Allison Schickel met her friend Wendy Scarborough a few years after Scarborough was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.
Scarborough has now had 11 surgeries, but one thing that Schickel realized through her friend and later other women she met was how difficult it was to shower or go to the bathroom after having surgery. You have to be able to balance those drains coming out of your body or get a friend or family member to help you while you take care of your personal hygiene needs. You also can’t lift your hands over your head to put on a garment that pulls over your head.
Scarborough’s story was one of the origins of Schickel’s Brobe, a robe with a bra that attaches that also has internal pockets to hold drains.
Schickel, 41, has now sold 40,000 Brobes and other related products since launching the line from her Austin home in 2012. She’s finding a whole new market outside of the breast cancer world and expanding to belts that hold drains, comfortable pants and children’s robes, complete with capes, that allow things like ports to be accessible for chemotherapy.
Schickel had the idea for a robe/bra combo 17 years ago when she had just had a baby and realized that she wanted something to put on after a shower while she was getting ready, something that wouldn’t be hot in a steamy bathroom, something that would collect the "boob sweat," she says.
It was a germ of a great idea, but Schickel’s life 17 years ago was filled with just trying to hold everything together. She had already left Texas once to be a movie star in California, but, she says, she realized it wasn’t that easy. "I realized I didn’t like people telling me what to do," she says. "I wasn’t a good actress."
Schickel returned to Austin, then took a summer job in Colorado on a whim. She fell in love, became pregnant, got married and moved to Fort Worth.
Then her husband, Rick Jenkins, began experiencing kidney failure again. He had already had one transplant donated by his mom before they met, but now he was facing kidney failure and dialysis and the hope for another transplant.
Each day Schickel would get him and baby Kenzie up, take him to dialysis, get Kenzie to day care, go to work as an executive assistant in the morning, pick him up from dialysis and bring him home so he could rest. Then she would work at her daughter’s day care in the afternoon, bring the baby home and wait tables at night. Then it got to where he couldn’t take care of the baby at night anymore.
Schickel didn’t have time to create the Brobe.
She returned to Austin in 2004 to get help with the baby from her mom while she worked as an office manager and cared for Rick. She kept thinking, "It just can’t get any worse than this," she says, but it always did.
At one point, she was going to be a kidney donor for him, but a test at the last minute ruled her out. He did receive a second transplant from a friend of his mother’s, but it didn’t last. Within a year, he had muscle deterioration and was declining.
By August 2007, he made the decision to no longer do dialysis and seek treatment. He told her, "I’m done. I’m in so much pain," she says. "He couldn’t chew."
They thought he would have three weeks, but he died the next day. It was Kenzie’s first week of kindergarten. All of his friends and family were gathered around his bed, and Kenzie was drawing him pictures until finally she could no longer stay awake at 12:30 a.m. He let go at 1 a.m.
"It was beautiful," Schickel says. "What better way to go? ... A part of us was happy for him."
Schickel took six months off of work. She volunteered at her daughter’s school, she went to church, she worked out, but, she says, her home life was so hard. She was 36, and "you go through so much pain and agony."
Rick Jenkins taught her a really important lesson. "I realized at a young age that life is really short," she says. "I didn’t want to waste it doing something I wasn’t passionate about."
She teamed up with her mom and created a temp agency for baby boomers who were not ready to retire but not wanting to be executives, either.
She found plenty of former executives to sign on, but it was 2008, and the bust was happening. "It was going to be huge," she says, but "no companies were hiring."
It did teach her about entrepreneurship, she says. And she found that it really suited her. It also connected her to Scarborough through a networking event because they were both working in the senior workforce arena.
Things were changing in Schickel’s life, though. In 2009, she met Matt Schickel through a friend. He already knew her. Matt Schickel is a paramedic, and he remembered her after being one of the paramedics that responded to one of the many times she had to call to get Rick medical help. "It’s weird," she says, and "it’s kind of cool."
When that senior temp agency failed, Schickel’s inner voice kept bringing up the bra/robe combination. She went to Target, bought a robe and a front-opening sports bra, pulled out her needle and thread and sewed a prototype together. It looked rough, but it worked.
Schickel brought up the bra/robe combination idea to Scarborough, who then explained about breast cancer recovery surgery and all the drains that come with it. Scarborough told her about the itchy tank top the hospital gave her to use.
"It was falling apart by the time I got home (from the hospital)," Scarborough says. "It’s already an issue. You are looking at a new body and this garment is falling apart."
Schickel remembers Scarborough telling her that if she ever did something with this bra/robe combo, she should do something around breast cancer recovery.
Schickel remembers thinking, "I’m going to listen to the universe," she says. "I’m going to go with it."
She showed Scarborough her prototype. "I brought her what looked like something out of eighth-grade home ec," Schickel says.
But it was better than what Scarborough had to do as she was recovering. "It’s not just a matter of feeling pretty," Scarborough says. "You need something that’s going to hold you together."
