Road to recovery: What one stray bullet taught Iris Sherman about entrepreneurship

Iris Sherman

Iris Sherman

By Alyssa Hurst

As Iris Sherman, co-founder and president of Kitchology, Inc. drove to the Metro station to pick up her son, she felt her car shake. She was confused for a minute, but then the pain hit.  A bullet had blasted straight through her car door, and into her right thigh. Though she is on the road to recovery, the challenges have been significant. But even through this trying time, Sherman has remained fiercely dedicated to the mission of her startup company, Kitchology, which helps people modify recipes and find things to cook that meet different nutritional requirements.

Tell me a little bit about the story behind Kitchology and why you decided a company like this needed to exist.

Sherman: My story goes that in my family, we have food allergies — multiple food allergies. For the longest time, the way that I overcome that is, I have to do a lot of research, I buy a lot of products online, I always modify a recipe, and a lot of the ingredients I look for aren’t always in the supermarkets, so it takes a lot of time. You have to be really careful, always reading labels. And when I met my co-founder … we talked a lot about food. And I would explain to him my pain points and we always thought there needed to be some sort of a technology solution to make it easier on everybody. So that was the inspiration behind Kitchology.

You talked about how you had to find the right ingredients and modify recipes. So what is the significance and the importance behind having your whole family be able to enjoy a meal together?

Sherman: I have one family member that’s allergic to everything but one protein source because he has a really rare disease. And then I have another relative, my brother, who is allergic to all of the seafood that exists. And then my kids individually have different food allergies. … So to really plan one meal where … everyone can eat the same meal at the table requires — I’m not kidding — [it takes] an Excel spreadsheet. And that’s what I used to do. … You don’t want someone to feel bad and be shunned because of their food problems.

I’ve seen you refer to yourself as a food allergy advocate. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and why it’s important to you?

Sherman: Although there are only 15 million people in the U.S. that have true food allergies, there’s another 65 million that are dealing with food intolerances. … I want to help everybody who is living this same life, so that we enjoy food again, and so that we don’t feel outcast by others, and so that we can be in the same room as everybody else. Food is a staple of life. It is really something that you want to enjoy and you want to be creative with and it makes you happy. … It’s hard. You have to make choices that are sometimes anti-social choices, which is not something that we want food to be associated with, because food is inherently social.

Do you have any food allergies yourself?

Sherman: I am the only one in my entire family to not have food allergies, … but I do live the life because of my kids, because of my family.

What is your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?

Sherman: I enjoy the creation part. I enjoy being able to sit around with smart, like-minded people and being able to create something that others may have talked about, but could never take the risk to create, and be disruptive. I call myself the disruptor. In all the ventures I’ve been involved with, every single one of them has been disruptive to a current type of medical condition. So here’s an example of some of the things I’ve done in my past. My background is actually in immunology, and I have an MBA. And one of the companies that I worked for in the past, … we created a human super glue that was made out of proteins. This was very early in the 90s and that became the staple product used in every emergency room …

Another disruptive [business] that I got involved in while I was in graduate school was in the early days of bone marrow transplantation. The bone marrow was typically just collected and they put it in a bag and re-transfused. … We actually found a way to isolate only the viable cells that were needed, and then give a transfusion of just the viable cells so the patient who is already immune-compromised is going to have a much better response. …

I worked for another small startup company. I was one of the early people on the team, and we had come up with a device to harvest blood. … The device was actually used to save Ronald Reagan’s life. … They actually used our device in the operating room so that he could get his own blood back. It captured the blood in a bag and then it just filtered out the harmful things and then you were able to re-transfuse him. And they actually used this device when Ronald Reagan was shot, in the OR. … I still have the news clip on old-fashioned VHS somewhere.

You had to deal with the trauma of being shot recently. How did you deal with running your business while recovering, both physically and emotionally?

Sherman: I did go through periods of “Do I still want to be that risk taker? Do I still want to put my heart and soul into a company, or do I just want to quit and let somebody else take over the hard stuff, the hard decisions? Because, I’m just maybe not mentally able to do that.” So I went through some testing of my being. And then I realized, I started this with my co-founder because I believe in what we are trying to do. And when I talk to people, who unbelievably rallied around me to continue the mission, I realized it’s more than just a mission — it’s really a family here. Kitchology is a family, and we all came to be together to help make a difference, and we have to continue that. It was very hard for me. There were days when I couldn’t work at all. Initially, I was put on a lot of medications because I was in a lot of pain — unbelievable pain — partly because the bullet couldn’t be removed and there was so much swelling. … I couldn’t walk. I’d sleep in my office for months because I couldn’t go up the stairs. Even just sitting in the chair, I spent most of the time with either a heating pad for a while or ice, and taking pain medications — and your mind isn’t fully there.

There were days when I just said, “I am not going to do anything today. I just can’t.” I would go to a meeting and I could sit for maybe 15 minutes, just because it was too painful and too uncomfortable. And when you’re trying to continue a business, especially in the early stages, there’s so much brainpower that goes into making decisions and strategy and making phone calls.

I can give you another story … I decided, OK, I’m finally better. So I went to a big meeting in New York. … I just got really nauseous and felt like, “I can’t be pitching the company. I don’t have it in me.” … And I sat on the stairs and I literally started crying. The whole room started spinning, and the anxiety totally took over and I literally passed out. I had to be taken to the emergency room, and that was the end of that. I was just not ready. … I didn’t realize how much it takes to be an entrepreneur. In that moment, I realized that you have to be very strong always. You always have to put your best foot forward. And if you’re not there, you’re not there.

I’m getting better now. Now we are at four months, and I’m getting better and I’m getting stronger.

How did that negative experience impact the way you live your daily life and the way you lead your company?

Sherman: I look at life as extremely valuable. It takes an incident like that to make you realize how valuable life is. So I now look at life like I’m so happy and lucky to be here, because a half of an inch would’ve made a huge difference in my life. Do I still like being an entrepreneur? Yes. I do. I realize how much work there is, and while I’m still able and capable, I want to continue this mission even more. I look at life as being very short. You never know what’s coming down the pike, so you should live it to the moment. … You should do whatever you want to do to be happy. Since entrepreneurship and risk-taking does make me happy, crazy as it sounds, I will continue to be a crazy entrepreneur.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.