In 2019, Mark Agnew felt deeply afraid. Although young and seemingly healthy, Agnew—an adjunct associate professor of entrepreneurship at Chicago Booth, the CEO of the pizza chain Lou Malnati’s, and a family man with a wife and four kids—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,” said Agnew, MBA’06, who is now 44 years old.
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 said. “They were having a normal childhood experience. They were all scared, but they could express their joy and happiness and silliness too.”
Agnew said 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 said. “We’re very motivated to make it scale fast.”
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.
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.