How Two Rivals Teamed Up to F*ck Cancer After Tragedy Struck

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In 2009, Yael Cohen Braun, then only 22, was working in finance while Julie Greenbaum, then 19, was a student at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Neither of them were aware of the other’s existence, but parallel tragedies that had struck their lives — Braun’s mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, while Greenbaum’s mother was fighting ovarian cancer that she’d been diagnosed with in 2006 — would one day bring them together.

While looking for the best ways to care for their mothers — and while wrestling with their shock and grief — Braun and Greenbaum also began to think about how they could help join the fight against cancer. Knowing that 90% of cancers can be cured during their first stage, Yael Cohen Braun decided to launch Fuck Cancer in 2009, and Julie Greenbaum launched her organization with the same name in 2010 — the same year her mother succumbed to the disease. Both of their non-profit organizations are aimed at spreading public awareness about the importance of the early detection and prevention of cancer.

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According to Braun and Greenbaum, they chose the name Fuck Cancer for their startups because the phrase strongly resonated with how they felt when their mothers were diagnosed with cancer. They also believed that the bold, politically-incorrect name would be an effective way to get their message out to a budding Generation Y.

However, there was that one small problem: Braun and Greenbaum did not know of each other, and their organizations were completely separate organizations with the same exact name by sheer coincidence. When they finally discovered each other two years ago, they looked into working together, but it just wasn’t the right time.

“We spoke two years ago and tried to figure out any way to do it together,” Braun says. “We were really doing different things. We were both younger and had an ego about us. We weren’t ready to put that aside and try to do something together yet, so we kept up to date with each other.”

“I was definitely aware of them and I was aware of [Braun],” Greenbaum adds. “But it’s interesting because we needed to grow separately before we were able to grow together. We had to take our time to experience on our own to grow our organization, and now the timing is right. So it ended up working for the best.”

Fast forward to 2014, both women have seen their buzzy nonprofits rise to new heights and they have raised more than $1 million total in the fight against cancer. Last fall, the two announced they would be merging their companies so that they could fight the disease together.

Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with the two to talk about how they built their organizations.

On their issues working out business deals and partnerships because of the shared “Fuck Cancer” name:

Julie: I definitely experienced pushbacks from certain people. Definitely from the corporate world there were certain roadblocks as well. I think ultimately, though, the name is the best part of our organization and I think the majority of people really resonate with it. I think it perfectly embodies emotions and aggressions most people feel when they are affected by the disease.

Yael: It’s definitely one of our biggest hurdles but also it’s our biggest asset. It doesn’t resonate with everybody and that’s OK because we are not here to build for everybody. We are building something very specific for a specific community that needs us. We provide them with a war cry, and for cancer families it’s one of the hardest days of their lives. We are not gonna dilute that so we can please everybody, because ultimately you are never gonna please everyone.

Fuck Cancer has been able to get a multitude of celebrities involved, like Ed Sheeran. Accomplishing this as a non-profit takes great connections and networking skills. Their secret to successful networking:

“Yael: Don’t think of it as networking — it makes it seem empty. The word has been so overused. I don’t think either of us network at all — we genuinely connect with people. We’ve had such amazing supports because they believe in what we are doing. They are getting the same love and support from our community as anybody else. They are not there to be pretty faces, and they get to have the same experience. But the biggest thing is genuine connections and looking for people who are trying to do the same type of good shit you are, rather than people having a big name and big face.

Julie: Or looking too ahead. We’ve both chosen and want to live our lives with integrity. Every time we meet someone, we are open, honest and transparent with them, and those are just qualities that people resonate to and they are interested in. I think that’s something that’s always been helpful and we always put forth when we meet with them.”

With the announcement of their merger, many wondered how the process began and who had first called whom.

Yael: Three years ago, I reached out to Julie and we got on a Skype call. Neither of us was willing to let go of what we thought Fuck Cancer should be. Funny enough, the biggest issue was our brand. It wasn’t necessarily vision; both of us were so attached to our brand because it was so cathartic for us because we were healing from the previous experience with our mothers, which seems so trivial now, but at that time we were emotionally charged because it was something intensely and inherently emotional. We let it simmer for a while and we couldn’t find a way to work together. Two years later, I reached back out saying, let’s start a conversation again. At the very least, even if we are gonna work together, we should support each other’s effort. Because you were doing cool shit and we’re going to do cool shit, so we should do cool shit together.

Julie: The timing was perfect because I was gonna be in L.A. two weeks later. We met for coffee. For the first 20 minutes, we were so serious and a little bit defensive. As time went on, we started getting more comfortable. I think it became clear very quickly that by collaborating instead of competing, and by joining forces, we would ultimately be able to achieve what we wanted, which is to make the biggest possible impact in the cancer space. So it was a no-brainer.

Yael: That was our key: collaboration instead of competition.

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Major issues can arise when two ambitious people get together to work on one vision. We asked Braun and Greenbaum how they deal with clashing egos.

Julie: Check ego at the door in terms of working together. You gotta leave it at the door. I think that’s actually the reason why at the beginning we were struggling, because we had fairly big egos at that point. Now we are at the place where we don’t have that anymore.

Yael: I think there are few factors that play into it, one of them definitely being time and us being ready. Another reason is that we don’t run a business — we run a charity. So our end goal is not to make money, it is to help people on some of the worst days of their lives. We don’t get to have an ego in that; that takes away from our community’s experience. The last thing is that timing-wise, we were both ready for a partner. For the large part, we both built this alone, and it is emotional work and hard work and it’s so exciting to have a partner to do it with.

One of the biggest questions asked by young entrepreneurs is whether being in a relationship detracts from building a company. Yael, being married, shared her thoughts on it.

Yael: Entrepreneurs give up a hell of a lot to do what they believe in. Our generation likes to glorify entrepreneurs, like it’s fun and sexy and exciting to be an entrepreneur. You don’t work 60 hours a week — you work constantly. You miss a lot of fun things and miss out on a lot of important things because you are building something so deeply and so passionately. There’s various schools of thought. There’s people who think that you can’t have a partner and build at the same time, and then I am of the opposite. How lonely to think you have to do this alone — if you have the right partner, you can do anything together.

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For more information and to get involved with Fuck Cancer,  visit LetsFCancer.com. Look out for a new website coming soon!

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