The founder behind #WeAreILLMatic is bringing visibility to women of color diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, with a campaign influenced by rapper Nas’ album Illmatic.
Despite Victoria Marie Reese’s track record of snagging jobs at some of the world’s most prominent creative advertising firms, her career trajectory was destined for a shift. “I had these amazing jobs after college, but they were not full circle for me. They weren’t all of the things I wanted to do,” said Reese, a self-proclaimed “Jane of all trades.”
Now, she’s an entrepreneur who manages three businesses. But it took an aha moment, plus years of transition work, to get her there: “When I realized I wasn’t going to find [the job that was going to give me everything I needed], I just kind of created my own thing and built a box—instead of fitting inside one. I created my own packaging that fits me.”
That “packaging” now includes the Victor Group LA—a boutique brand and consultancy with clients like Adidas, Carol’s Daughter, NBA Nike, Rebecca Minkoff and Toyota—plus, the lifestyle brand BAUS, which connects ambitious women through curated products, content and events. BAUS sells customized doormats and camouflage jackets that include phrases like “BAUS AF” and “ILLEST.” The latter is a nod to Reese’s third and most personal passion project, #WeAreILLmatic.
But this all came in the wake of a life-altering event: In 2012, Reese began to experience pain in her legs wouldn’t go away. Doctors initially pegged it to stress, but Reese was persistent in getting an accurate diagnosis, knowing that something wasn’t right.
She was eventually diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, the most common form of the disease that affects about 400,000 people in the United States and 2.3 million people worldwide. Symptoms disease include fatigue, walking difficulties and numbness or tingling.
After Reese’s diagnosis, she immediately became involved in fundraising and advocacy, participating in local Walk MS fundraisers organized by the National MS Society, of which she is now an ambassador. And at every walk, with her friends by her side, Reese noticed they were the only black people in attendance.
Leveraging her social media skills, Reese initially started consulting with the National MS Society and using her personal social media platforms to discuss the illness. And slowly but surely, she began to notice something: Black women with MS that she rarely saw engage on the subject, started to have a dialogue amongst each other.
It was from those conversations that #WeAreILLmatic was born. The campaign’s name is inspired by Nas’ 1994 album Illmatic, playing up the fact that these women are literally living with an illness, without losing their illness—‘90s slang synonymous with “coolness.” Nas himself defines “illmatic’” as “beyond ill” and “the ultimate.”
“I didn’t [initially] set out to create a community, but the more I started going [to MS events], the more I really didn’t see representation that was like me,” she said. But Reese reiterates how important it is for women of color living with MS to see each other, so that they can envision what they’ll look like living with the disease when they’re 60. Or simply so that they can share experiences and journeys.
#WeAreILLmatic recently kicked-off of its social media awareness tour, devoting a week in September to MS warriors sharing their diagnosis stories through photos, videos and testimonials on social media, as a form of liberation and empowerment. The tour will continue with specific asks—correlating with song titles from Illmatic—to drive awareness and continued conversation amongst the group of women and their support systems.
As for Reese? Balancing three companies with an illness that requires her to prioritize rest is no small feat, which is why she relies heavily on self-care. It takes the form of daily meditation, prayer, and, perhaps most of all, knowing when to log off—something easier said than done when she’s impacted the lives of a community in need through her prowess with social media.
Still, even Reese knows that falling asleep in front of her computer doesn’t do anyone much good—herself, most importantly.
Words: Ashley Stoney