RALEIGH — Brooks Bell, founder and CEO of the brand consulting firm that bears her name, isn’t afraid to say the “C” word.
In fact, just a few days after making the stunning announcement that she is stepping away from her role after being diagnosed with colon cancer, she invited WRAL TechWire”s Chantal Allam into her Raleigh home for a candid chat about what this means for her, both personally and professionally.
In the second part of a candid interview, Bell, 38, talks about her decision to step away as CEO, her upcoming chemotherapy and what entrepreneurs can learn from her experience.
- Brooks, you just announced that you’re stepping away from your role as CEO, and will become executive chairman. Naoshi Yamauchi, the firm’s president, will serve as interim CEO. How did you come to that decision?
It was immediate. I knew that needed to happen the day that we found out. That has honestly been the hardest part. My company is like, literally, my identity. Once I had processed the idea of dealing with this cancer and chemo and everything in front of me, the more difficult thing was how to get over the idea that I needed to change my role. Once we made a plan, I feel great about it. Naoshi is fantastic. He has been my president for years. He’s been with the company for 10 years. He has my complete trust, and he’s stepping up. I feel great.
The company is doing great, and the whole team is rallying around me and I have no concerns that the team is going to be fine without me for the next several months. Once I’m through chemo, I think it will make us a lot stronger as a company for me to focus on the things that I really love. That is thought leadership and focusing on the high-level strategy, helping us become more accountable. Pulling out of the day-to-day will really be a great thing for the team, even though it’s hard for me to do it. It’s like letting your first child go off to college. Hard, but necessary. It’s really kind of a blessing in disguise.
- You are also looking for a permanent CEO. Why have you decided to take that step?
Naoshi is doing great. But having been the CEO since the beginning, I know it’s a hard role. I can’t put the burden of all his responsibilities, plus my responsibilities on his shoulders in the long term. He just needs a partner to help the company and help him make decisions and manage our team, build all our client relationships, do all the travel and speaking and thought leadership that is required. We think it’s the right thing to find someone to partner with him.
- Your company just celebrated its 15th anniversary. That’s a great milestone, and now this. How difficult is it for you to let go of running the day-to-day operations?
It’s difficult. But in a way, it’s freeing. It’s allowing me to spend more time learning new things. I’ve always thought I’d like to learn how to cook; I’d like to get more physically active. I’ve always had this idea of what my ‘ideal hypothetical’ self would looks like. Someone who works out every day. Someone who goes on a long run in the morning.
Gets a nice healthy breakfast. Cooks a healthy plant-based dinner. All these visions of a somewhat more fit and domestic self, and even though those are not high-value activities for the world, it’s something that this is giving me the opportunity to explore. I’m kind of excited about it. Sometimes you need something like this to force that kind of change in your life, and I think it’s good for me.
- What can other entrepreneurs learn from what you are going through now?
Running a company is very stressful and complex, even though it’s also gratifying. I’m recognizing the amount of pressure that has been on my shoulders for my entire adult life. I founded my company when I was 23, so it’s all I know. You just adapt to the pressure and stop feeling it. I was proud of my ability to manage chronic stress with a (mostly) calm demeanor. But even if you no longer recognize it, your body still suffers going through this has also helped me start to appreciate a more balanced life, and there’s something really great about that too. I would encourage other entrepreneurs to not get too much tunnel vision around driving towards success at the cost of their health, their family or friend relationships. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The success of your company or career is not as important as your own health, and your family relationships, and things can change in a moment. It’s important to be successful and contribute value to the world, but it’s one element of your life, and it shouldn’t be everything in your life.
- It also seems that you’d set up the company in such a way that your team could withstand your absence for a while. How did you do that?
Well, there was some really lucky timing. A company evolves over time. There’s a company structure that works when you have 20 people. It’s totally different when you’re at 40, 50 or 80, and the company continues to evolve in order to be successful at different stages. We recently had finished reorganizing the company to better match where we are today. We had finished some deep strategic thinking as a team and so everyone was poised to begin executing the plan that we all agreed on. The timing of my diagnosis was just after we completed that process. We were already in a great place for the team to take over. We were aligned and motivated and knew what we had to do. If this had happened six months ago, it wouldn’t have been as smooth. But it is always good to try to stay aligned with your team and have really great communication. It’s always best practice to have a good succession plan.
- Where from here? Has the succession happened already?
Yes, Naoshi is the current CEO. My chemo starts in April and will complete by June. When I’m finished with that, I will get re-engaged as the executive chairman in a more formalized way. Right now, I’m just giving Naoshi and the team space to get used to me not being around. Then I’ll come back and will lead the firm in a more sustainable way.. I might be writing a book, doing more thought leadership in personalization, or doing some speaking.
- What about plans for the company? Do you even think that far in advance?
We are focusing on personalization, and so that’s been a big investment and will continue to be a focus for the next several years. We also launched a product a year ago called Illuminate, and we’re excited about how that will help companies scale their optimization programs more seamlessly. I’m sure the company is going to be great.
- Anything else you want to add?
Maybe we should talk about insurance. It doesn’t routinely cover colonoscopies for people under the age of 50. I get why. It’s because one out of ten colon cancer diagnoses are in people over 50. It’s a much greater risk for older people. And, our healthcare industry just can’t afford to pay for a colonoscopy for everybody, and there hasn’t been enough research to give them a clear answer for when to start screening earlier without bankrupting the industry. But on the flipside, that means it’s very hard to find the 10 percent who do have it at a young age because there is no screening and a lot of bias.
Part of the problem is that the symptoms for colon cancer are very vague and can be explained by many far less serious GI issues as well. It’s constipation, diarrhea, blood in the stool, change in your bowel habits. Doctors are hesitate to start with colon cancer as the probable cause, and so they don’t routinely start with a colonoscopy. This makes it hard to get a timely diagnosis, and this dramatically increases the risk that the cancer will spread in the meantime. That makes it even more important for you to advocate for yourself and be educated on symptoms.
What is frustrating is that colonoscopies should not just be used to diagnose colon cancer – they should be used to prevent it. And that is to use it to help identify who has a polyp in their colon. Fifteen to 25 percent of people will have a polyp by they time they turn 50. And, 40 percent of those polyps will be pre-cancerous. That is why I wish insurance would pay for everyone to be screened in their 30s, if possible. But until then, we need to ask for it whenever we have a symptom that qualifies.
Insurance should pay for it, but you have to fight for it. If you have family history, they will pay for it as well. But you are responsible for finding out if you have family history on your own. My grandfather had colon surgery when he was in his 40s, but I didn’t find out about that until two weeks ago. A lot of people don’t realize they have family history. Once we start digging in, and being more aware of our symptoms and family history, if you have any of those things, then you have to go advocate for yourself to get a colonoscopy.