A battle with cancer inspired Kathryn and Neal Shah to start their own businesses to help others.
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Bryan Regan
When Kathryn Shah was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at 35 years old, she embarked on an aggressive 28 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. With her corporate career on hold and her future uncertain, her focus shifted to the pursuit of health, to the thought of what she might do with the gift of time.
“I was going to do the things the doctors told me to do,” says Kathryn, who believes in a combination of Eastern and Western medicine, “but I also wanted to think about how I could make changes in my own way of living — through things like meditating, sweating and eating recommended foods — to improve the outcome of chemotherapy.”
During treatment, that meant adding a long list of foods to her diet, including red grapes, leafy greens and matcha. Diligently following the clinical evidence supporting foods high in antioxidants, Kathryn didn’t have any room left for refined sugars.
During her battle, people sent food to her home in New York City. As they do. Boxes arrived with tall cakes and cookies decorated in all manner of refined sugars and dyes: all well-meaning treats, but she ate none of them.
Kathryn found herself in a similar situation the first holiday season after chemo: gathered with family around tables full of thick apple tarts and whipped-cream-topped pumpkin pies.
They didn’t fit with her health ethos. “I wanted to celebrate, to enjoy something that felt like a treat but was still nourishing me,” she says. Kathryn had a business school degree, eight years’ experience in marketing, and now, during her recovery, time to think.
“I wondered, why is there nothing on the market that feels cool and chic, but people also want to eat because it tastes good?” she says.
Shortly thereafter, Kathryn and her husband Neal, who’s originally from Charlotte and went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, relocated to Raleigh. There, an acquaintance introduced Kathryn to Sarah Bell, the former head of soft product development for Harry’s Grooming. Bell also had an affinity for wellness and a passion for nourishing her friends and family with real, natural foods.
Together, the duo founded Spring & Mulberry, which produces treats that are naturally derived, globally sourced and packed with real nutrition. Kathryn and Bell logged countless hours in the kitchen perfecting their prototypes: rich chocolate bars made without refined sugars, but getting depth and sweetness from dates — an ingredient Kathryn first encountered as a dessert in Dubai en route to visit her husband’s family in India.
Spring & Mulberry uses organic cacao beans directly from a cooperative in Suhum, Ghana, the country’s first biodynamic and organic farming region.
The Suhum cacao beans are packed with iron and boost chemicals like serotonin and tryptophan, which are associated with well-being and happiness. The beans become a bar with just the cacao butter and dates.
From there, Kathryn and Bell use fruits and spices to vary their offerings. Some chocolates are topped with goji berries, which have been used for thousands of years to slow the signs of aging. They use nigella seeds, an ingredient shown to reduce inflammation that’s mentioned in the Old Testament and was discovered in King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
They mix in mango, chili, black lime, lavender, bee pollen and rose petals. “The idea behind Spring & Mulberry is exploring a world of sweetness beyond sugar, in florals, spices and fruits,” says Kathryn. “I want to make our chocolate so delicious that you don’t even remember or care about the products that do have sugar.”
Mixing Kathryn’s background in marketing with Bell’s experience in product development has proven a prime recipe: Spring & Mulberry isn’t just delicious, it’s a cool brand, from the signature font on the packaging to the sunset-inspired color scheme.
They launched in March of 2022 and sold out by Mother’s Day. Then they scaled up: over the next few months, Kathryn and Bell messaged social media accounts of independent groceries and lifestyle boutiques around the country, 200 of whom now stock Spring & Mulberry’s chocolate bars.
“Food gifts are the most popular gift, but most are filled with sugar, additives and dyes. I thought there has to be a way to create something you’d want to buy yourself and others that’s beautiful and delicious, but also nourishing,” says Kathryn. She and Bell still pack and ship everything themselves in stamped boxes with purple tape emblazoned with mulberry trees. In the last three months of 2022, their Raleigh-based business grew 325%. Their bars have caught the attention of Goop, Forbes and Vogue magazines among others.
The name Spring & Mulberry comes from an intersection in New York City, the spot where Kathryn and Neal would meet for dinner dates before they were married. And it turns out that Kathryn’s cancer also set Neal on a path to creating something new based on a need her battle uncovered.
When Kathryn started her chemotherapy, he left a successful private equity job on Wall Street to be the primary caregiver. “Suddenly I was helping her with personal care, taking her to appointments, doing everything around the house. I was 35, at the peak of my career, feeling invincible, and then it hit,” Neal says. “It was eye-opening, and there was an emotional toll.”
