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In 2019, Mark Agnew, ’06, felt deeply afraid.

Although young, seemingly healthy, and vital—an adjunct associate professor of entrepreneurship at Booth, the CEO of the pizza chain Lou Malnati’s, and a family man with a wife and four kids—Agnew was diagnosed with stage II brain cancer. For nearly a year, Agnew could barely even say the word cancer.

One day, amid chemotherapy treatments, Agnew’s 9-year-old daughter told him that she felt isolated. She wanted to talk to other kids who understood what it was like to have a parent with cancer.

Agnew felt touched that she came to him. His kids were confused, scared, and less expressive than usual. They didn’t want to trouble their parents with their own feelings. Agnew was saddened to see them like this—they should be able to be kids, expressive and free.

He told her finding a group was a great idea, but they couldn’t find one. “I was so surprised that it didn’t exist,” Agnew says.

Undeterred, Agnew and his wife, Carolyn, took matters into their own hands. They collaborated with two other families to form a group for their kids. Each family had at least one parent diagnosed with cancer. The Agnews; Jeff and Erika Hlavacek and their two children; and Ned Smith, PhD ’10, his wife, Erin, and their four children met with a trained therapist and child life specialist. After a couple of meetings, the therapist asked the parents to leave the room.

“And that’s when the magic happened,” Agnew says. “They were having a normal childhood experience. They were all scared, but they could express their joy and happiness and silliness too.”

Agnew says that his children were better able to express themselves, as were the other children. After many meetings, he and his kids grew closer than ever. They all agreed: this should be available to any kid who needs it.

The families took this idea and formed the nonprofit Pickles Group—a name inspired by the founding children, who referred to themselves as “the pickles” after discovering they all shared a love for them. Suddenly, Agnew felt less afraid. In fact, he felt a hope he hadn’t felt since before his cancer diagnosis.

“It drives me insane that this service didn’t exist,” Agnew says. “We’re very motivated to make it scale fast.”

“They were having a normal childhood experience. They were all scared, but they could express their joy and happiness and silliness too.”

— Mark Agnew

A New Purpose

One day in 2021, at the end of Agnew’s Entrepreneurship through Acquisition class, his two young daughters presented the Pickles Group to his students.

Pickles Group would bring together groups of children across the country who have parents battling cancer, the girls explained. There are five million of these kids across the United States, they shared, yet many feel lonely. It wouldn’t be therapy, but peer-to-peer support. The girls talked about how the group had helped them play and share difficult feelings, how it helped them feel less alone.

Agnew watched as his students lit up. They knew about his diagnosis. They knew that he had stepped down as CEO of Lou Malnati’s, but they didn’t know about this nonprofit. Cancer, once a word he couldn’t utter aloud, had spawned his life’s new purpose. Students asked questions and gave feedback, staying long after class was scheduled to end.

One student in particular became very interested in Pickles. Cassy Horton, a Neubauer Civic Scholar and Weekend MBA student at Booth, had spent years working with kids in after-school programs and charter schools in California. During a “Zoom coffee” with Agnew, they talked about Pickles, which officially launched in April 2021. Agnew deeply respected Horton’s intelligence and asked for her feedback on a job description for the Pickles Group’s executive director role.

“I saw the description and was inspired,” Horton says. “I went back home and spent three days putting together a pitch for where I thought the organization could go. I sent them a pitch deck, my resume, and a cover letter, and told Mark that I wanted not just to give feedback on the job, but also apply.”

After an extensive interview process, Horton was selected from a competitive pool of candidates and hired as the nonprofit’s executive director. With three classes to go before graduation, she transitioned to the Evening MBA Program to make it easier to spend her days building Pickles in Chicago.

Kids from the Pickles Group indoors coloring while wearing masks

The First Year

In October 2021, Pickles launched its first groups on Chicago’s North Shore. Kids between first and 12th grade meet for an hour a week in a six-week program called Pickles Empower. Led by two volunteers who have experience working with kids, the group gives kids a safe space to talk about their feelings and experiences, play together, and find a sense of community and hope.

There will also be larger events for Pickles kids, such as shared meals. Once kids complete the six-week program, they’re encouraged to stay in touch and continue going to events together, and they have the opportunity to work with other kids who are new to the program. They’ll have a community.

Horton says these first groups will be the proof-of-concept for Pickles. Then, in spring 2022, the group will spread to other parts of the Chicagoland area. From there, Horton says that they hope to move into other cities quickly, learning even more about how to best serve these kids as they scale.

Agnew hopes that one day the concept can spread across the world, free and available for any child who needs support.

The response has been immense, Horton says. People are eager to volunteer, and families want to know when their children can enroll. Child-life counselors have reached out to help run a Pickles group in their area.

Pickles will rely greatly on word-of-mouth marketing. Horton knows that a big job will be getting the message of the group to the right people at schools, in hospitals, and at local community centers, all of whom may know about kids whose lives have been touched by cancer.

In running Pickles, Horton finds that her training at Booth has helped her grow as a leader. From Agnew’s class, she learned to be open, vulnerable, and authentic. From other classes, she’s developed powerful tool kits in negotiation, leadership, and financial management.

Ten years ago, this connection probably wouldn’t have been possible, Agnew says, noting that the Civic Scholars Program that brought Horton to Booth didn’t exist back then. He says that he gets goosebumps thinking about all the business knowledge that will be brought to the nonprofit world, including to Pickles Group.

“[We’ve] all seen what Pickles has done for our kids and what it could do for millions of kids around the country. I’m really motivated to make that a reality.”

— Mark Agnew

Growing from Loss

In September, Ned Smith, the father of one of the founding families and a professor at Kellogg, died from brain cancer. His passing has been heartbreaking for the Smith family, as well as for Horton and the other Pickles founding families.

For Agnew, it was a gut punch, and it came during a particularly difficult stretch. Within a short amount of time, Agnew’s mother also died.

Despite all the heartbreak and health problems, Agnew feels more inspired than he’s ever felt in his life. He’s seen the power of post-traumatic growth in his kids and knows that Pickles could help thousands, perhaps millions, of kids across the world.

Now, Agnew hopes to honor Smith—his friend, compatriot, and brother-in-arms against cancer—by ensuring as many kids as possible can have access to Pickles. Together, it was their dream. That dream will live on as a larger-than-life reality, if Agnew has anything to say about it.

“I want to make Pickles a reality for every kid in America, and maybe the world,” Agnew says. “And Cassy shares that same vision; the Smiths share that same vision; the Hlavaceks share that same vision. They’ve all seen what Pickles has done for our kids and what it could do for millions of kids around the country. I’m really motivated to make that a reality.”


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