Lilly Stairs Created a Network for Women with Chronic Health Conditions
While a student at Northeastern University, Lilly Stairs was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and Crohn’s disease. Fighting two autoimmune diseases as a college student was a challenge, but Stairs was determined not to let them take over her life. Today, with support from Northeastern’s Women Who Empower initiative, Stairs is building a supportive community for women like her wanting to balance their health with their professional ambitions.
January marks the official launch of Stairs’ newest business endeavor: Chronic Boss Collective, the first professional membership group for women with chronic conditions. It’s the antithesis to the hustle culture where people put their health on the back burner for the sake of work. Chronic Boss Collective brings together women with chronic conditions to help them prioritize their health and their professional dreams.
A membership to Chronic Boss Collective provides access to professional development sessions on topics like building a brand and negotiating your salary. There’s also similar talks on wellness. The organization is virtual and has members across the United States and in Australia, Ireland, England and Canada. There’s an in-person chapter that’ll meet monthly in Boston.
Stairs came up with the idea for Chronic Boss Collective when working in patient advocacy. She saw many support and Facebook groups dedicated for patients to talk about their conditions, but not many groups for people interested in figuring out how to balance their goals with their health.
“I wanted a space where I could hold both things to be true, where I could be this ambitious businesswoman, and also be living with chronic conditions and honor prioritizing my health,” Stairs said. “Chronic Boss Collective is not a place to vent, but a solutions-oriented place for both professional growth and maintaining health.”
Learning how to navigate the working world and chronic conditions is something Stairs learned firsthand at Northeastern.
During her co-op at MassBio, Stairs was receiving infusion treatments that would leave her so spent that taking a shower could be exhausting. On top of that, she struggled with her rush-hour commute because she often couldn’t find a seat on the subway where she could sit to ease her arthritis pain. She talked to MassBio and asked if she could work during off-hours for an easier commute and on a reduced schedule. The company agreed to the accommodation, showing Stairs how she could balance work with her health.
“It was huge and so helpful for me,” Stairs said. “Many people are living with something that’s impacting the way that they show up to school, to work, to life. As we work to be a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace, it’s really essential that we include people who are living with chronic conditions. … There are times where I don’t need to work 9 to 5. I’m efficient, I know how to get things done. And so … I would look for somebody that wasn’t making me sit at my desk from 9 to 5. I would want them to care about what the outcome of the work was. It’s looking at where there can be flexibility, and whether a company or an employer or a professor is willing to meet you halfway.”
This outlook is something that guided Stairs through her early career. Her co-op at MassBio turned into her first full-time job after she graduated. She then went on to work in marketing and patient advocacy, channeling her experience in health care into meaningful work.
“Northeastern was so instrumental in my career,” she added. “I had a professor, Greg Goodale, who encouraged me to go into biotech. I said ‘I don’t even know what biotech is.’ It turns out, it’s the industry that saved my life. … My professor helped me connect the dots to find the place where I can make an impact based on my own lived experiences.”
In early 2020, Stairs took the plunge into running her own business by launching Patient Authentic, a boutique agency that teams up with health care companies to help them build events and programming to connect with patients. Through this, she was introduced to Boston networking groups and got the idea to begin her own group where she could give other women with chronic conditions advice on how to manage their health without compromising their career goals.
“I wanted a space where I could be this ambitious businesswoman, and also be living with chronic conditions and honor prioritizing my health. Chronic Boss Collective is not a place to vent, but a solutions-oriented place for both professional growth and maintaining health.”
—Lilly Stairs, AMD’15