Dana Donofree of AnaOno: “Overnight success is not something that happens overnight”

This goes for my cancer diagnosis and starting the business. Overnight success is not something that happens overnight. It may appear that way, but there is always tons of blood, sweat, and tears behind all of it…so don’t give up As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, […]

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This goes for my cancer diagnosis and starting the business. Overnight success is not something that happens overnight. It may appear that way, but there is always tons of blood, sweat, and tears behind all of it…so don’t give up

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana Donofree.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at 27, Dana Donofree founded AnaOno out of her own desire for pretty, sexy, beautiful lingerie. After a bilateral mastectomy with implant reconstruction, she was certain there must be more than just sports bras and camisoles available to her (as nothing in the traditional lingerie market fit her surgically-altered body any more). With a degree in fashion design from Savannah College of Art and Design, and a quite successful fashion industry career, she took her 10+ years of experience and put it toward designing and launching AnaOno. Dana is very active in the breast cancer community and is involved with several non-profits, including on the Living Beyond Breast Cancer board, and she is a Metavivor advocate. However, she is most proud of being able to make a difference in the lives of women worldwide and is honored to continue to spread her mission of beauty, confidence and empowerment.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Thank you for having me. My backstory is almost all the reasons why I ended up here. I have been making and designing clothing since I can remember, my Mother still has books upon books of my designs when I was young, I started to sew at a very young age trained by my Grandmother, and studied Fashion Design at Savannah College of Art and Design. It was all this experience and a career in the fashion industry that eventually lead me here, I just never expected that cancer would be the turning point to owning and running my own fashion company.

Can you tell our readers what it is about AnaOno that’s disruptive? I started AnaOno after my diagnosis of breast cancer at the age of 27, that was 10 years ago. A decade ago, the industry that served breast cancer patients, was tired, ill-fitting, and lacked luster on many levels, I set out to change that. I didn’t want to only disrupt the mastectomy market, I wanted to change the way people SAW mastectomy. It was with the realization that many people didn’t even understand what people diagnosed with breast cancer were going through, both physically and mentally, that breast cancer wasn’t only our Grandma’s disease, that breast reconstruction was NOT a boob job. There was a lot to teach along the way, that is where the disruption started. I saw my customers as other people just like me. Those whose lives had been destroyed by a cancer diagnosis and had to work (HARD) to put the pieces back together. I didn’t want to have to work that hard, I wanted to help make just one piece of the puzzle more beautiful, more comfortable, and more approachable than what it has been in the past.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first were launching AnaOno? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I love this question, the funniest mistake. Well, I have to say, naming a business is hard! I had many many names I blew through only to find out that I couldn’t use them because they were too similar to someone else’s business name. So I decided to make the name a version of mine, AnaOno. I was told by a very influential non-profit leader at the time, that my name was “horrible” and that no one would remember it, and no one would know what it means, and that the name is everything, and I can’t just make up a word. He really tore me down, and completely rained on my parade…however, when I feared going back to the drawing board one more time, I called my best friend from college and asked her what she thought of the name and she said, “Dana, it’s perfect! It’s you, without the double D’s!” So you see, I took this name, that no one knew what it meant, and made it a joke! It’s a great icebreaker….because when you get it, you get it 🙂

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

I’ll be honest. I had more people questioning me about “why I was starting my business” in the beginning then mentoring me. I have more mentors today than I did when I launched, but unfortunately, I think those are the challenges many female entrepreneurs have faced in the past and still face a bit today…so that being said, I don’t look at my mentors, but I do look to the customers that have made an impact on me since the beginning. My mentors are those are serve, most others that have had breast cancer, undergone breast surgery, or have faced some other type of illness or challenge that has made traditional bras difficult to wear. I remember one of the first times I realized my customers would be a major influence on me, was when Hoda Kotb retweeted my launch party featuring my muse and best friend, Jill Conley. A woman emailed me from abroad and told me about her experience. About how she had lost her implants in the reconstruction process and was unable to continue, so she was living flat. She wanted a sexy black lacy bra that was “unhookable” in an intimate moment. It was then I realized, we are not our breasts. We are so much more than that. And that a bra wasn’t a bra at all, it was how we wanted to express ourselves, our femineity an act of love and sensuality. AnaOno was more than just a bra.

Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples.

I love this and could go on for many examples, but what I will start with is how disrupting an industry is never easy. When I started AnaOno in 2011, a year after my diagnosis, I am not even sure I had ever heard of the word, “disruptive.” All I knew was that I needed a different bra, and I had left one too many dressing rooms in tears and that I needed to do something about it. I talked to many people, and they would ask, “So if you had breast cancer, why do you need a bra?” “If you don’t have breasts, why would someone need a bra?” “Oh, ok, so are you making custom bras or something?” And then I would go and meet with a room full of fellow breast cancer patients, they would jump for joy, they would tell me everything they wanted in a bra, all the pain that traditional bras were causing, how they no longer felt sexy, felt beautiful, felt like themselves. I realized at that moment that the patients knew exactly what they were dealing with, were frustrated, sad, and disappointed that there was nothing for them. The average person had NO CLUE! What did this mean? It meant I was too early. Not only was I going to need to make a great product that was both comfortable and beautiful, but I was also going to have the burden to educate the general public so they can influence and inform their loved ones that AnaOno was there to help them. It also meant that I was working in an industry that was VERY set in their ways. No one wanted to change. The boutiques wanted their beige style mastectomy bra, item 1234, and nothing else. I had to convince them that those with breast reconstruction needed an alternative too. That there were more patients they could be serving, but since our customers were not typically treated through their benefits program with breast forms (the things that make people money) no one was interested in serving my fellow reconstruction patients, so I was forced to launch AnaOno on the internet. The first “mastectomy bra” to be sold on the internet! Crazy, but till then, the model was to move from business to business and not serve the customer directly, this has helped me more today than 6 years ago when we officially launched.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

