As the founder of MilkMade, our Cravings Bar ice cream partner at #17Bleecker & member of The Wing, Diana is a graceful powerhouse. An entrepreneur and two time stroke survivor–yes, twice in her thirties(!)–this NYC transplant, originally from Southern Californian, now lives in Soho with her man, their dog and 20 plants.
Of course, Diana is not shy in sharing information about her strokes. In fact, she views it more as a lesson to others, rather than a secret. Over a quick matcha we began talking about how she’s navigated her medical saga (and why we all need to own our health), launched & relaunched her female-run business MilkMade and if her life were a song, it would be Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty.
Current state of mind?
I am content and full.
On being a stroke survivor:
I am a two-time stroke survivor! I had my first at the age of 30, completely out of nowhere and while I was in impeccable health. I had another one three years later–again, unexpectedly.
People always think that strokes are for the elderly–but they’re increasing in young people, specifically women, at a rate of 50% in the past 25 years for people under the age of 45.
My first stroke was wild. I was 30 years old and in great health–it hit me completely out of nowhere. I couldn’t move the right side of my body, it was numb and paralyzed, and when I called for help my words came out of a slurred gibberish. Somehow a blood clot had traveled to my brain and blocked off the blood flow. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time and received the proper medical care to remove the blood clot. After a few days of physical therapy I was able walk, talk, and resume life almost as normal. The cause of my stroke was attributed to a tiny tear in an artery in my neck that had created a blood clot. How I tore it, we were not sure–maybe from yoga, surfing that day, or sleeping funny on a plane. It can happen from anything. I carried on with life urging everyone to “be careful of your neck”–no headstands!
I wasn’t supposed to have a second stroke but I did three years later and the symptoms were the same– suddenly a numb arm and slurred speech while working late one night last year. This time there was no immediate answer for why I had a second stroke, and the diagnosis of the first was brought into question. So it set of me off on a summer-long investigation into my health to uncover the cause–and fast, before it happened again.
What answers did you find to stop the strokes?
I became what I call the CEO of my health. I was my own medical detective and it really felt like a race to catch the killer before he struck again. Strokes are part of ongoing studies and there is not always a definitive answer for the cause of a stroke or how to treat it. I pulled all the research, I saw numerous specialists across a myriad of fields, I had plenty of medical tests and blood work done. Ultimately I discovered that my first diagnosis was incorrect, I never had a tear in my neck, and that the strokes were caused by a hole in my heart which created clots that travelled to my brain. I elected to have a procedure to implant a small device into my heart to close the hole. (The hole is called a paten foramen ovale and 1 in 4 people have it because it’s how our bodies develop in utero, though typically it is innocuous.)
How did you deal with this and your business?
After my first stroke, though fatigued, I returned to work immediately, closed a round of financing, moved the business into a new factory and grew our Membership base. I honestly felt like the whole thing was a fluke and that I should resume life as normal. I can’t believe it, in retrospect. However, after my second stroke, I knew this was not a fluke and I HAD to make my health a priority. I was lucky to survive two strokes, my brain could not handle another one (three strokes and you’re out!). So last year, I made the decision to put a halt on the business. We’re a small business and as the Chef and CEO I’m an integral part of the operations, but I couldn’t be there anymore as my days were spent at doctor’s appointments and having medical procedures. I actually wasn’t sure if we were going to resume operations. For a while there I lost the blind optimism required of a founder. But this year with the help of a couple amazing women that I recently met, we made a comeback and relaunched MilkMade.
Why Ice cream?
There’s something special about ice cream. Je ne sais quoi. It’s beyond any other sweet or dessert. Everyone can relate & everyone remembers the ice cream shop from their childhood town. I wish I could say I had a master plan to disrupt the ice cream industry with innovative flavors and methods of distribution, but I didn’t. I started MilkMade by accident.
