Lunch with Yael Cohen

Yael Cohen | BCBusiness

Lauded continent-wide for her unapologetically named charity Fuck Cancer, Yael Cohen has a veritable carte blanche to educate people about the disease 

She clearly practices what she preaches when it comes to exercise, but Yael Cohen has somewhat overstretched herself today. Just in from one of myriad business trips criss-crossing North America, the CEO of Yael’s Indaba Charitable Initiative Society—the charity that goes by the colloquial branding handle Fuck Cancer—sits down rather awkwardly for lunch after a tough return to her five-times-a-week gym routine.

The 26-year-old is adjusting to a lifestyle regimen called the Whole Life Challenge, where participants score points for fitness and eat neither grains nor artificial ingredients. Hence, we’ve met at Aphrodite’s in Kitsilano, an organic café she feels is also “on-brand” for the website she started three years ago after her mother Diane was diagnosed with breast cancer (which she beat).

Cohen freely confesses that becoming CEO—or, as she calls herself, “chief cancer fucker”—at such a young age involved a steep learning curve. But what she lacked in experience she compensated for with a passion that’s obvious. Her answers are rapid and fluid, the mark of a person who frequently gives speeches. “It comes so quickly to me because I spend day in and day out thinking about it,” the Vancouver resident says over leek-and-lentil soup—sans bread. She also points to having an “unbelievable advisory board,” which—unsurprisingly, given the charity’s savvy harnessing of social media—includes local tech CEO stars.

With invitations to events such as the Next Generation Leadership Conference at the White House and TEDWomen, the charity and its outreach on prevention and early detection has resonated widely. To Cohen’s mind, its whiplash ascendancy in part comes down to treating it like a business. “We are responsible to our donors instead of investors, but you have to have the same systems and practices in place to be successful,” she explains. The charity has a core team of four staff, all of whom enjoy benefits, gym memberships and weekly organic food delivery from

Despite being courted by many corporations, Cohen’s careful with whom she partners: comedy-video website Funny or Die made the cut (“humour is important”), as did Women’s Health and Men’s Health. “That was the big and hard lesson to learn: what I say no to is much more powerful than what I say yes to.”

Saying yes to her brand name was much easier. Cohen never hesitated in calling her charity after the original T-shirt design she created for her mom (and now sells via “Our foundation is so emotional, visceral, authentic and raw and it was born out of these two words,” she explains, “so to call it something else didn’t seem authentic and raw.” Besides, her core audience is Generation Y. “It’s not for everybody, and that’s okay,” she says. “Businesses can get so obsessed with pleasing everybody they start diluting their core missions and values and messages and products. Nobody hates you, but nobody really loves or needs you because you’re beige or vanilla.”

And not being beige or vanilla has paid dividends, from Forbes calling her an “up and comer” to being number 38 in Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business 2012.” However, since Cohen was born in South Africa before landing in Vancouver as a grade-schooler, it’s her recent Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal that most makes her smile. It’s a Commonwealth link, Cohen believes, that means much to her parents, too. And family, as her whole charity attests, is everything.

Yael Cohen’s Favourites:

1. “I’m a chocolate girl. Mink Chocolates (863 W. Hastings St., Vancouver; in Vancouver is fantastic and have been great supporters of us. I like just about everything, but especially the hot chocolate. We’re all about balance and not depriving yourself.”

2. “I drink very rarely, but for after-work cocktails I like Moscow Mules—love the ginger beer—at The Diamond (6 Powell St., Vancouver; in Gastown. It’s a great environment with beautifully crafted drinks. It’s not, ‘Here’s some vodka and whatever else I have lying around.’ It’s a real experience.”

3. “We love Nuba (207 W. Hastings St. and three other locations; It was close to our old office in Gastown [Fuck Cancer has moved to East Vancouver]. I love the falafels, mjadra and Najib’s Special, a crispy cauliflower dish that was my saviour when I was vegan because delicious vegan is hard to find.”