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Dana Donofree

Dana Donofree

Dana is founder of AnaOno, a business in Philadelphia that designs lingerie for breast cancer survivors.

Dana is founder of AnaOno, a business in Philadelphia that designs lingerie for breast cancer survivors.


Changing the conversation about breast cancer, one bra at a time

After being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 27, Philadelphian Dana Donofree was determined to disrupt the mastectomy bra market. Seven years after launching her company AnaOno, she talks to us about her ‘boob-inclusive’ approach to business.

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Dana Donofree began designing clothes when she was eight years old, but the path it has led her down was not one that she was expecting. Dana is the founder of AnaOno, a lingerie brand designed exclusively with breast cancer survivors in mind. Her bras, originally destined to be sold on Etsy, have instead formed the core of a thriving business.

Her entrepreneurial career began in an unorthodox way, with her own breast cancer diagnosis at the age of just 27. Following treatment, therapy, and surgeries, she was struck by how much her body had changed and how limited the selection of bras suitable for her post-surgery body was. Younger than the majority of breast cancer survivors, Dana wanted the same choice of stylish lingerie that was available to her peers.

Yet the mastectomy bra market had barely changed for forty years. “All of what’s been available in the traditional mastectomy market is just incredibly outdated and matronly, and utilitarian. When you close your eyes and think of a grandma bra, that’s a mastectomy bra.”

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No ordinary business podcast

Dana is a regular guest on Making It Work – your no-nonsense, straight-talking business podcast.

The lack of thought given to the aesthetics of traditional mastectomy bras was in sharp contrast with the conversations she was having with fellow breast cancer survivors. “What bra are you wearing?” was a question she asked a lot. “People would answer with these elaborate stories that were just attached to their life and their emotions, and their physicality, and I always wondered: why is nobody talking about this?” With a background as a fashion designer, she was ideally placed to start the conversation.

Having put together her first collection, she invited friends from the breast cancer community to come and try them on. And it was at that first, informal, focus group that she really began to see the potential of creating beautiful, feminine lingerie for breast cancer survivors on a large scale. “What I saw was that the way I was thinking about the bra — and designing the bra — was [that it could be] adapted to multiple different body types with multiple different surgery outcomes, and that was really where the fire ignited. Because I realised I wasn’t just dressing patients with breast reconstruction, I was dressing [the outcomes of] all surgery decisions.”

Armed with confidence, and committed to a “boob-inclusive” approach, she began to tackle the practical aspects of setting up a business. In addition to support from friends and family, early support came from a surprising quarter: Dana’s plastic surgeon not only encouraged her, but provided practical advice as to why different bras were needed, and what the problems were with the bras on offer in the traditional lingerie marketplace.

“I’m one of those people that, when you tell me ‘no’ I’m just going to work harder to make it a ‘yes’.”

The business professionals she encountered at this stage were less encouraging. She was constantly shot down, because her idea was considered too niche: what she had was merely a ‘lifestyle business’. Dana was not to be deterred. “I’m one of those people that, when you tell me ‘no’ I’m just going to work harder to make it a ‘yes’,” she laughs.

While still working full time as a VP of product development at a children’s accessories company, Dana threw herself into growing the business. “Every spare moment I had was dedicated to creating AnaOno, from plane rides, to taxi rides, to train rides, weekends and evenings”. In the beginning, the business was entirely self-funded with money she put aside from her salary. This was less a conscious choice, and more a reflection of the entrepreneurial landscape at the time. Dana says, “when I started AnaOno, this was not a world where people thought that if they had a great idea they should go raise money for it. You took the money in your bank account, and you launched your business.”

In the beginning, getting money into the business was her number one focus. “It didn’t matter how much time I had in my day, if I didn’t have the funding, I wasn’t going to be able to buy materials to create my products, to ship them from my factory to my studio.” But slowly, as things started to fall into place, the scale shifted, and it was time that she lacked. “And when that scale slid over, I knew I had to jump ship from my safety net, my full-time job, my lovely salary, and go straight to ground zero with the company.”

Dana launched her website in May 2014. She was the first mastectomy bra on the internet, but success didn’t immediately follow, and she didn’t quite understand why. At that stage, she “really, truly thought” that “you build it, and they will come”. She quickly realised that she needed to be more proactive, and set about promoting her brand, “reaching out to bloggers, [and] sending bras to other people who were talking about their breast cancer”.

The orders started coming in, only a trickle at first. “There were some days where I would have no sales, and I was like, oh my God, what did I just do, what did I just give up?” She also faced an early setback when an online petition asking Victoria’s Secret to stock mastectomy bras reached over 120,000 signatures. Victoria’s Secret responded, saying they were considering the petition, and for one awful moment, it looked as though AnaOno was going be crushed before it had even begun. This was the point at which Dana came closest to quitting. “I was like ‘this is it’. I literally stopped everything. I cried. I mourned the business that I never started.”

It’s thanks to Dana’s friends that the story didn’t end there. “They said, no matter what Victoria’s Secret does – even if they do this – they will never do it the way that you do it. Because you’ve been there, you’ve lived it, you understand it, and you’re a great designer. So don’t give up. And if it wasn’t for them I don’t honestly know if I would have ever started it.”

In the end, Victoria’s Secret did not move into the mastectomy bras market, saying “through our research, we have learned that fitting and selling mastectomy bras in the right way [...] a way that is beneficial to women is complicated and truly a science. As a result, we believe that the best way for us to make an impact for our customers is to continue funding cancer research." The way was clear for AnaOno to step into an unoccupied segment of the market.

Everything changed in April 2015, when NBC’s the Today Show wrote an article about AnaOno, hailing it as the lingerie line that was “bringing sexy back” to breast cancer survivors. At this stage, Dana still had sales notifications on her phone. “Every time I would get an order, my phone would go, you know, ‘buzz’, or ‘chi-ching’: it was so exciting when I would hear a ‘ding’ every few hours. And when the Today Show article hit, ‘ding, ding, ding, ding, ding’!”. People magazine was equally effusive, and suddenly Dana had no inventory left, and all her pre-order slots were full.

Since then, AnaOno has gone from strength to strength, with over a hundred thousand bras sold in more than a dozen countries. For Dana, making the lives of cancer survivors more beautiful is as tangible an achievement as the sale figures. “AnaOno really is the only line out there that’s looking at these patients differently, and empowering them to live their bodies in whatever shape, size, it comes in [...] If you have one boob, two boobs, no boobs or new boobs. This is why we’re different”

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Want to hear more from Dana?

Dana Donofree is a regular guest on Making It Work – the podcast featuring remarkable US entrepreneurs who tell it like it is.

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