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Leadership lessons from fear and cancer

Cancer led Dan Shorr to rethink his life -- and build an ice cream startup.

6 min read


Dan Shorr
SmartBrief illustration

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”

Dan Shorr, the founder of Vice Cream, spent his college summers driving an ice cream truck. After college, he followed a typical career path. He went to work at a large consumer products company and started to climb the ladder.

Then, it all changed. Newly married, a first-time homeowner, Shorr was told that he had cancer. He was given a grim diagnosis.

Thankfully, he won his battle and is healthy today. Cancer changed his outlook. No longer did he want to simply live life, he wanted to indulge in it.

His brand is the embodiment of the indulgence. Cancer has also shaped his leadership and helped him overcome his fears.

I left our conversation inspired and a bit hungry for some ice cream. I hope you have a similar experience in reading what he shares below.  

Why are you doing this crazy thing?

“My first reaction is in our mission and our purpose. It’s not just a bumper sticker. Our mission is to bring smiles to the faces of consumers, specifically cancer patients and their families.”

“On a personal level, I always wanted to start my own thing and, without sounding too much like Tony Robbins, I believe in the power of fear. I think fear holds people back in life, whether it’s asking a girl or guy out or moving across country. Even with my experience in building the PowerBar brand and working at Pepsi, I was still scared to start my own thing.”

What got you over that fear?

“Two big events that kicked my ass. One was being around the finish line at the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. That was a very scary day and it made me re-evaluate what I wanted to do. Then I got diagnosed with cancer. I was told that I had 12 weeks to live. I beat it, I’m 100% fine, but both those things were enough of a kick in my ass to blow through that wall of fear.”

How do you deal with fear and doubt?

“I must say and it’s not [BS], that I interviewed somebody recently, and this candidate, this 27-year-old asked me about fear and failure, and what’s the chance of failure. I honestly have never thought about it. I have a very clear vision of our success, I have a very clear vision of where we’re going. This kid spooked me. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. I’ve never thought about failure once. Now I’m like, ‘oh my God, I should never have met this kid,’ he totally got me out of my zone.”

What have you learned about leadership?

“Probably my favorite teaching — I saw Tony Robbins at a small MSNBC conference in L.A. a few weeks ago and he had a great phrase. I think it’s really cutting-edge. What he said, which I really believe in, is that we need to be leaders and not managers. If we must manage, we have the wrong people. That’s critical to where I am right now. It’s my job to lead, to build the strategy, to build our plan, and to do what I’m uniquely poised to do, which is hire great people, sell, raise capital. I don’t know if managing people drives revenue. If I find that I am managing the team, I think I have the wrong team as a small company. We all need to be doing heavy lifting, and I need to hire people that I empower, and who can execute.”

How do you make time for you, and for your family?

“My answer is that I’m still learning. I think it’s building one building block at a time.”

What advice would you offer to an aspiring entrepreneur or leader?

“What I call BST and AST, Before “Shark Tank” and After “Shark Tank.” I never miss an episode, but I think a lot of people see the excitement of an Airbnb being valued at $50 billion and Justin’s or RX bar exiting at $650 million. Getting into the business for an exit may not be the right reason. Because, it’s hard.” 

“I think the other advice I’d probably give people is something I’ve learned lately. You don’t necessarily go with the team that you started with, and that’s sad. It’s not negative sad, it’s just that my vision was we’re all going to do this together, but not everybody is built for this startup life.”

What would your current self tell your former self?

“You’re going to lose your hair and be a little bit more patient.”

He ended our interview by sharing, “At the end of the day, I go back to what we started with, I really do tap into my cancer experience. My team may be tired of hearing about it, but we had a really difficult situation with our co-packer yesterday — you can print this — where we were treated with incredible disrespect, and I leaned across the table and said, ‘we’re not curing cancer here, we’re making ice cream.’ Coming from me, it’s not a cliché, so it makes the room stock still.”


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Elliot Begoun is the principal of The Intertwine Group, a practice focused on helping emerging food and beverage brands grow and become sustainable and investable. He works with clients to design and execute customized route-to-market and go-to-market strategies that build velocity, gain distribution, and win share of stomach. Catch him at FoodBytes in his role as a mentor and find his articles in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and FoodDive.

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