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Who: Lindsay Avner, founder and executive director
What: National non-profit organization focusing on the risk reduction and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer in young women while providing support for high-risk individuals
Where: Chicago, IL
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How: No one was more surprised than 23-year-old Lindsay Avner when she tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation in July, 2005. She was fresh out of college, had just landed her dream job, and then, just like that, she was faced with a gigantic decision: to monitor her health and arsenal up to someday treat a potential cancer or wipe the slate clean in her early twenties through a risk-reducing mastectomy.
Though Avner had witnessed her mother’s struggle with breast and ovarian cancer and lived with the knowledge that her maternal grandmother and great-grandmother had died of breast cancer before she was born, she was convinced she favored her father’s family and had no cause for worry. Then, suddenly, she was confronted with the news of an 87% and 54% risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer respectively. When she even uttered the word “mastectomy,” doctors told her she was crazy. “’Honey you don’t have cancer,’” they said. “’You’re totally fine. Come back and see me when you’re 30.’”
But she didn’t feel fine or healthy, but rather like she was running away from cancer. So she opted for a bilateral risk-reducing double mastectomy with reconstruction, and almost eight years ago became one of the youngest women in the country to take such aggressive risk-reducing measures. She credits the struggles of her decision-making and the lack of helpful medical resources, plus the model of her service-oriented parents as the catalysts that motivated her to create Bright Pink, as first a website then an organization that helps young women view their genetic information as a blessing, not a burden..
Now in its sixth year, Bright Pink targets an 18 to 45 year-old demographic and not only helps them to understand their risk for breast and ovarian cancer, but also teaches them how to be proactive in managing it.
Avner says Bright Pink differentiates itself in the marketplace because of its urgent message, breathing life into the phrase knowledge is power. The more you know about your risk, she says, the more you can do about it. By learning to establish and integrate healthy behaviors into their lifestyles, young women are empowered to ward off cancer at an early, nonlife-threatening stage or prevent it altogether.
Bright Pink started out as a website, and the response from hundreds of women was overwhelming. It’s evolved into an organization which today includes nine chapters, ten ally cities, a nationwide network of more than 50,000 members and supporters and an array of educational initiatives and supportive community activities.
During Bright Pink’s conceptual phase, Avner says she spent several weekends fleshing out her concept by formulating a 12-point business plan and kept asking herself, “Is this sustainable? Can I prove if it’s a bad fundraising month that we are not going to be eating Ramen noodles?”
The first three years in the life cycle of Bright Pink were difficult. For about 18 months, she remained committed to her “pie-in-the-sky” job in Unilever’s brand management area, while developing her nonprofit business. Her Unilever experience helped her in all aspects of the business, a plus she says that helps her put meat on the bones of her philosophy on how to run a business—having the knowledge of all business functions to manage and help shape them when necessary, and the humility to recognize that at 31 she does not have all the answers.
She credits her nine-member staff with tremendous accomplishments, describing them as having “that unique special sauce”—spirit, agility to see a problem and the focus to find a solution. She demands inclusiveness of her staff, and says there is absolutely no room within her company for workplace drama.