May 27, 2024

Thrive Insider

Exclusive stories of successful entrepreneurs

Olivia Zhang Executive Director and Founder Cancer Kids First

Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Olivia Zhang and I am a 16 year old junior at McLean High School. Two years ago, at 14, I founded nonprofit Cancer Kids First (CKF), a youth-led 501(c)3 organization that aims to help pediatric cancer patients experience a better childhood. We supply patients with toy and book donations, cards, coloring pages, care packages, and more. We are also working towards helping patients internationally access treatment and care, while funding research for new cures. CKF strives to normalize the hospital environment, inspire patients to keep fighting, and spark some joy within their lives through our many programs. Besides my passion for helping kids with cancer, I am an active member of my school’s Ocean X club, Finance Lit & Business club, and Girl’s Leadership club, and is McLean’s Student Government President. Outside of school, I love spending time outdoors with friends.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I found out that my elementary school teacher, who had been like a second mom to me all the way through middle school, had passed away after a long fight with breast cancer during my eighth grade year. When I first heard, I was in utter disbelief. I had just spent the past two years coming to terms with my grandfather’s own cancer diagnosis. My grandfather was a retired middle school teacher in XianYang, China, who loved teaching and helping others. To help him with the high costs of chemotherapy treatments, I sold everything from hand-drawn binder covers to hand-made bracelets through social media, often staying up with my little sister crafting until midnight. Despite our efforts, my grandfather passed away when I was twelve.

His death, coupled with my teacher’s passing, made me frustrated—how many kids would never get to feel the kindness my teacher and my grandfather exuded, or the passion and love they shared? The urge to do something to help others suffering from this terrible disease overwhelmed me. Simply selling hand-made crafts to raise money wasn’t an option anymore; I was determined to make a difference in the lives cancer touched. My hope was to create an organization that would have a direct impact on the lives of pediatric cancer patients—supplying patients with material items such as care packages, cards and a supportive team. I wanted to help foster the same environment for these children that my teacher and my grandfather had created for me and all their students—a space where I felt happy and inspired.

Describe the process of launching the business.

After filing for 501(c) status with the federal government, I started by building a team of five students who focused on fundraising for CKF. Next, I reached out to schools, libraries and companies in the community to begin our program services. Despite challenges of many people not trusting a brand new organization, we continued our outreach efforts. After weeks of rejection, the news of a partner hospital and school that were willing to work with us motivated our team to continue working towards expanding our project, while giving me hope that this dream organization I had envisioned could become reality.

Having a strong team behind you is the key to ensuring your business/organization succeeds, so looking for capable people to lead our volunteers and the programs they’d be participating in was my next step. After that came creating our website and socials that would be used to introduce our organization to others.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

When the pandemic hit, the app TikTok rose in fame. The users on the app grew exponentially and TikTok soon became the app everyone turned to when faced with boredom. Despite being one of the millions of people who use this app daily, I didn’t think about utilizing this app until January 2021. Once we began using this app to spread awareness about Cancer Kids First, we saw growth I could have never imagined would be possible.
We posted our first TikTok on January 25th, gaining a little over 20k views. A little while after, we posted a 2nd TikTok that gained over 1 million views. Over the course of a few days, thousands and thousands of applications to join our organization flooded in. We were able to get our name out there and bring in not only new youth to volunteer with our organization, but also new partners and donors.
Presently, we have over 18k youth dedicating their time and efforts to aiding kids with cancer internationally. Cancer Kids First has been able to gain a reputation that has grown not only the number of hospitals and patients we’ve been able to assist, but also the amount of companies and other nonprofits willing to partner with us. We grew from 100 members to over 18,000 in less than 2 years – something I still can’t quite wrap my head around -, all because of the power of social media.

Similarly, retaining our volunteers also relied on social media. Sharing volunteers’ impact on patients and our general events demonstrated how many kids they were able to help. This motivated them to continue volunteering.
Putting out continuous projects volunteers could do and fun events and fundraisers also contributed to keeping our volunteers, as did giving out awards such as the Presidential Volunteer Service Award and Best Volunteer of the Year. This ensured staying on our team would bring benefits and would acknowledge contributions made by volunteers. The events and fundraisers also served as a way for volunteers to make friends. Many have gained close connections through CKF!

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, I am feeling incredibly grateful and hopeful for what’s to come. We’ve already planned out exciting events and fundraisers to engage patients and our volunteers for the coming months. I am excited to embark on this journey and watch Cancer Kids First grow into an organization that encourages even more youth to help out and touches the hearts of even more patients.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Something I learned that is particularly helpful in all aspects of my life is the key to managing your time well and being productive. Overseeing an organization while balancing schoolwork and other extracurriculars proves difficult at times. I’ve often gotten overwhelmed, so figuring out the best way for me to stay on task was vital to continuing CKF’s impact. For me, writing a to-do list or keeping a planner allowed me to keep track of all the things I needed to get done each day. Doing this on paper also gave me the satisfaction of being able to physically check off what I accomplished each day.

Besides keeping a planner, downloading an app that tracked the websites I spent the most time on forced me to realize which apps I needed to delete or add a time limit on to prevent distractions. I also learned to use every available second I had, whether that was during passing periods or during my lunch block, to get assignments done.

Another insightful lesson I learned was the importance of giving yourself time to destress. Life burnout is very real – if you continuously push yourself to your limit, you’ll end up burning out. I’ve lost passion for CKF before because I used to work without taking a break. However, I’ve learned that taking the time to do some activities you love, and taking a break from the “real world”, can instill that passion you had that motivated you to start your business/organization in the first place. I now make time to spend time with friends and family, go on runs, and go on vacations to give my mind and body a break. In doing this, I’ve seen myself grow happier and more content with my life. It’s also improved my work productivity with CKF

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Social media is an incredible way to grow your business, and utilizing TikTok has been extremely helpful in growing Cancer Kids First. Through apps like TikTok and Instagram, we’ve been able to reach more people from around the world and unite like-minded youth in making a difference.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

“Discovering Your True North” is a book by Bill George that touches on the steps to take and qualities you need to be an authentic leader. In this book, I got to read multiple inspiring stories that gave me the strength to start my own nonprofit while teaching me the qualities that would make me the best leader for my team.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Take the initiative to channel your passion into creating your dream business/nonprofit! You truly learn a lot from the experience and meet incredible people along the way. For youth especially, don’t let your fear over your age stop you from becoming a CEO. Overcoming obstacles is part of the process so never let any challenge hinder you from achieving your dream.

Where can we go to learn more?

Website –; Instagram – @cancerkidsfirst