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Yael Cohen Braun on the power of authenticity

Fuck Cancer’s founder never intended to start a charity and never imagined its incredible growth

Women to Watch is a Fast Company and NET-A-PORTER.COM collaboration highlighting innovative female entrepreneurs who have leveraged style and design to accelerate their success. Here Yael Cohen Braun, founder and CEO of Fuck Cancer, shares how her inspiration, passion, and personal aesthetic have helped to shape her quickly growing organization.

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What inspired you to start Fuck Cancer?

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer over five years ago, so it was all born from a very authentic reaction. It started with a T-shirt I had made for her surgery that said “Fuck Cancer.” I never thought in a million years she’d wear it in public. Not only did she wear it in public, the responses I got from it were unbelievable. It was a beautiful display of public bravery and vulnerability. Total strangers started hugging my mom, so I knew it was something that resonated far beyond just my family—and I wanted to do some good with it.

Putting “Fuck” in your company’s name was pretty bold. What motivated you to do so and how has this seemingly simple choice helped shape, define, and drive your brand?

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I get asked that all the time. It’s something people assume I put so much thought into, and sadly I can’t take much credit for putting thought into it. It was a gut move; it was such an authentic response to what was happening. It was exactly how I felt. It wasn’t particularly violent; it was brave and vulnerable.

So we wanted to create a charity/movement/nonprofit that was raw and a lot more real than what we were seeing, and to name it something else didn’t really seem authentic.

Choosing that name was a big thing. It’s the reason why people joined our community. It was the visceral and emotional response to those words. It’s not even “Fuck Cancer,” it’s “Fuck Yea!” So it started the relationship with our community in this unbelievably amazing and emotional way. We are not about ribbons, daisies, and daffodils. We are not about walks and runs. We are about being there day in and day out during the hardest days of your life.

How would you describe your brand’s “personality”?

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We like to say it’s irreverent disruptive. We are edgy, authentic, raw, compassionate, kind, loving, and patient. These words sound like polar opposites, but in this case, I not only think they go hand-in-hand; they are necessary partners in the process.

How does your personality find its way into Fuck Cancer?

Very heavily. I never intended to start the charity, and I never knew it would grow to what it is today. It started at a personal place, and it was so infused in my manners, my quirks, and my beliefs. And obviously from this point, it’s grown far beyond that, but I still hope that we have the love, patience, and sense of humor with our community that I have with my mom.

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In the early days, how important was ensuring that Fuck Cancer “looked the part” (of professional, trustworthy organization versus scrappy startup) to establishing relationships, secure funding, and set yourself up for growth?

It wasn’t as much about “looking the part” as it was “being the part.” From a programmatic and vision standpoint, we knew we had a plan. But it was also making sure that we were legally set up and ready to go because we knew we wanted to grow.

In terms of looking the part, when a very young female shows up wearing a T-shirt about cancer, sometimes they aren’t going to take you seriously. But I think after a few minutes of speaking, they can see that I am educated, articulate, and fucking compassionate about this, and I needed to be taken seriously! [ Laughs ]

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Your brand voice and aesthetic are purposefully bold, in-your-face, and youthful. This contrasts starkly with more traditional health advocacy groups. How has this fresh approach served Fuck Cancer?

It’s fresher and more realistic. It’s edgy, funny and very rarely just an emotional place, because an emotional place is, first of all, very physical and second, full of negative emotions like guilt, confusion, anger, and sorrow. And that’s short-lived, because I might take action because you guilt me into it once; but I don’t want to do it again because I felt like shit! So if we can get people to interact with the brand and the organization in a way that makes them feel amazing, they are not going to do it once; they are going to do it over and over again and join our community to be there for the long run.

The tone in your company video is one of urgency. Why is it urgently important to change the way people think about cancer?

