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Arts and Entertainment

PhiLAnthropist Interview: Mary Fanaro of OmniPeace Donates 25% of Profits to End Poverty in Africa

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OmniPeace founder Mary Fanaro at the site of the OmniPeace/Kitson school in Senegal, Africa. Photo courtesy of OmniPeace, used with permission.

"When you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, the universe opens up and says, 'yeah, I am going to help you out.'"

Mary Fanaro, founder of the LA-based OmniPeace fashion brand, perfectly summed up her experiences since starting the company in 2005. The former event producer remembers waking up one morning after throwing a huge bash for the 10-year anniversary for the Hard Rock Hotel and saying "I can't do this for one more second." And she didn't. The result? OmniPeace, the fashion brand that donates 25% of their profits to fighting against and eradicating extreme poverty in Africa by 2025.

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Thanks to a combination of passion, determination and willingness to venture into the unknown, Fanaro, after becoming inspired during the Live 8 concert, set out to start a company that would help drive positive change, particularly in Africa. The original idea was to sell chocolate bars, fittingly named "A Peace of Chocolate", and donate the profits. The chocolate idea quickly gave way to t-shirts and accessories. Extensive research on what organization would be the best recipient of these donations led Fanaro to renowned economist and UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs, founder of the Millenium Promise Alliance, the organization behind this commitment to end extreme poverty in Africa by 2025.

By licensing their logo out to numerous companies, OmniPeace is able to remain sustainable while donating an impressive percentage of their profits to their partner organizations. Help from celebrity friends such as Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston (often seen in the signature shirts) as well support from Kitson has helped too. They have donated $300,000 to date and recently completed the OmniPeace/Kitson Primary School in Senegal, Africa.

Fanaro spoke with LAist about the birth of OmniPeace, the serendipitous circumstances that brought her to Jeffrey Sachs, the experience of launching her company in the midst of an ovarian cancer diagnosis and her current projects in the Congo.

You partnered with Jeffrey Sach’s Millennium Promise after reading an article about him in the LA Times. That’s an impressive and ambitious move! How did this partnership come to be?

I read about Sachs and said 'this is the organization where I want to donate money'....If I was going to align myself with something, I wanted to bring something to the table but I didn’t really have any experience in that area.

I asked myself 'how am I going to get to Jeffrey Sachs?' So I [thought] I'm just gonna go to that village that I had just read about, which was his first village in Sauri, Kenya that was self sustainable - the crops were growing, malaria was down...I thought I’d just show up there and figured that when he heard about it he’d want to know who this crazy white girl was who just did that.

So in my naive mind I figured, ‘OK, I'm gonna land, get a car and drive to the village’. But there are no roads to these places, you can't just go it.

So then what happened?

My best friend called me and he was in the car with his girlfriend and her best friend and I was repeating to him my idea. He responded 'You're crazy, you can't just show up at Jeffrey Sach’s village!' And as he’s repeating this all, the girl in the back seat says 'Who is your friend and how does she know Jeffrey Sachs?' Turns out that girl had just been into that village with Sachs and Angelina Jolie shooting a documentary for MTV. So she told my friend to have me call her the next morning and she would set up a meeting.

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At that point there had probably been three white people to that village and one of them turned out to be in the backseat of my best friends car. That’s how I knew I was on the right path. Someone said to me the other day passion is gods will for us. When you are doing what you are supposed to be doing, the universe opens up and says, 'yeah I am going to help you out'.

So from there I met with Jeffrey and said I want you to be the recipient of the proceeds of this chocolate bar and he said okay.

How did it evolve from chocolate bars to t-shirts?

I had a friend tell me that I would never really be able to raise a lot of money with profit margin from a chocolate bar so he encouraged me to use the logo on t-shirts and get the product to my celebrity friends to see if it even sticks and would resonate with the public. One thing led to another, a friend told me that essentially I would be acting as a licensing company; mind you at the time I had no idea what this meant. So then another friend hooked me up with a licensing agent and also got me my first t-shirt company, which is Signorelli.