During the arduous years of chemotherapy, hospitalization, radiation and surgeries that followed, Neal kept noticing something: “So many people were navigating aging and serious illness care without support, without someone to lean on or provide respite.
They needed a convenient way to find great caregivers to help them. I saw a massive problem matched with a tremendous business opportunity and I became obsessed with designing a better solution.”
By the time the Shahs moved to Raleigh, Kathryn was in recovery — and Neal realized the area would be an ideal spot for a health-tech startup. He reconnected with a former professor at UNC, who introduced him to a recent computer science graduate, Gavry Eshet, who had software development skills and an understanding of the student population that could serve as caregivers.
So while Kathryn was growing Spring & Mulberry in their kitchen, Neal was bent over his laptop at Jubala Coffee, working on the prototypes of what is now the fastest-growing health-tech startup in North Carolina: CareYaya. The company pairs pre-health-career college students with families in need of home care for a loved one. It’s an online marketplace in the vein of Uber, Airbnb or DoorDash.
So many family caregivers are of the “sandwich generation,” ones who juggle childcare and careers, and now care for a sick spouse or aging parent. “They’re the unsung heroes in our society,” Neal says, of the 53 million Americans caring for a loved one, often at great personal sacrifice. He and Eshet launched the pilot program at UNC Chapel Hill, then took it to North Carolina State University, and on to Duke University.
The students they employ, motivated by a genuine desire to help families, provide companionship to the elderly, to spouses with serious illness, or to children with special needs. They log clinical hours in caregiving and earn well above minimum wage: families pay $15 to $18 per hour (a fraction of what most in-home care costs), all of which goes directly to the students.
But the best part of the whole arrangement isn’t the ease of scheduling or the affordability, it’s the connections that are built. Josh, a pre-med NC State student, spends his Thursdays strolling alongside a man living with Parkinson’s named Joe, who pushes a walker and tells stories of the Vietnam War.
McKenna, a student at UNC, flips through photo albums with Raymond, who has dementia; his wife has organized her work schedule around McKenna’s classes to offer her husband continual care. Ashlyn, a senior pre-med student at UNC last year, had learned metronome therapy, a way of moving her hands to the rhythm of a metronome at forty beats per minute, after her own brain injury.
She taught the method to Jim, whose spirits and mental acuity soared. (Ashlyn is now enrolled at UNC’s School of Medicine, and she is still friends with Jim.) Kelsey, a pre-physician’s assistant student at Elon University, cares for a local resident named Marjorie, who suffers from dementia. When Kelsey bakes cupcakes at her dorm, she often drives over to drop some off for Marjorie.
Some clients call them “joygivers” or “grandkids-on-demand,” and there are now 2,000 of them serving 800 families across the Triangle. “We’re unlocking a massive hidden workforce, one that we can get all over the country” says Neal. “We aim to build a unicorn in health tech, one that trains the healthcare workforce of tomorrow and helps millions of people along the way.”
Parents of the students on CareYaya have been so moved by their children’s experiences that they’ve been posting personal stories on Facebook, inspiring other parents to have their children sign up. “The market opportunity to build a better care system is the biggest in health tech — and we’re just getting started,” says Neal.
Yaya sounds fun — but it also means caregiver in Swahili, grandmother in Greek and represents self-directed care with the acronym You Are Your Advocate.
“I went through hundreds of name ideas,” says Neal. “I was running them by Kathryn and when I got to CareYaya, she stopped me and said that’s the one.” (He’s offered his opinions to her, too, as an early taste-tester of Spring & Mulberry’s creations.)
Kathryn and Neal still often sit with their laptops at the kitchen table late into the night, their startups no longer fledglings, but their senses of purpose just as strong.
During her cancer treatment, Kathryn’s oncologist had suggested she take an injection that would stop her reproductive hormone, having potential preventative benefits for cancer, but voiding any chance of having children. In a chemo fog, she agreed, but in the moments before the nurse arrived with the injection, Neal suggested she take some time to think.
“This split-second medical decision could have changed our lives, and I am glad I was there so we could make an informed decision during an intense time,” says Neal. Kathryn is now cancer-free, and today their family includes a little girl, Penelope, who arrived in 2021. “You realize how short life can be,” says Neal. “We had those years of health-related focus, and now we’re making up for lost time.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.