Interview conducted by Chanèle McFarlane
Photography by Keidi Janz

MJ DeCoteau is not just someone who was handed a lemon and then made your regular ol’ lemonade. Instead, she made her own flavour of pink lemonade and it continues to make a difference in the lives of young women, not only here in Toronto, but worldwide.

After the loss of an immediate family member, naturally, MJ began to search for ways to get involved but there was just one problem - existing materials and the breast cancer movement, in general, were pretty dated and seemed to only target an older demographic. That’s when the lightbulb went off.

Today, she’s the Founder and Executive Director of Rethink Breast Cancer, a first-of-its-kind breast cancer movement for young women. For the last 17 years, MJ has been leading the charge in educating and empowering young women to make informed decisions about their lives and their loved ones. Through events and the most buzz-worthy campaigns, they continue to successfully get people to stop, pay attention and Give-a-Care, earning over 80+ awards and millions of media and social impressions. All that being said, we have a feeling this is only the beginning for Rethink Breast Cancer and we can’t wait to see what’s next.

Here’s MJ’s story on finding purpose after loss, building a unique charity from the ground up and why she’s committed to creating bold and innovative work:

Tell us about a time that life handed you lemons. Did you make lemonade? 

My mom died of breast cancer when I was 22. We were very close and even so many years later, it sometimes doesn’t seem real. She was a survivor for a few years but when it came back, it came back with a vengeance and she died in 7 months despite aggressive treatment. My grandmother also had breast cancer a few years before my mom. She survived it. Losing my mom made me consider my own risk and also made me want to get involved in supporting the breast cancer cause. At the time, most of the education pamphlets had senior citizens on the cover and drab medical diagrams inside. They were kind of scary. The events and items you could wear or buy to show your support for breast cancer also catered to someone in their 60s. I couldn’t relate even though I was seeking information and involvement. Rethink Breast Cancer was my lemonade - my pink lemonade!

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Describe your ideal work environment to get sh*t done.

Our busiest months at Rethink are September and October. They are pretty frantic actually. But, I find I get an incredible amount of sh*t done those months. I guess that means I like a fast-paced, bustling, upbeat work environment where there are tons of urgent deadlines for really bold, ground-breaking, meaningful yet diverse projects and everyone on a small but super smart team is collaborating to make it all happen. A warm but modern space with lots of natural light is important too.

After that first year, how did you scale your business and continue to grow?

We weren’t set up as a typical charity development office with a donor records clerk and direct mail appeals. From the get go, we were a movement with high energy events and cool campaigns, like our Fashion Targets T-shirt campaign. Our marketing budget was nil so we relied on the work itself and our unique approach to promote ourselves. Rethink landed on the cover of Marketing Magazine twice in our second year including being recognized as one of the top 10 marketers that mattered (along with Tim Horton’s and Canadian Tire). I’m proud that so many years in (17 and counting!) we continue to produce award-winning projects—from a documentary film to our Give a Care product line—that get a lot of attention and expand our reach.

How do you measure success in your career?

I’ve never been one to think much about my “career” or career growth. I love what I do and I love what Rethink is able to do in the world. Rethink’s success is what matters to me. I have a vision for Rethink to continue to grow but my commitment is to put out creative, innovative, thoughtful and inspiring work. I’m a little more quality over quantity…even though we do a lot and I want us to raise more money, of course!

“I’ve never been one to think much about my “career” or career growth. I love what I do and I love what Rethink is able to do in the world. Rethink’s success is what matters to me.”

How much of your success as an entrepreneur has come from taking risks versus playing it safe?

Almost all of my success has come from taking risks. Starting Rethink Breast Cancer was a risk. That said, I didn’t see it as a risk at the time. I saw a problem to be solved. I saw an opportunity for a new breed of breast cancer charity. I got excited. I didn’t spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons or risks and rewards. I was young, optimistic and had nothing to lose when I started Rethink. As we’ve grown and I have staff depending on Rethink’s financial success and we have partners and donors investing in our success, not to mention a whole host of women who we serve, I definitely agonize a bit more over decisions that involve risk. I try to remember that our name is Rethink and we’re bold and disruptive and that’s why people want to be involved.

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You're 30 minutes away from walking into an important meeting. What do you do to get yourself in the right headspace?

Depends on the day. I like when the important meetings are in the morning so I’m nice and fresh. If the day has been kind of hectic and I’ve been pulled in a lot of directions, I will step away from my desk and grab a tea or coffee, sit down with my notebook and put a few key points down on paper to kind of reset and prepare. Sometimes I need to review a briefing note if it’s a Government meeting. I’m usually not heading in to important meetings alone so often I’ll regroup with who ever is joining me and quickly review our plan. I like to be early. I like to be prepared. I don’t like to keep people waiting if they are coming to see me.   

Was there ever a moment that you questioned your decision to become an entrepreneur? How did you overcome it?

That’s actually a hard question because I honestly can’t picture not having started Rethink Breast Cancer. But there have definitely been really tough phases like the decision to change our program delivery to fit our digital-first approach. Face time with our community is important to us and we had to figure out how to do it efficiently for everyone. Looking back, it was the right move and thankfully, it paid off for us.

What do you love most about yourself?

My happiness baseline is high and I am mostly in a good mood with a positive outlook on situations.

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