Scarborough went to a store that sold undergarments and robes and improvised because there was nothing for her. "I rigged up some things," Scarborough says.
Schickel also went to a few stores to do her research to see if there was anything like the Brobe and found nothing.
"I thought I could create something that focuses on wellness," Schickel says. She also wanted it to make the person wearing it feel good. It should be something that you would want to give someone and something that someone would want to wear.
Schickel took the last $1,000 she and her husband, Matt, had. She worked with a seamstress for three months creating a prototype.
Then she called up the local office of Susan G. Komen to see if someone would meet with her to see if her idea had legs.
They did and brought to the meeting a survivor who had just had her drains taken out. "She’s just crying," Schickel says. "She told me, ’You have to make this.’"
It made Schickel sad for everyone who had to go through these surgeries without something comfortable to wear. The Brobe is 95% cotton and 5% Spandex, and that soft material is important, as is the ease of getting it on and the places to stash drains without anyone knowing you have them.
In fact, you can wear it out with a pair of leggings or Brobe’s joggers to get treatment or go out to dinner and people won’t think anything about you wearing a robe out in public, Schickel says.
She and Matt made a plan for her to give Brobe a shot for two years, without her bringing in a salary. She raised $25,000 from friends and family and ordered her first 600 units.
By the time they arrived, she had a newborn baby at home, daughter Monya, who is now 8.
"I don’t think I understood what came next," she says.
It took her two years to sell those first 600, and truthfully, she also gave some away. Now she can sell that many in five weeks. They now sell for $98.
It was four years and another baby, son Evan, 4, before she made a salary.
What changed was how she marketed the Brobe to women and found clients.
Schickel is really good at talking to buyers of the Brobe and doing her research. She thought she would be able to sell the Brobe through flyers in doctors’ offices, but then a woman who was buying a Brobe told her the real story.
When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re given a folder that has a flyer for the Brobe, but you have so many emotions going on in your head that you just shove the folder in the back of the car and leave it. Only weeks or months later do you realize that you need some sort of recovery garment, but you don’t find that folder. No, you Google it.
That’s when Schickel realized she needed to switch gears and make this a direct-to-consumer product and one that was easily findable online.
"That’s it," she says. "Once that happened, everything changed."
Her customer research also told her that her buyers were purchasing Brobes for more than just breast cancer recovery surgery. It worked for any recovery surgery where there might be drains or where you just want something supportive and comfortable to wear.
She’s also developed products based on what buyers have told her they needed, like a comfort pillow with a removable ice pack, and a belt to hold drains that can go in the shower with you. She now has a hospital system that is buying the drain belts to give to their patients in recovery.
The Brobe’s newest market is children. About a year ago, Schickel was speaking at the University of Texas when she met a woman who had a son, Matthis, who would sit around in only his diaper while medical staff accessed his port to give him cancer treatment. He died when he was 3, the same age as Schickel’s son at the time.
"It was one of those times that I had to pull over," she says, when she thought about the story of Matthis.
She met with the mom who brought her a onesie that her son had worn during treatment while he was still a baby, but there wasn’t much for him to wear during treatment as a young boy.
Now Schickel is developing the children’s line and consulting with nurses and child life specialists to make sure it meets the needs of the kids and the medical staff. She’ll call the first robe type Matthis, after that little boy.
It’s not the Brobe that Schickel feels is her greatest accomplishment, though. It’s her children.
She says they will say about her that "I work really, really hard," she says. "I think my kids are very proud of me."
Hard work has always been part of who Schickel is.
School was always hard for her, and she was often compared to her older sister who made straight A’s without even trying. Schickel says she would study a lot and still get F’s. "Much of school I felt dumb," she says.
But hard work got her through. Two of her mottoes have always been "I will figure it out" and "I will just make it happen." She’s also followed her mom’s advice: "Leap and the net will appear."
That leap led her to Rick, and to the Brobe, and to Matt.
Caring for Rick taught her that you just keep pushing, even if that means you’re always in fight mode.
"I feel like this company couldn’t be here if it weren’t for the two men in my life who were so supportive," she says.
Matt Schickel took extra shifts for years so she could not take a salary. As Brobe has grown, she’s been able to move out of the garage and into an office and use a fulfillment house. When it comes to customer service, though, it’s always Schickel who answers the queries.
Listening to her inner voice has been a key to her success. For some reason, when it came time to make her next order from the factory in China, she took a big leap and increased her order. She could not have predicted the coronavirus pandemic and the factory being shut down. She’s poised to have enough supply to see this through.
Listening to that inner voice has put her around the people who tell her about the need to create a new product like the drain, the pillow and the children’s line.
One of her biggest excitements about this company is her ability to donate Brobes to many different organizations. The one that had a lot of meaning was when she donated to the University of Wisconsin’s medical center, where Rick Jenkins had his two transplants. "I was so excited about it," she says. "I wanted to do this for so long."