Women in Business Q&A: Marnie Rustemeyer, Founder and CEO, Billow Pillow

Marnie Rustemeyer is the founder and CEO of Billow Pillow - conceived, designed and created following her diagnosis with the BRCA (breast cancer) gene, a mastectomy and subsequent reconstructive surgeries. The Billow was developed as a sleep aide after more than a year of research and development.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The journey that has brought me where I am today began when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Thanks to her strong conviction and courage, she was able to prevail through surgery, chemo and radiation and has remained cancer free for 28 years. My own health challenges began in 2006 when I underwent a thyroidectomy, which turned out positive for thyroid cancer. This was only the beginning.

My doctor strongly recommended that I get tested for the BCRA gene mutation because of my family and personal history. But testing was very expensive at the time and a part of me didn't want to know the result, so I kept putting it off. Over the years the cost went down, my courage went up and I met with a genetic counselor to get tested. Two long weeks later, the result came back positive. I decided to be proactive and have a double mastectomy. Since my risk was also high for ovarian cancer, I had a bilateral salpingo oophorectomy as well.

I was unprepared for the pain and discomfort following both procedures. In my quest to find a pillow during my recovery that would allow me to sleep and rest comfortably, I was extremely discouraged to find there was absolutely nothing acceptable on the market. It was then that I decided to create something that could help me be more comfortable. During one of many sleepless nights, it also occurred to me there were other women in my position who could use something to help them too. Breastcancer.org reports there are 2.8 million women in the United States with breast cancer. The majority of these women, approximately 80%, will elect to have reconstructive surgery and will experience pain and discomfort. That's a lot of women who are going to need a restful night's sleep-which is extremely important to the healing process.

I became extremely enthusiastic about creating a pillow to fill a personal need and also bring a product to market that could help the millions of other women who suffer from breast discomfort. Billow became a project that gave me something positive to focus on during my recovery.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Billow Pillow?
In corporate America, you focus on a specific set of responsibilities that your company mandates. Owning your own business is completely different. I had to acquire a broad range of skills from design and prototyping to manufacturing, distribution and accounting... all the while keeping an eye on maintaining the integrity of the product, keeping costs competitive and ensuring I satisfy my customers. Every Billow is hand made in the USA of domestic, organic and cruelty-free materials, which is important to me, as well as women with chemical sensitivities and anyone concerned with the environment.

A big challenge we face is finding investors who are a right fit for Billow. We need funding to implement certain initiatives to grow the business and are seeking investors who want to be a part of a company where social responsibility is paramount as well. I do have moments of self-doubt. Invariably, when I do have those moments, I open my email and there is a message from a woman, a survivor, telling me about how the Billow has made a difference in her life. This is what keeps me motivated and encouraged.

What advice can you offer women who want to start their own business?
You have to have passion and believe that your product or idea is utterly unique to the market, be committed and do your research. Part of my research meant putting my breasts on a lot of different pillows, testing different fillings and materials and shapes and sizes. I also researched the pillow market, breast pillow market, breast cancer and surgery statistics, and general statistics regarding women, breasts, health and wellness. This was all new to me and took time and patience.

Most importantly, you must have heart and belief in yourself. I am very lucky to have an amazing support system and encouragement of family and friends. Bottom line is don't give up on yourself through times of frustration and self-doubt.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I think its important to set a schedule and try to stick to it the best you can. Knowing how to prioritize if something unexpectedly comes up is important, too. Set aside time to connect with family and friends and pursue your outside interests. I like to attend art openings, charitable events, and dine out. Exercise is extremely therapeutic for me and it's important to staying healthy. I try to work out for at least an hour every day.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Generally speaking, I think women should get more recognition for what they do. They should also be respected and taken more seriously. Wage equality is an important issue as well. Billow, a woman owned business, makes it a strong point to treat everyone equally.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have had mentors in my life who have had a profound effect both personally and professionally. Kevin Brinkman, former Director at Bear Stearns, brought me to Wall Street and what began an unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Chris Listo, former Executive Director at Nomura Securities, Inc., took me under his wing and gave me the opportunity to learn a new product in the ever-changing structured notes market. Both gave me full support in these enormous opportunities and the freedom to achieve my goals. As my journey has changed over the past two years, I have found personal inspiration from the women whom I have met and share their personal stories related to breast cancer and have found strength and courage to persevere during the most challenging and difficult times.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many amazing female leaders that inspire me. I admire Jane Goodall for her passion towards animals, the environment and women empowerment. Her life's work has touched millions of people worldwide and parallels with Billow's philosophy of remaining organic and cruelty free.

Jane Goodall said, "What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make". My mission is to make a difference in women's lives by offering them a product that can help them feel better, rest and provide comfort after having breast surgery. Billow donates a portion of proceeds to charities that strive to find a cure.

What do you want Billow Pillow to accomplish in the next year?
We want to let women with breast sensitivities know there is a product available that will give them a pain free and comfortable experience while sleeping, resting or getting a massage. We also want to make the Billow affordable and available to all women who desire to have a product made especially for them.

Most people never find their path in life. I was lucky to have found my passion by taking something completely out of my control and turning it into a positive result. The Billow is a product that I believe in and I believe in how it is made and sourced. Plus, I sleep well at night. Very well. I wouldn't DREAM of sleeping without my Billow.