AJ's Story: Finding Perspective with Crohn's
Growing a business from the ground up can be stressful for anyone, but for AJ Vaynerchuk, doing so was even harder because he lives with a debilitating digestive disease – Crohn’s disease.
After experiencing abdominal pain and urgency, diarrhea, and debilitating fatigue, AJ was diagnosed with Crohn’s at 19 years old. “I walked myself to the emergency room and was diagnosed on the spot. I was lucky that I didn’t have a long journey [to getting an answer for my symptoms],” he said.
Being diagnosed with Crohn’s changed AJ’s life perspective. He felt a calling to business and entrepreneurship as a teen and had enrolled in college reluctantly. He felt a significant amount of stress when it came to school; therefore when he was diagnosed, he had a heart-to-heart with his parents.
“[I said to them] I know education matters to you but I know what I want to do. I don’t think my degree is going to dictate my future ability to earn an income, so I’m not going to put myself through that same level of stress [in school],” he said.
Following his diagnosis, AJ began managing the stressors in his life. “I tried less in school – there was a direct correlation in my GPA from when I diagnosed to where I ended.”
He graduated with a degree from Boston University in 2009 and immediately heeded his calling to entrepreneurship, partnering with his brother Gary on VaynerMedia, a social-media-first digital agency, along with several other businesses.
VaynerMedia grew rapidly over seven years, beginning with several employees to over 700 people. However, few people knew of his diagnosis, and when he had to have surgery, he felt the need to share his story more broadly.
In 2016, AJ decided to step away from VaynerMedia to address his health. But he didn’t notify people quietly. Rather, he wrote a piece for Medium that has been viewed 36,000 times. “A lot of [IBD patients] keep [their diagnosis] to themselves or a small network. [I wrote the piece for Medium] to generate more conversation. It was cathartic to share [my story] with more people. The more who knew, the better I felt,” he said.
In the article, AJ wrote, “The way I’m wired requires every ounce of me to help run this company, and I have nothing left in the tank. That’s why I have to step away. This is not to say that someone with Crohn’s can’t do this job, but more-so that I personally am no longer able to do it.”
In the months since AJ stepped down from the company, he’s started a new venture- VaynerSports – a firm that does athlete representation with a focus currently on football. He’s helping raise awareness of Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, and was honored by the Foundation’s Greater New York City chapter last year. He’s also an expectant father – his wife is pregnant with their first child.
AJ’s advice to other patients? Find a way to be open about your disease journey. “Take some time to digest it and allow it to provide you perspective. I don’t recommend being private – if I could do it over, I’d be more open. Articulate your experience and let people know what you’re going through, you will [help others like you].”