One, stay focused, don’t take on too much too early. I didn’t quite know what this meant, but I read in entrepreneur book after book, that entrepreneurs take on the world without focus, and now I get it. I launched my store with T-shirts and hats because I wanted a shop where everything I could want during my treatment, would be available to me, but my bras also arrived 6 months late! I realized, it’s time to lean into the lingerie and forget about everything else, now 6 years later, I am still focusing on lingerie, with very little time for “everything else.” Two. One step at a time. This goes for my cancer diagnosis and starting the business. Overnight success is not something that happens overnight. It may appear that way, but there is always tons of blood, sweat, and tears behind all of it…so don’t give up. And with that comes, three, what you see in the world is always going to be different than what someone else sees or wants in the world. This happened just months before my launch, the news media blew up with “pretty bras for breast cancer”. It happened first with a Change.org petition that a mother and daughter put together to push Victoria’s Secret to carry a mastectomy bra line. I had a total breakdown. I knew in my heart that I would or could NEVER compete with this giant. I started to freak out, “What if they launch a mastectomy bra line, I’m down before I ever even started!” And then, my soon-to-be best friend, Jill Brzezinski-Conley is on Today Show sharing her story and challenges VS to put the million-dollar bra on a breast cancer patient! I thought this is it. It is all over, I wasn’t fast enough. My first instinct was to drop everything and just go back to my day job. My best of friends peeled me up off my creative cliff, and my best friend from high school reassured me that I was creative enough to take them on, that I had a unique story and my point of view, and no one would be able to compete with that. After listening to all my friends that encouraged me to keep going, I didn’t quit. I am so glad I listened.

How are you going to shake things up next? The good news (and bad news) is that there is so much white space in this market.

Sadly, cancer is not going away. I had to be that downer, but the good news, we are living longer than we ever have. Cancer is still a very real threat to our lives, but as we continue to progress treatments, we continue to get the chance to live our lives boldly. That means we are no longer the dying patient, hiding the corner, and being over-shadowed with pink ribbons. We are going to live our lives fully until we can’t any longer. This story will be a story I continue to share and continue to put the truthful patient experience first, we will not mask it, we will shine a light into the darkness and continue to unravel the truth behind this disease, until one day, I do get to close my doors and shut my business down because the world no longer needs us because we will find a way to treat this killer of women without the amputation of our breasts to do so.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

In my opinion, we are still facing the challenge of leaders and mentors because of the limited amount of success that female entrepreneurs have because of many barriers, such as funding and access to resources. How are we supposed to be when we have limited amounts to lean on? When more females get a seat at the table, the scales will naturally shift. When more women get funding and generate companies with successful exits their funds will go back into the ecosystem, when more women don’t feel the competition of getting a small fraction of the access, they can organically extend their reach and pull up more chairs for other females. When we remove gender threats and build access, we all win. When there are more of us, we win. When there are more female CEO’s, we win. When there are more female physicians, we win. It is why I work so hard. I hope to be one of them that gets the chance to reach down and throw another woman above me so we can continue to build access for the next generation. I’m hopeful. In the 10 years, I have been building and managing my business, I have already seen a change. It is never fast enough, but at least it is coming.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share an example/story with us?

I am obsessed with the Nordstrom Way. Not only is it a beautiful story on the family, and how they build such a stand-up, incredibly company in the fashion industry, but truly how they put customers first. I pick it up from time to time when I am challenged on how/what I am doing and why. It is hard to train employees to put customers first when trust me, some can be very very difficult, but that the cost to the company to be truly customer-centric is not that big of a cost at all. It is with this book, I can sometimes say to myself, especially when faced with a difficult challenge or a very upset customer, I say to myself, “What would the Nordstrom’s do?” And I know with that knowledge we will give them the best experience we are capable of delivering.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would end the overuse and destructive marketing surrounding the “pink ribbon” and focus those millions upon millions of dollars on research of Stage IV Breast Cancer. Metastatic breast cancer is the ONLY breast cancer that kills, yet is the most underfunded and underrepresented topic in the cancer community. Why? Because death doesn’t sell. It’s scary, and not a topic you can spill onto billboards with happy, smiling, beautiful people jumping around in pink tutu’s about. This is hard to hear, but it is why I advocate so hard for this topic to make it into the light. As a young breast cancer patient myself, I have been to more funerals and lost more friends than I can count. We have lost dozens of AnaOno models to breast cancer. This must change, it is the only way to eradicate the death we face in this community and to take this disease seriously. I will smile. Celebrate. And jump up and down in a pink tutu the second we convert breast cancer to a chronic illness over a life-threatening one.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

She Believe She Could So She Did. From my experience and the many that have been shared with me before, so many of us (women) give up before we ever even have the chance to start. Just believe in yourself. There is no mountain too high. You determine your success, others don’t get to do that for you. You have to give yourself a shot, what’s the worst that happens? You fail. Great. You tried and you learned, you grew, and you get to come back stronger. We only get one shot at this lift, leave it feeling proud of every moment you can.

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