By Carolyn Gray Anderson
For someone who says she “stumbled” into the U.S. Air Force in 1996 and then “stumbled around” some more after her discharge in 2004, Zephrine “Zee” Hanson certainly appears to have her ducks in line now. The story of pitfalls and triumphs she tells in a 2015 Battle Tested Veterans talk links a chain of events and experiences that led her to UCLA Anderson’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities.
Newly relocated to Denver, Hanson is launching a business that features an all-natural skin care cream she developed. Her product is multipurpose but for marketing reasons as well as an agenda close to her heart, she positions it as an eczema remedy, bringing knowledge of the prevalence of the condition among people on the autism spectrum, especially kids.
“Children on the autism spectrum seem to be prone to allergies and skin problems,” she says. “Some are on very strong medications for ADHD, for instance, that may have side effects.”
Hanson is the mother of an eight-year-old son and six-year-old twin daughters. All three fall somewhere on the autism spectrum — which she and her husband were fortunate to find out early in the children’s lives, but not before Hanson began to wonder what she might be doing “wrong” in rearing them.
Between 2003 and 2011, Hanson says, she was “a mess.” Suffering PTSD without quite knowing what afflicted her, much less what to do about it, she spiraled down as her weight shot up to 235 pounds. “I had never learned how to eat properly,” she says, and credits a growing awareness of nutrition at her lowest with helping to turn around her health — and that of her family.
“Not one doctor suggested we change our diet,” says Hanson, who describes herself as a staunch advocate for neurodiversity. “When I mixed up shea butter cream, the doctor looked at me like I was a witch.” Typical modern treatments contain steroids, she says, which she was loath to introduce into her kids’ systems, especially having finally vowed off as many as nine prescribed pharmaceuticals herself.
Raised in the San Fernando Valley and until recently resident in a middle-class South Bay neighborhood, Hanson says that in her perfectly respectable community, church and extended family, the subject of autism was fairly taboo. “Initially I was around a ‘glossier’ version of motherhood. Moms appeared to love all aspects of motherhood, while I was struggling. It was more socially acceptable to just smile, drink wine and take Xanax than to admit motherhood can be challenging.”
As a result, Hanson imagined that her own post-partum depression or PTSD was the problem behind her children’s difficulties — which delayed her ability to address their condition head-on.
The Air Force trained Hanson as a forensic photographer and photojournalist, which she loved, though it brought her literally face to face with casualties of war. “A small group of us got to be artists even though we wore uniforms,” she says. But being outranked by everyone else, and the mandate to produce each shot with military PR in mind, put constraints on her storytelling and content. “When you’re the lowest-ranking person, you have to find your voice.”
The personal story she tells now is woven through with themes of healthy living, self-awareness and building a sympathetic network. With the nine-day intensive EBV under her belt and plenty of new data to digest and analyze, she plans to grow her business slowly, with no investors.
“I learned how to track data and use it to my benefit,” she says. She also learned to refine her target customer and demographic, and to determine whether her product fell into a “cosmetic” or “health and wellness” category. Professor George Abe encouraged her to seek out collaborators to manage different elements of the enterprise. “EBV required me to look at my business objectives. It has forced me to focus on one product, launch it well, then use its success to market a larger product line.”
The more she shares her story publicly, the more people come out of the woodwork to thank her for speaking up. Families follow her Purely Zee Facebook page, where she talks frankly about her experiences with PTSD, autistic children and the challenges of caring for oneself properly when trying to put your family first.
“People believe the narrative that veterans suffering from PTSD cannot function in society,” she says. “There were periods when I could not, and that is why I’m now so open about the fact that I can.”