On launching the company amidst cancer diagnosis...

We launched that first signature t-shirt and I flew to New York and launched it with Naomi Campbell at Scoop and flew back the very next day and launched it here at Kitson with Courtney Cox, who has been one of my best friends for 20 years. And strangely enough, that next morning, I started chemotherapy for ovarian cancer.

It was, and it’s weird to say this, one of the coolest times of my life because everything that I was doing and people that I was supporting and the company that I believed in, not only my own, but Jeffrey Sachs work...'I thought if I'm gonna be worried here, I have great doctors, I have health insurance... friends and family'. And I had only been dating my boyfriend for 4 months and I had said 'Listen, you can walk if you want, you are not my husband, I don’t know what this is gonna be’ and he looked at me and said, 'I'm not going anywhere'.

So there was just a tremendous amount of support and love. It was actually a real window of gratitude in my life that I had never understood before then. My company changed my life and saved my life. It means a lot more to me than just a has a lot more stuff built into it.

How crucial is has the celebrity endorsement been to the success of OmniPeace?

It has been very advantageous for the launch of a brand. What should have taken me five or six years took me one because of all the celebrity support. But now were in year two and you cant rely on that anymore.

I use Newman's Own as an example…he's the biggest star and his face is all over the products, but at the end of the day, if the product didn’t taste good, no one would care.

Can you tell me about your current project in the Congo with the City of Joy and Art of Humanity?

Yes, the City of Joy is in a city called Bukavu and that is where the Panzi Hospital is, and the [City of Joy] rehab center will be attached to the hospital which gives women a place to recover after they’ve had reconstructive surgery for brutal rape and violence...

My new campaign is for the Congo and my partners on that are UNICEF and Eve Ensler [of Vagina Monologues fame]. Art of Humanity is owned by my friend Andrea Kerzner. She goes to refugee camps and implements art programs for the kids so she has these drawings from what we call child victims of violence, so young girls who are raped, boy soldiers…so we took those prints and put them on the body of the OmniPeace logo and these are the new Congo t-shirts. And the hang tags are a postcard with a pre-written letter to Obama so all you have to do is put a stamp on it…the campaign is Stamp Out Violence against women and children in the Congo.

What is your advice for young people who want to get involved and make a difference and make it like a full time career in an economic climate like this?

There are always going to be things that you could use as an excuse to not do whatever it is that you want to do, whether it’s the recession or raising money to start a company, or just different things that come along with being an entrepreneur. It just goes back to what I said, that when you’re doing what you’re passionate about, it is like the universe votes for you. Things fall into place when there is something you can’t live without doing. It's like somebody has grabbed you by the back of your collar and you are just flying by the seat of your pants. I feel like if I went to sleep, this company would have happened regardless. It was just so perfectly in sync with what was going on out there.

What is the ultimate goal or vision for OmniPeace?

What the peace sign is to the United States (and the world), is what [I hope] my logo becomes for the entire continent of Africa. Because at the end of the day, there is a peace sign above the continent of Africa….and there is peace if people aren’t hungry, and peace if people aren’t fighting, and peace if people are able to be self sustainable and grow their own food to feed their own children and reduce the mortality rate and get rid of AIDS and malaria. There is a domino effect that comes from having peace.

I would like OmniPeace to become a brand like Newman’s Own even though I am not a charity. They have raised over $200 million in 20 years and have donated to different organizations and to me it’s a brand with an enormous amount of thoughtfulness, integrity, entrepreneurship. That is what I would like to be. I’d like it to become a brand where people see the logo and say “I trust that, it makes me feel good when I buy it and I can trust that the money is going to where they say it is going.”

OmniPeace products can be found online, at Kitson, Fred Segal and many other LA stores, including Bloomingdales, Saks and Nordstrom.

Interested in getting involved with them? OminiPeace is also looking for interns to help with blogging as well as graphic artists to create designs. Contact their office for details.

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