Published November 16, 2011
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 for a chocolate bar 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 and consumer products to raise money and awareness for Africa. Her work has already helped build six schools and a seventh will begin construction next month. Fanaro, 46, is thrilled to be currently sending two convoys of food from Somalia to Kenya to help refugees along the way, 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 to you Africa. From the second you land and get on the ground it’s like the sand penetrates your DNA. There’s a transformation that happens I can’t even articulate. You see the children and in spite of [having] nothing they’re smiling and you go, ‘how have we been programmed in our life to need so much to be happy? What a travesty.’”
The road from star-studded parties to a company whose bold logo is a hand making a peace sign with the map 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 a 10th-anniversary party for Hard Rock café co-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 something, 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; she found in a drawer the Endangered Species Chocolate Bar and an idea was born. She would make chocolate bars to help Africa.
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), where her grandfather had served for years on the board of directors, because they were getting all their chocolate from the Ivory Coast.
“Not thinking, they don’t make chocolate bars, they supply them to all the companies,” Fanaro says. “[After the presentation] they were like, ‘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.”
Enter the news story on Sachs, founder and co-president of Millennium Promise Alliance, a nonprofit 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, you know what I mean?” Fanaro says, adding with a laugh, “As if there are roads.”
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. She 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 and told she could put her products on the tables, she accepted. 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 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 – it’s not about give, it’s about teach. Further, this friend advised her to take the eye-catching logo and put it on a t-shirt to see if it sells. Chocolate was out. She 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 “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 says.
She flew to New York, where Naomi Campbell helped her launch in the Meatpacking District and then back to Los Angeles where Cox played host with her. The next day she went to the hospital and in the entrance saw a man walk by wearing one of her shirts.
“I looked up and went, all right, I got it,” she says. “It’s all going to be OK. I think there’s a part of a human being that when you get something like this you almost have to go into denial to fight it because the concept of the fact that this is happening is so sort of insurmountable.”
But with her mission before her, her friends and family next to her 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 six rounds of aggressive chemo over six months. Next month will mark four years Fanaro is cancer free. She credits the love of her boyfriend at the time (and now dear friend), Jonathan Segal, 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,” 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 know even the word healthcare. Hello, they’re walking eight miles for water. They were getting raped protecting their children … Are you kidding me? I have healthcare, I have friends, I have family, a home. I have so much. How do I not do this? I’m in the ring fighting for other people.”
The company made its way to 47 licensees when Fanaro decided it was time for a partner whose business acumen would complement her marketing, face-of-the-company strengths. They decided to pull everything in-house.
“Control is a façade,” Fanaro says. “The greatest form of control is surrendering. It took me half a lifetime to get it.”
As she looks at a poster in her office of over 50 celebrities wearing OmniPeace in one form or another, she recalls the tagline she came up with – Can Fashion Save Lives? – and how it proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And how she had nothing to do with “three-quarters” of the success that made this go from a grassroots to “wildfire” example of conscious consumerism.
After going to the theatre to see The Mountaintop in New York, Fanaro had another epiphany. In the play, Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King Jr. asks the maid played by Angela Bassett – who has come to take him upon his death – if he mattered.
“It goes to black,” Fanaro says. “There’s a montage of all the wonderful things … dots he had no idea he even connected. Sam Jackson tells the audience it is our responsibility to pick that baton up and do everything we can to matter. You knew people were walking out of there thinking, what have I done? I felt so good because I thought, I don’t have to think like that anymore.”
A whole different kind of peace.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.