Interview by: Nancy Colasurdo FOX Business
There are life’s little epiphanies and then there are the kind that Mary Fanaro gets. Upending, core-shaking, world-changing, like light dawning so that everything shifts and the journey becomes about paying attention and awakening to possibility.
In our recent interview, Fanaro, a social entrepreneur and founder of OmniPeace, called them 'divine interventions.' No matter the label, clearly when a person is throwing lavish parties in Hollywood, recognizes it as a gift, and then one day realizes it feels meaningless, something profound is at work.
“I thought, how on earth do I translate what I think is a gift into something that could really make a difference?” Fanaro says.
As it turns out, the answer went something like this: You work hard and stay alert to what resonates with you. You feel what stirs your passions and you track every lead, whether it’s an idea to start a new chapter in your life or an inspiring L.A. Times cover story on Dr. Jeffrey Sachs. And when you finally figure out what it is you’re supposed to be doing, you even take meetings with an IV in your arm that’s hydrating you after your latest round of chemotherapy.
Sound like a plan for creating a humanitarian fashion brand?
That is OmniPeace, which sells branded apparel to raise money to build schools in Africa. Her work has already helped build seven schools in Africa, with the eighth on its way. Fanaro is thrilled by other humanitarian opportunities as well, like when she is able to send two convoys of food to Somalia to help refugees get to the closest refugee camp; one with an OmniPeace logo and one with a New York Giants logo (born of her conversation with the team’s co-owner Steve Tisch)
“I had been on safari in Africa,” Fanaro says. “I visited some villages and went ‘whoa’. I can’t explain Africa to you. From the second you land it’s like the earth penetrates your DNA. There’s a transformation that happens I can’t articulate. You see the children and in spite of them [having] nothing, they’re smiling and you just have to wonder how we've been programmed in our life to need so much to be happy? It’s a travesty.”
The road from star-studded parties to a company whose bold logo is a hand making a peace sign above the continent of Africa as the “palm” -- worn by Fanaro’s close friend Courtney Cox and many other celebrities -- has been circuitous. After throwing events like a pre-Oscar party for Vanity Fair and the 10th-anniversary party for Hard Rock Hotel founder, Peter Morton, Fanaro realized she was enjoying herself but had the aforementioned epiphany about “more.”
Soon she attended an event for Bono’s ONE campaign, realized it was special, and got herself introduced to the woman who ran it. They decided to collaborate and Fanaro thought, “If I’m going to throw an event, I’m going to be of service as well.” Next came a stay at a friend’s home in Malibu and a craving for chocolate where she found in a drawer the Endangered Species Chocolate Bar and an idea was born. She would make chocolate bars to help Africa and call it 'Peace of Chocolate.’
Then came sorting through the possibilities, the hits and misses of going into business. Should she align with the ONE campaign, Red Cross, UNICEF? No. Her team made a presentation before Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the agricultural company founded by her grandfather, because she knew they were they were one of the biggest supplies of chocolate which was coming from the Ivory Coast.
“Not thinking, they don’t actually make chocolate bars, they supply them to all the companies,” Fanaro says. After the presentation, they simply said, "That’s sweet, Mary. Go back home and good luck with that idea.”
Fanaro laughs as she relates the story. None of the setbacks mattered. She was determined to find an appreciative partner.
“When I’m passionate about something it drives me to no end,” she says. “I couldn’t wake up in the morning fast enough. I was living it, I was breathing it. It became my life and thank God it did.”
Enter the news story on Sachs, founder and co-president of Millennium Promise Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending extreme poverty and hunger. Suddenly, the woman who was confident she could get to anybody couldn’t figure out how to get to him. She decided to just fly to Africa and track him down.
“As if there’s an address; as if you land in Kenya and it says 'Millennium Promise Village’ that way, with an arrow pointing in the direction.” Fanaro says, adding with a laugh, “As if there are even roads to get there.”
While she was hatching her African plot, she shared it with a friend who was in his car with his girlfriend and her friend. The friend overheard and happened to have just been shooting a documentary for MTV in the village where Sachs and Angelina Jolie had been. The friend offered to make the introduction.