I moved to New York in 2007 to get my MBA at NYU. By 2009, I was eating almost a pint of ice cream a night. I’d go to the local bodega and pick it up on my way home from class (no judgment! I was also training for a marathon). One day, literally, I was reaching for a pint when I stopped and thought – I don’t even like this anymore. Flavors were boring, the quality of ice cream had deteriorated, pints had shrunk, nothing was natural, and nothing was local. So I just started making ice cream myself – I bought a mini at-home machine, I got in touch with local farmers, I started making unique flavors for a more sophisticated palate. I gave it to friends and served it at parties. Some press caught on and word of mouth spread, and within a couple months of my first batch of ice cream (peanut butter!) I found myself with a waitlist of hundreds of people who wanted to buy pints of my ice cream. I went to work – formed an LLC, got a commercial kitchen, and started packing & delivering pints.
I’ve gone through periods of loving it, of hating it, sometimes feeling immense pride, and sometimes feeling embarrassment, like I should be doing more for the world than making ice cream. But now it fulfills me. It excites me, it challenges me–I’m proud of the product we make & the business we’re building.
A friend came up with the name! I told him the concept–we deliver pints, everything is all natural and local–and he immediately said, “Milkmade” because it’s made from milk and other real ingredients, plus you’re also like a throwback to the Milk Man.
On the flavors?
Once I started making ice cream, inspiration was everywhere. From a classic punk rock song (Rumble in Brighton) to politics (The Audacity of Hops) to what’s fresh at the greenmarket (Ramps). Sometimes a reinvention of a classic flavor (Rockaway Road is our take on Rocky Road), sometimes a clever name comes first and then I work backwards (like Red Rum for our Halloween menu), sometimes a cocktail in ice cream form (Frozen Hot Toddy), and sometimes it’s a great dessert reconstructed in ice cream form (Sugar Cookie or Pumpkin Pie).
Delivery service – perfect for pregnant mamas!?
Definitely! Each month we create two unique flavors and deliver them to the homes or offices of our Members. We’re also developing a gift pack that’s perfect for expecting mothers with flavors to satiate common cravings.
On supporting women through your business:
MilkMade has been a female-run business since I launched in 2009–our management team, Chef, kitchen team plus most of our staff (save for a couple cool dudes) are all women. I’ve always celebrated being a woman and specifically a woman in business. I try to share my story in a very candid way to inspire others.
Learned in business?
Keep going. And make decisions fast. Do not suffer from analysis paralysis.
What’s the WING to you?
I joined the Wing as a founding member upon the recommendation of a friend. I wasn’t sold at first as I’ve typically avoided membership clubs, and rebuffed sororities. But on the opening night when I met a rapper, and a professional poker player, and an illustrator, and a lawyer, and a handbag designer, I knew The Wing was something special. The Wing is a beautiful space in so many ways.
Do you still exercise?
Every day! Two weeks after my heart implant procedure last year, I met my parents in Yosemite, CA and together my dad, husband, and I hiked Half Dome (a rather grueling 18 mile round trip day hike). I did the same after my first stroke, and even ran the New York Marathon that year. I guess I like to prove to myself that I still got it.
Were you worried about having kids?
Definitely. And that was part of my decision to have the procedure to implant the device into my heart to close the hole (rather than take heavy medication). I don’t have kids yet, but they’re part of our near future plans. I am told I will have a higher risk pregnancy and that does frighten me. But I’ve seen the magic of modern medicine and I trust in that.
The biggest lesson that I learned from my stroke saga is that I am responsible for my own health and medical care. I now recommend to everyone whether going through a saga like mine, or just a regular checkup, own your medical files, get the results back and educate yourself enough to understand them. There is no more “no news is good news.”
I’m the type that sets out an overzealous regiment but never quite lives up to it, but nonetheless I train with the team at Cordell Fitness in Soho a few times a week, I try to do yoga once a week, and I run when I feel like it. When it comes to beauty, I like to keep it fairly fuss-free. I started making my own blend of face oils a few years ago which I swear by, especially in the dry NYC winters. And coconut oil! I put it on after I shower.
Advice about career, life or being a woman?
Live it out. I feel like I’ve come to know the oscillations of life. Sometimes the world is on your side, and other times things aren’t going as well. I have learned to just chill and live out the hard times, even seek out the lessons to try to better myself during that time. Don’t distress, or ask why me, or try to fight it. Then, when the sine curve starts to go back up, don’t just coast and ride the wave, work harder. Push for more and get that amplitude to go even higher than you were before.
What’s your motto?
Invictus, my favorite poem. The word invictus means unconquered. The poem ends with the line line, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”