Kristin Dudley was wrapping up her senior year at Drexel, months away from earning her degree in Fashion Design from the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. She’d spent September 2005 to March 2006 working on her most important project to date – her senior collection.
“The Fashion Design Program at Drexel was very challenging, grueling and competitive,” Kristin recalled. “I devoted all of my time to my senior collection.”
But with graduation looming around the corner, she wasn’t exactly sure what her next step would be. Would she continue the bartending job in Old City that she had picked up to help pay for college? Would she jumpstart her career as a designer in New York City on the reality show, "Project Runway?" Or would she graduate and open a fashion boutique or a gallery in Philadelphia?
She had many questions, but no real answers.
However, one thing Kristin did know is that she was bound for something great.
“I guess I’ve always been a leader,” she said. “I was president of my high school class and really active in sports. And I’ve always thought I’d own my own business someday. Not because I like to control things but because I’ve just always had this determination to execute.”
Armed with an entrepreneurial spirit, which she says she truly discovered during a creative marketing and public relations co-op for SONY Tri Star Pictures, Kristin packed herself up and made her way to New York City to audition for the fashion reality show, "Project Runway." She made it all the way to the finals but unfortunately was cut and sent home.
“I remember driving back to Philadelphia and wondering what I was going to do with myself,” she said.
It was just a couple of days later that Kristin got a call that would propel her in a whole new direction – one that she never saw coming.
A fellow classmate from Drexel, Robin Miller ’06, was diagnosed with breast cancer and was suffering from a side effect from treatments known as lymphedema.
“Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is compromised due to surgery,” Kristin explained. “Fluid gets backed up in the tissue of the arms and hands. It’s uncomfortable and causes swelling. A way to treat it is to wear a compressive sleeve to restrict fluid from accumulating and push the fluid up and out of the limb, and back into the body.”
Lymphedema is an incurable and chronic side effect of cancer treatment which affects about 40 percent of all breast cancer survivors.
Robin called Kristin, hoping that she could design an alternative to the uncomfortable, itchy and unfashionable compression sleeve that she had to wear.
“My grandmother also had breast cancer and had developed lymphedema,” Kristin said. “She was very fashionable and refused to wear the sleeve, so instead she would sleep with her arm elevated to drain the fluid.”
Kristin and Robin’s initial chat led to a brunch with another breast cancer survivor and a friend of Robin’s named Rachel Troxel. The women talked about the potential project but never thought of it as a thriving business – rather just a solution to their problem with their compression sleeves.
However, all that changed when Rachel, Robin and Kristin entered a business plan for their fashion-friendly compression sleeves into a competition at Drexel’s Laurence A. Baiada Center for Entrepreneurship in Technology. Their plan won third place granting them $8,000, office space at the Baiada Center and access to mentorship and the Growth Acceleration Program, a series of workshops catered to start-up businesses.
“I feel like Drexel gave me a priceless education and opportunities and I am forever grateful,” Kristin said.
After struggling to come up with a company name, a late night slip of the tongue led to the moniker that she says sums the company up perfectly.
“I was reading some research on lymphedema out loud and I was so tired I accidently said lymphe-diva,” Kristin explained. “As soon as I said it, we knew the name was perfect.”
Kristin, Robin and Rachel began selling LympheDIVAs sleeves in December of 2006. Their sleeves were well received because not only were they more fashionable, coming in various colors and patterns, but they were also cooler, less itchy and more flexible. As Kristin put it, they are ‘a medically superior garment.’
Kristin said that her clients are wonderful women who are funny and passionate and who can’t wait to express their gratitude.
“I would imagine that owning a boutique or gallery wouldn’t give me the same type of satisfaction,” she said. “I feel very lucky to be involved with this product.”
In March 2007, just a week after Robin decided to leave the company, Rachel received some devastating news. At age 35, her breast cancer had returned for a second time. Kristin explained that, because Rachel was undergoing treatments, they thought it best to move the company from the Baiada Center to her home.
“Rachel’s chemo put her through some real ups and downs but she always really pushed it,” she said.
The two continued to operate LympheDIVAs together, sharing the responsibilities. Rachel’s role as the business director was to handle legal issues, manage their relationship with the research and design facility, as well as handle accounting and management of sales. Kristin oversaw marketing, sales and the more creative aspects of the company.
“We were equal partners but I definitely saw Rachel as my leader,” Kristin said.
They worked tirelessly together to grow their business until January 2008 when Rachel lost her battle against breast cancer.
“Looking back, I feel like I knew Rachel much longer than I did,” Kristin recalled. “That first day back in the office after mourning her death I had an epiphany. I had a real moment of clarity and felt focused. I went straight to work and I’ve been working ever since.”
With the help of some additional staff, Drexel co-op students and Rachel’s parents who have stayed on board to help with the business, Kristin continues to pour herself into LympheDIVAs.
In May 2008, she began putting together a monthly e-newsletter called the "DIVA Digest" which offers health links, beauty information and fashion tips for people who suffer from lymphedema. As for the future of LympheDIVAs, Kristin sees the company expanding into athletic wear, compression leg wear and compression tank tops.
She looks forward to much growth and success with LympheDIVAs but as always, her main focus is to uphold the company’s mission to "inspire breast cancer survivors everywhere to feel beautiful, strong and confident."
For more information, visit LympheDIVAs online at www.lymphedivas.com.