means I can open up the brand to meet the needs of more women,” Sullivan says. “Women lose their hair for all different reasons, and the fact that I can expand outside of the market while meeting the needs of women with breast cancer is amazing.”
In addition, the Ann Elizabeth’s functional design has potential for other uses, says Elyse Lower, professor in the UC College of Medicine, director of the UC Cancer Institute's Comprehensive Breast Cancer Center and a UC Health oncologist.
“To date, we have recommended it for many patients after surgery,” says Lower. “However, I anticipate that it will also be used by women with chest wall port-a-caths, which are used for chemotherapy. Access is so important, and the design makes it easy for our infusion staff as well as the patients.”
Featured image: Megan Sullivan, right, with her mother, Ann. Sullivan's business, With Grace B. Bold, was inspired by Ann's battle with breast cancer when Megan was a child. The Ann Elizabeth top, worn by Ann here, was named in her honor. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative Services
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