Mary Fanaro: “Hurdles Are Just Opportunities to Find Out Who You Really Are”
Fanaro, an entrepreneur and humanitarian, fought poverty in Africa while undergoing chemotherapy.
- Diana Denza
When Mary Fanaro developed the concept for OmniPeace, which is now a leading charity and fashion brand, she intended to help end violence and poverty in Africa. And if that’s not already an amazing feat in itself, this courageous woman underwent chemo for ovarian cancer exactly one day after launching the brand in 2007.
Four years after waging war on both cancer and poverty, Fanaro has regained her health, built five schools in Africa and began a campaign against rape in the Congo.
We spoke with this heroine about the trip that started it all, her definition of peace and how to stand strong in the face of adversity. Get ready for a major dose of inspiration!
We know you wanted to partner with Jeffrey Sach’s Millennium Promise after reading about him in the LA Times. But how were you able to get ahold of him?
Total coincidence…but then again, I had so many coincidences happen that I actually believe now in hindsight they were more like mini-divine interventions that were leading to exactly where I was supposed to be. My not-so-well-thought-out plan was just to head on over to Africa and show up at the village I had read about and hope that Dr. Sachs would hear about some girl just randomly arriving at his village…and by the way, let’s keep this in mind: it’s not as if the village had an address or even so much as a road to get there. I have to say I was pretty naïve about it all, but one thing I do know: when my passion gets the best of me, there’s no stopping me. So later that day, a friend of mine called who was in the car with his girlfriend and her best friend. They overheard him talking to me about this–what I considered to be a great idea–at which point the best friend in the back seat chimed in, much to my shock and awe, and said, ‘Oh, I actually just got back from that village with Dr. Sachs and Angelina Jolie shooting the documentary for MTV. Have Mary call me tomorrow and I’ll make an introduction for her.’ Needless to say, that was the first of many “coincidences” that led to the introduction to Dr. Sachs and later the wonderful success of OmniPeace.
Your trip to Africa helped inspire you to take a stand against poverty. Can you explain to us a little more about what you saw and learned there?
I was on a safari in Kenya and our guide took us to a village. There were these sand-looking homes shaped like igloos with smoke coming out of them, which you would have thought one person at best could maybe fit in there and then out came an entire family of about five. It was the strangest and saddest thing I had ever seen; but though they have so little over there, it is very rare to not see a smile on a child’s face. It has always completely baffled me and made me wonder how much is really enough to make us happy and how much have we been taught and programmed to need in order to define our happiness.
How did you come up with the idea for a T-shirt line to benefit impoverished Africans?
I already knew that whatever the product was going to be, it would be benefitting Africa in some way. However, originally it wasn’t a T-shirt…it was a chocolate bar called “Peace-of-Chocolate.” I was staying at a friend’s house in Malibu and got a craving for chocolate in the middle of the night (which tends to happen frequently), and I went looking in the refrigerator to find “The Endangered Species Chocolate Bar,” which donated 10% to protecting Endangered Species. This is how I came up with the business model for the company. I then created the bar and took it to a friend of mine who owns a very successful Hollywood talent agency to get his opinion. He loved the chocolate bar but said not only would I never make a dime, but I would never even raise a dime on the profit margin of a chocolate bar. But he loved the logo and said I should put it on T-shirts and get it on all my friends and see if it stuck. Hence, OmniPeace was created shortly thereafter, which would be the company for all “peace” products, so to speak, and would address the end of poverty and promote education.
Celebs from Jen Aniston to David Beckham have been spotted sporting OmniPeace merchandise. Did you ever expect the brand to take Hollywood by storm?
Not at all…I was shocked! I have lived in Hollywood for a long time and knew my very close friend, Courteney Cox, would support me, and then a few other friends came on board; but out of the blue, OmniPeace just became this Hollywood grass roots movement that completely took on a life of its own with every major celebrity supporting it, most of whom I’ve never even met!
The brand logo seems like a perfect fit with your mission and work in Africa: who came up with it and how long did that take?
My friend, Joe Petruccio. He was the godfather of a friend’s children and it literally took him one day to come up with it. But it was originally the number ‘one’ above Africa instead of a peace sign and only in the eleventh hour in a business meeting did someone in the back of the room stick up his hand in the shape of a peace sign and suggest that it be that instead. But Joe came up with the original concept and did it in about 24 hours. It was remarkable and he’s an amazing guy who I am so very grateful for today.
Your brand ran the “Stamp Out Violence Against Women and Girls of Congo” Campaign. What inspired this and what are simple steps women can take to help the efforts?
My friend Andrea Kerzner, who founded the LaLeLa Foundation, introduced me to the women who were running Eve Ensler’s “Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource.”
Andrea came up with the idea to do T-shirts with her drawings from child victims of violence on them, so we put them inside the body of the OmniPeace logo, made the hangtags pre-addressed postcards addressed to Obama imploring him to help stop the violence in Congo, and all you had to do was rip off the hang-tag, sign your name and put a stamp on it, hence our “Stamp Out Violence Against Women & Girls of Congo” campaign. If you go to OmniPeace’s Initiatives page, you can see the steps to take to help support the campaign.
You’re aiming to end extreme poverty by 2025. What’s Omnipeace’s next big project to help that happen?
I don’t know. Things come to me every day. I read all the papers, find out what touches my heart and get in the ring. I support Dr. Sachs and ending extreme poverty by 2025 is his mission and I will do whatever it takes to help make that happen and whatever else I am passionate about.
What is your definition of peace, especially as related to women?
Women run the show, especially in Africa. They do everything, so my definition of peace includes providing them with an education, putting food in their stomachs so they can have the strength to feed their children and take care of the village and then men, taking arms away from terrorists who rape them and the prevention of abusing human rights. I believe it’s our responsibility as human beings to be of service to those who need our help. That’s what I think peace is and doing what I do has brought me more peace and gratitude than I have ever known in my life.
You began chemotherapy for ovarian cancer the day after launching OmniPeace. How did you manage to fight cancer while running a new brand?
Pure adrenaline, tenacity and passion. OmniPeace saved my life. Had I not had the company, I don’t know what I would have done. There was no turning back and no stopping me and once it took off, I had no choice but to show up and do the work. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I was grateful because I was being of service, getting outside of myself and helping people who have nothing –nothing at all –and here I had health insurance, great doctors, an enormous amount of love and support from friends and family and a will to live. The people I was helping don’t have that, and it became more important to make a difference than anything else, which ended up being the very thing that saved my life. Funny…another one of those so called “coincidences.”
What advice would you give women who are facing significant hurdles in their lives right now?
Hurdles are just opportunities to find out who you really are, what you’re really made of and what you are capable of accomplishing in the face of adversity. Hey, if it were all easy, where would the passion come from? It comes from the fight; when you want it so bad, it becomes every living, breathing moment of your life and the sun can’t rise fast enough to start your day because you know that time means everything now. To not take advantage of that would be a disgrace.
OmniPeace tees range in price from $25 to $45. To view the entire line, click here.
Diana Denza is a regular contributor to BettyConfidential.