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Have a Heart: Innovation Starts with Empathy

Jen Swendseid and Lara Severson are sisters who are revolutionizing post-surgical intimate apparel for women. Women with large busts can face increased discomfort after chest surgery (heart, lung and breast surgery). The additional weight of large breasts can pull on healing incisions. Many women are provided post-surgical bras that resemble training bras or sports bras. These have very little support and provide little comfort to women with larger busts. heart&core is drastically improving the post-surgical intimate apparel options for women.

Jen and Lara started heart&core after watching their mother struggle to find a supportive bra after breast cancer surgery. Jen and Lara are bringing greater comfort to many women who have silently suffered from inadequate product offerings. I had the opportunity to interview Jen and learn more about her motivations for starting heart&core.

Part of the mission of Ova is to reclaim shame through personal story. Would you be willing to share a moment where you were embarrassed or felt ashamed of your body? How has this moment influenced your work with heart&core?

I’ll go back to my childhood as my first memory of being embarrassed/ashamed of my body. It was junior high, and I was always made fun of for being flat chested. It was a terrible feeling that stuck with me, and of course one of the most awkward times in my life! Of course it doesn’t seem like a big deal as an adult, but it does make me feel fortunate when I see a larger chested woman dealing with cancer and struggling to be properly supported.

What stories or conversations with women stand out to you as key motivators for starting heart&core? How did you know that you were meeting a widespread need?

After we moved into the post surgical market, I was at a fitting shop and met a woman who had recently had a double mastectomy, tissue expanders put in to prepare for reconstructive surgery, was receiving radiation and had also been through chemo. She was very uncomfortable. When she put on our post-surgical bra she was so excited to “look normal” and not need to hold her sides. The formed cups properly supported her and gave her the comfort she needed. It made me cry to see the relief and her smile. I knew at that moment, for all the mistakes we had made, we were doing something good for women.

Why do you think there has been so little innovation in post-surgical bras?

I think it has been dominated by companies that have post-surgical bras as a small part of their much larger offerings including compression wear and mastectomy products. They focus on selling to distributors and haven’t taken the time to connect to the women who use the products and get their feedback, offer support, and be a resource. This is why heart&core has made the women in recovery their focus-creating better products, offering support, and being a resource for them.

Entrepreneurs are often seen as risk takers. Do you consider yourself a risk taker? What is the biggest risk you’ve had to take in starting Heart & Core? Would you be willing to share a formative experience that prepared you to launch your own company?

Yes, I am a definitely a risk taker! I think the biggest risk was taking on debt and using personal savings to make it happen. I don’t know if there was one experience, I just think it’s in my genes. My dad was an entrepreneur, so I blame him for having the drive to do my own thing-a blessing and a curse!

How do you manage uncertainty?

Laugh. My motto is you can laugh or you can cry, but it’s much more fun to laugh, so do it every day! Don’t get me wrong, I definitely have my sleepless nights, my glass or two of wine, my meltdowns, and my workouts to keep me sane, but I’ve been through a lot with this business so I’ve just learned to deal with it as best I can. Some days are better than others!

What has been the hardest decision you’ve had to make since starting heart&core?

To not quit-I usually want to quit at least once every week-sometimes every day, but at the end of the day, I know I need to pick myself up by my bootstraps and move forward because it will all work out and no one else is going to do it for me.

In the next five years what innovation do you hope to see in women’s personal care/ health?

I’d like to see better products, better insurance coverage for those products, and more control and choice for women.

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