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Columbia Business Monthly

Saving the TaTas: Local Entrepreneurs Fill Cups, Market Niche, with Supplies for Breast Cancer Survivors

May 01, 2017 09:28PM ● By Makayla Gay

By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley

Photography by K Campbell Photography

Kim Neel and Sherry Norris met through Girl Scouts, an organization dedicated to the empowerment of women. Ten years later, Neel and Norris co-own Alala, LLC, a business specializing in the same cause.

Norris originally volunteered with the Girl Scouts day camp and was responsible for teaching girls personal hygiene, from brushing your teeth to wearing a bra. When Norris met Neel, a braless breast cancer survivor in a pink sweatshirt, the two had to have a talk.

“I pulled her aside and said, ‘I know you had breast cancer, but you’ve got to wear a bra here,’ ” Norris said.

“I was like, ‘Girl, I can’t find one,’” Neel said.

They became fast friends, and Norris offered to go bra shopping with Neel. After multiple unfulfilling stops at different stores, the pair started dreaming of their own business that would offer the services they couldn’t find. They met weekly at the library to work on a business plan, and then submitted it to the University of South Carolina Innovation and Technology Incubator.

“When we got the phone call that we’d been accepted, we were blown away,” Neel said.

A market research study revealed few local options for women in need of such products. Neel and Norris were determined to get things rolling.

“We were on a mission to get every woman we could in a bra and breast prosthetic,” Norris said.

In 2006, Alala, LLC, was founded. The company specializes mainly in mastectomy prosthetics and bras, as well as compression pumps for cancer survivors. All of its employees are certified prosthetic fitters.

“‘Alala’ in Greek mythology is the personification of the feminine war cry, and we were declaring war on traditional sales and service for post-surgical cancer patients,” Neel said.

While Alala’s Columbia office is a medical facility, Neel says that it’s designed to feel like a comfortable space. The building consists of a homey waiting room with couches and armchairs. Fitting rooms are styled by the prosthetic fitters themselves, intentional design strategies to give the impression that you’re visiting a family friend instead of a cold and fluorescent doctor’s office.

“When you come in, you become part of the family,” Neel said. “If you come in at 9 a.m. and you smell the coffee, we’ll get you a cup. And if it’s someone’s birthday and we’ve got cupcakes, you’re welcome to one.”

Beyond the everyday water bottles and office snacks, Neel and Norris say that from the very beginning, they have put the women they’re helping first. Norris said that for the first couple of years, neither woman took home a paycheck.

To keep outfitting deserving women in bras while turning a profit on the retail side of things, the women started a nonprofit organization in 2008. The Alala Cancer Society, a 501(c)(3) non-profit run out of the same building, helps provide women with donated mastectomy bras and wigs that would otherwise be unaffordable.

“We fight for each person,” Neel said.

This includes making insurance appeals on behalf of customers. Even if a person is uninsured, Neel said, she won’t leave Alala empty-handed.

“We make sure that they’re taken care of, no matter what,” Norris said. “Because that day that that lady comes in might be her day, when she’s finally worked up the courage to come out.”

Norris said that they’ve been able to help around 5,000 women so far and that they hope to see that number grow. While Alala only has one office, Neel and Norris travel frequently around South Carolina to help spread awareness.

“We go wherever we can get to the women,” Norris said, mentioning hospitals, recreation centers and doctors’ offices. “It’s not unusual for us to have a long-term survivor who just doesn’t know that their insurance will cover them for a prosthesis and bra. We’re constantly trying to get the education out there that this is something that their insurance will cover and that this is something available to them.”

Their next move, Neel said, is to outfit a recreational vehicle with supplies and educational materials to make reaching smaller communities easier.

No matter their method, whether it’s speaking at local events across the state or physically outfitting someone with a prosthetic breast form here in Columbia, Norris and Neel’s mission is the same as it ever has been: to help breast cancer survivors feel whole again.

“We’re still just Girl Scouts trying to make the world a better place,” Neel said.