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That video is actually almost two to three years old now, and we are going to be putting a new one up, which is superexciting. As the organization has grown, so have our vision and our purpose. It will always be focused on early detection, prevention, and psychosocial communication (meaning the patient experience), but how we execute that is going to grow with our community’s needs. The urgency differs throughout the community. For some people, it’s learning to look for cancer instead of just finding it. For others, someone they love has cancer, and they need to know right then and there what to do, how to talk to them, and how to make them feel better.

We started with this research that 90% of cancer is curable when it is detected early on. We were motivated to find it and teach everyone, and we had amazing success from it, and it is still something we are very passionate about. But we learned that we had a ton of people coming to us saying, “Well, that’s great, but I have cancer already, so I hope there is a next time when I find it early. What do I do now? How do I tell my mom I have cancer? What should I take to the hospital during chemo?” So we focus on the human side of cancer, not the medical. Not just on your treatment plan, but also on your heart, your soul, your relationship, and the things that are just as important. It’s become a really integral and important part of what we do.

Your organization has grown tremendously—from a start-up organization in 2009 to redefining philanthropy. What was the biggest challenge in scaling up so quickly?

We call it hitting puberty. You go from this cool, young startup where you are young, scrappy and still figuring it out. You have small budgets and a small reach, which is superexciting. Now all of a sudden, you grew up. And you try and figure out how you scale, where to put in structure and stability so you can scale. We no longer are only accountable to our community; it’s now our jobs because we know that we can have a larger impact and help more people. So it’s a really true conversation. One we’ve been having a lot and been putting tons of structure in place to help us grow up and make sure we don’t lose our momentum, our voice, our heart, and our soul, but at the same time, we learn how to play nice with others, because working with larger organizations might be necessary in our future. We have to know how to do that because if it was in the best interest of the space, it is our responsibility to do so.

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Tell us what a day in the life of running Fuck Cancer looks like.

It really differs day-to-day. It depends if we are executing or building a campaign, if it’s in our office in L.A. or our office in Vancouver, and some days it’s working remotely from wherever I am. The team has grown, which is awesome, so we get to wear a lot of hats and pick up each other’s draft when necessary. I wish I could say there was a standard day, but I don’t have that luxury. Actually, I don’t know if that’s a luxury. I just don’t have that. [ Laughs ]

What is the best piece of business advice a mentor ever gave you?

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What you say no to is often more important than what you say yes to.

What’s next for Fuck Cancer?

We hope to have a larger impact. One of the big things we are focusing on in the coming years is from a prevention perspective: vaccines. We wouldn’t fund research; it’s not in keeping with what we do. But something like a marketing campaign can have a bigger impact and response than billions of dollars put into research. So we are going to be focusing more on prevention, the patient experience, and really building out our resources for patients as well.

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RAPID FIRE WITH YAEL:

What mantra do you live by?

Be the change.

Describe your personal style in five words or less.

Transitional. California chic. I don’t even know if that’s a thing. [ Laughs ]

You travel frequently and attend lots of events. How do you transition from flight to meeting to events?

Depends on how much time I have to be honest. If I have time to shower, that is my favorite! [Laughs] But a big part of it is trying to stay on the right time zone. If I’m traveling internationally, I’ll make sure I don’t go to sleep until it’s the right time, and if I have time to exercise, the endorphins in that really help reset my clock.

What are your essential, must-have travel items when you’re on the road?

My phone, of course, my computer, a really great moisturizer, and my green juice powder.

You’ve put “Fuck Cancer” on T-shirts, water bottles, bike jerseys, etc. If you could brand one dream product, apparel or accessory, what would it be?

I think it would be more about who the partner would be rather than what the product would be. I think it would be really rad to have a partner who has great influence, is socially conscious, and a trailblazer. A collaboration with someone like that who cares about the environment and our bodies as well as creating culture, like Pharrell or Jared Leto or Kanye West, for that matter. There are a lot of cool people who would be great to figure something out with!

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For Yael Cohen Braun, travel, public appearances, and evening events are crucial to growing her brand. NET-A-PORTER invited the always-on social entrepreneur to select some of her favorite looks for fall. Check out her transitional/day-to-night looks here.

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