“It was only in hindsight I understood I was on a path that was clearly mapped out for me long before I knew,” Fanaro says.
She was still in the chocolate bar phase at this point, so when after her meeting with Millennium Promise in New York, she was invited to a large dinner party Sachs was throwing. When she was told she could put her bars on the tables, she accepted. Then Sachs made a speech and near the end acknowledged Fanaro.
He said, "It’s people like this, the consumer, that make remarkable changes in the world," Fanaro says. “My jaw hit the ground because I still really have no idea what I'm doing at this point.”
From there, a friend advised her that she wasn’t going to raise or make money on the business model she had. She wanted to emulate Sachs’ formula – give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Further, this friend advised her to take the eye-catching logo and put it on T-shirts to see if it would sell. Chocolate was out. The friend introduced her to her licensing agent, and was now running a licensing company, had no idea what it meant, and started racking up licensees.
Just two weeks before the launch on June 12, 2007, Fanaro went for her annual gynecological exam and saw her suddenly serious doctor call in another. She heard him say “Can you meet me in my office, Mary?” And there she sat, hearing the words, “You have cancer.” It was ovarian and the tumor was large. She kept thinking he couldn’t be talking to her.
I said, "Listen, I have a party to throw, I’m launching a company; let’s postpone this.”
She flew to New York, where Naomi Campbell hosted her launch at trendy fashion boutique, Scoop, in the Meatpacking District; and then back to Los Angeles where Courteney Cox played host with her. The next day she went to the hospital and while driving into the parking lot, she saw a man walk by wearing one of her T-shirts from the night before.
“I looked up and went, all right, I got it; it’s all going to be OK. I think there’s a part of human instinct when you’re faced with something like cancer, you go into that fight or flight mode. And since fighting isn’t really an option, denial seems almost inevitable because it takes a minute to even grasp the reality of what’s happening to you. Then embracing it comes later, when that next round of chemo is just par for the course and all you really have left is faith…”
But with her mission before her, her friends and family by her side and a defiant spirit that had her swimming, hitting the gym and traveling when she wasn’t supposed to, she stared down the disease and the nine rounds of aggressive chemo over one year. Fanaro is seven years cancer free. She credits the love of her boyfriend at the time (and now dear friend), her family and friends as a blessing in her healing process, and her newfound belief that love saves lives.
“I had no choice but to get up every day and show up and suit up and do the work because OmniPeace had taken off,” Fanaro says. “Listen, I’m not a super hero, but I had a will to live like nobody’s business. And I had a company to run that was helping people that didn’t even know the word healthcare. I mean, they’re walking eight miles just for water. They’re getting raped while protecting their children. And here I am with healthcare, friends, family, and a home. I have so much. How do I not do this? So I decided to stay in the ring and fight for the people who couldn’t fight for themselves, as well as myself. Kind of gave me some balance to it all.”
“Control is a facade,” Fanaro says. “The greatest form of control is surrendering. It took me half a lifetime to get that.”
As she looks at a poster in her office of over 50 celebrities wearing OmniPeace, she recalls the tagline she came up with just a few months before launching OmniPeace – Can Fashion Save Lives? – and how it proved to be a her own self-fulfilling prophecy. And an example of humanitarian Conscious Consumerism thru T-shirt messaging that people could now where as a badge of honor and hope. And proof that OmniPeace was, in fact, saving lives…including her own!
After going to the theatre to see The Mountaintop in New York, Fanaro had another epiphany. In the play, Samuel L. Jackson plays Martin Luther King Jr. and the housekeeper in his hotel before he gets shot is played by Angela Bassett. She has come to take him upon his death but he has one question for her - ‘Did he matter.’
“It goes to black,” Fanaro says. “Then there’s a montage on a screen of all the wonderful things he had accomplished … the dots he never knew he was responsible for connecting. Then Sam Jackson comes back on stage to tell the audience that it is our responsibility to pick up that baton and pass the torch and do everything we can to make a difference. I just knew people were walking out thinking, what have I done? However, for the first time in my life, it finally came to me that I didn’t have to think like that anymore.”
The long-term benefits of a commitment like this are immeasurable,
and OmniPeace Foundation is making that commitment.