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Shawn Brown, CheeseCaked: A Near-Death Experience Gives Life To A Successful Business

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CHEESECAKED
No piece of cake: After a string of personal tragedies, Cheesecaked founder Shawn Brown decided to become an entrepreneur. | Shawn Brown

It was a day that seemed like any other: Shawn Brown spent the afternoon with her son and her sister visiting an aunt and then stopped to return a movie on the way home. But what happened next would change Brown's life forever. About two miles from her Inglewood, Calif., home, a drunk driver hit her car in a head-on collision. Her sister, who was driving, was seriously injured, Brown's 10-week-old son, Jakori, was killed and Brown, herself, was pronounced dead.

Revived from death twice, Brown suffered a fractured skull with a split in her bottom jaw and the roof of her mouth and tongue, as well as a broken femur. Doctors needed to ask for a family photo to properly reconstruct her face. Despite the physical challenges, Brown emerged from the hospital with a new mental outlook.

Having worked as an assistant at a record label and, like many of her friends, having had a baby young at age 20, Brown realized it was time to change her life: "My vision and ambition were mediocre. I was OK with just being OK," Brown said. "But after the accident, I realized how life can just turn in the blink of an eye. A crash can just take you out just like that. That's when the reset button was pushed. I figured if I had another opportunity, I had to make the best of it and change the direction of my life. I just said if I'm here, this time I'm going to go for it. I'm going to do everything I can to have the best life I can."

After a painful recovery and learning to walk again, Brown gave birth to two daughters, Milan and Jailyn, a son, Merritt and began pursuing her lifelong entrepreneurial aspirations. While working a corporate job in Las Vegas, she started a part-time baking birthday party business for kids. But just as her business was getting off the ground, another tragedy struck. The father of her eldest daughter, Milan, was shot and killed by a police officer after the officer mistakenly thought he was responsible for dispute occurring in the apartment next to his. Brown spent the next year involved in lawsuits and helping Milan and other two children heal from the shock.

Tragedy struck a third time when Brown was laid off in 2009. At this point, she knew it was time to reassess again. Using her grandmother's recipe for sweet potato pie to make cheesecakes in a cupcake form, Brown started Conyers, Ga.-based CheeseCaked. What she didn't expect was that finally owning her own business would finally bring sweetness to a life full of bitter misfortune.

What do you remember of the car accident?

All I know of the accident is what people have told me. The last thing remember is my mom paging me, I called her back and she said, "Just call me when you get home." And the next call she got was to come and identify my body.

The driver hit us on a street going about 60 miles per hour. My sister said I screamed, so she was able to slow down to about 30 before he hit us head on. My sister heard the railroad bells ringing on the tracks next to us and thought we were on the tracks, so she gave my son to someone to hold and then came back and lifted me out, not knowing the extent of my injuries. When she lifted me, I suffocated on my own blood, and that's how I passed away.

In the ambulance, they gave me an emergency tracheotomy. They took me to a trauma center 20 minutes away, and I died on the table again. They said I was kicking, even though my leg was broken. The doctor told me I was fighting to stay alive. It was a 13-hour surgery for them to reconstruct my face.

What were you thinking when you woke up?

I didn't know where I was. I woke up in a large room with three beds, and looked around at these people hooked up to all these machines, and remember thinking "these people are really jacked up," not knowing that I was on life support myself. I couldn't talk, but I would ask "where's my son?" by rubbing my belly or cradling my arms like I was rocking a baby. No one would answer me, until they called my mom to say I was getting very aggressive, trying to find out where my son was. Then they came and told me he didn't make it.

It's a mother's worst nightmare. How did you deal with it?

To be honest, and I know it sounds kind of weird, once they finally told me, it was just confirmation, because in my spirit, I already knew. They told me and they said my eyes got really big, but they put me right back to sleep. So it was hard to deal with it, because I was in such bad shape. They let me out of the hospital early to bury him because they couldn't hold his body any longer.

And as you were starting the baking birthday parties in 2008, that's when you got the call that Milan's father, Kevin Wicks, was killed?

We were living in Las Vegas, and he lived in Los Angeles. The police were answering a domestic violence call at his apartment complex, they went to the wrong apartment, Kevin answered the door and they shot him three times. It was national news -- there were rallies, press conferences and marches. We didn't participate in the marches and rallies. Milan was 11 at the time, trying to deal with that, and I didn't want to throw her into the media frenzy.

Why was this tragedy almost harder for you than the car accident?

As a parent, you feel like your job is to protect your children and to make them feel better. But I couldn't help Milan with this pain. It was so hard to see her go through this, and it was something I couldn't fix. I had her and her two younger siblings, and was trying to console all of them. We all went immediately into therapy, and I took her to grief camp, but there's no book on how to deal with this. I tried to stay heavy in prayer, keep solid and sane for the kids and still try to give them the best life I could.

Why was getting laid off in 2009 actually a good step in that direction?

I still had to have a source of income, but my kids enjoyed the flexibility of me being around and being more available, which was especially important for Milan as she was dealing with Kevin's death. Baking is what Milan and I liked to do together to bond. So I asked her, "What do you think if we make cheesecakes in cups like they do with cupcakes?" We were all excited, hoping we were on to something. She even helped to come up with the name, and we started this as a family business. We discuss ideas and my kids are my taste testers. We all have a stronger bond now than we ever did before.

Now Milan is 15, Jailyn is 10 and Merritt is 8. How has the business helped them to heal?

It brought us so much closer together, and the relationship we have now is priceless. After everything we've gone through, they see that I am strong and that we can't ever give up. And Milan, being the oldest, wants to eventually own her own business. Whenever we talk about college and what she wants to do, it always comes back to owning her own business.

Did you consciously or subconsciously start a sweets business to compensate for all the bad that has happened to you?

I never thought about it like that, but being in the kitchen making sweets has always been my comfort. Maybe I've made these cheesecakes like these little pieces of heaven, little pieces of happiness.

Entrepreneur Spotlight

Name: Shawn Brown
Company: CheeseCaked
Age: 38
Location: Conyers, Ga.
Founded: 2011
Employees: None
2012 Projected Revenue: Undisclosed, but sales have increased 50 percent since the company started
Website: www.cheesecaked.com

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