Rita Egizii’s voice gets louder and louder as she sits at the kitchen table and describes the wonder in her life.
“I have a really defined purpose,” she says. “Of course, I had a purpose before, but not a defined purpose.”
Or, to put it another way, the entrepreneur’s definition of success has changed radically in the last few years.
Prior to her breast cancer diagnosis, success meant a classy home, a car and other visible signs of financial gain. Today, it means using her considerable skills to help others.
Egizii’s first career was as researcher into brainstem neurophysiological mechanisms. Her second was in multimedia production; it was during this time she co-founded the Quickdraw Animation Society. In 1993, she started Chromacolour (North America) which became the world’s leading supplier of animation equipment.
By 1997, some would say she was at her peak, although others would say with her newly discovered focus and serenity, this is her peak. It was the year, however, when she was named regional winner of the Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year. In January she travelled on the Team Canada trade mission to Korea, where she signed a big contract. In March she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She was 38.
The rest of 1997 was a blur of hospitals, chemo and surgery, all made worse because her husband was working in Toronto.
It was he who convinced Egizii to try complementary therapies. If you accept a needle, why not allow someone’s hands to pass over you? he asked. That’s how she started doing qi gong.
“I strongly believe it had a large impact on me being here today,” she says, pointing out the irony of going against all her scientific training to embrace such modalities.
She sold Chromacolour, but nothing else seemed quite right. So, she went off on a classic quest for the meaning of life, travelling in Africa and Japan and swimming with dolphins in Bora Bora.
She laughs to acknowledge the answer was under her nose at home.
In October 1999, Egizii was invited to a retreat for women coping with breast cancer. She made a million excuses, but wound up going anyway.
On the wall was a poster that was so powerful she could only read a few words at a time. Then one evening, she took a cup of tea and read the whole thing at once: “Not in sorrow; it was a cleansing.”
She wept for an hour.
Her next step was to track down the poster’s creator, Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel, a dancer, an artist and another breast-cancer survivor. It was a meeting with destiny.
Cunnings-Versaevel had the idea and the creative flair; Egizii had the business smarts. The idea was to market inspirational giftware designed by Cunnings-Versaevel, with the proceeds to set up an endowment fund that would help other cancer patients pay for complementary therapies beyond their means.
“If you embrace me into your dream, we can do something,” said Egizii, who has now been cancer-free for more than three years. And so the Complementary Cancer Choices (CCC) came into being.
The women are quick to emphasize that when the endowment fund is functioning, it will be for any cancer patient, not just those with breast cancer. The Canadian Cancer Society says there were 132,100 cases of cancer diagnosed last year.
“It isn’t fair that only those with money should have access to these invaluable treatments,” says Cunnings-Versaevel. “Rita and I want to make complementary therapy, which was so crucial to both of us, available to anyone else who could use it.”
Egizii has a long list of accomplishments. Among others, she’s on the SME advisory task force to the minister of international trade and the board of directors of the University of Calgary Centre for New Venture Developments.
For the last 12 months, however, she has devoted most of her energies, with no financial remuneration, to setting up the CCC, putting into place business and financing plans, setting up a Web site and marketing materials, and doing focus groups.
Among the CCC’s priorities for this year is to find a major backer to help with financing the non-profit group.
Egizii is talking in terms of an interest-free loan.
“It’s not that risky and if they truly want the money to be used for charity, they can turn it over into the endowment fund and then get a full charitable writeoff,” she says.
The fund is now at $5,000 and Egizii would like to see it at $50,000 before they start doling out cash to people who go through the application process. The Alternative Cancer Research Foundation will administer it.
Back at her kitchen table, Egizii agrees all her endeavours have given her the skills the CCC requires.
“This is what my life work is supposed to be,” she says.
“I thought I needed to build something for me, but life’s purpose is not about myself. This is huge, huge, overwhelming.”