If you have a need and can’t find the right thing to satisfy that need, what do you do? If you’re Iris Shamus, you make it yourself. Eight years ago, Shamus’s middle child, who has severe food allergies, watched as a classmate suffered a serious reaction to dairy after being given Cheez-Its in preschool. “It made me realize that as much as other people promise you that they’re aware, no one really is as aware as Mom and Dad,” Shamus says.
There are medical-alert bracelets, of course, but as Shamus points out, the crucial information is usually printed in small type on the back—not exactly the most kid-friendly way to keep a preschooler engaged. “I wanted something visual because these are young kids,” she says of the roughly 4 million U.S. children with food allergies. With a little research and a lot of imagination, Shamus hit upon a solution: a collection of silly kid-approved characters, each representing a specific allergy.
Known as AllerMates, the characters—such as the hip-hop-loving Soy Cool (for soy allergies) and the mischievous Nutso (for tree-nut allergies)—were made into colorful bracelets for the kindergarten set. As word spread, Shamus saw orders pour in from the likes of Walgreens and CVS, and the mom of three expanded her product portfolio. Today the AllerMates line includes activity books, lunch bags, medicine cases and other accessories for children with health concerns ranging from diabetes to asthma.
“I wanted to do this for kids and families and parents like me,” Shamus says.
“It seemed like every third child had either an allergy or a food intolerance or some sort of health concern, so I definitely thought AllerMates could help a lot families, but I’m not going to say that I sat down and wrote a whole business plan. It wasn’t like that at all. Creating the characters and writing the story lines was just something I enjoyed; it kept me occupied during the years of bringing up young children. I made the leap [into starting a business] and stuck with it.”
“When AllerMates was growing, there were definitely people who stepped in and said, ‘We think you should do this and need to be doing that,’ and I did things that I felt uncomfortable with, but I thought that they probably knew better because they were more seasoned businesspeople. In the end, when things didn’t turn out right, I realized that when you’re the founder and it’s your passion, you really need to go with your gut. Nobody knows your business like you.”
“We had heard that one of Britney Spears’s kids had food allergies, so we sent her some samples randomly and, lo and behold, there’s a picture at a movie premiere of her son wearing our bracelet. We were like, ‘Oh my God, even the most stylish of kids thinks it’s fun!’ And that was the whole point—to make awareness fun.”