Karie Dozer [00:00:04] I'm Karie Dozer, and this is TGen Talks. We have a special guest joining us today. Her name is Maria Fedora. And unlike most of our guests on the podcast, Maria is neither a scientist nor a clinician. She's a businesswoman from Alpharetta, Georgia, a restaurateur and founder of Purple Pansies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer research. And since 2008, she's been an avid supporter of TGen. Earlier this month, TGen held its annual Founders Dinner, which brings together supporters from around the country to hear from teaching and leadership about the latest breakthroughs and what the future of precision medicine holds during this year's event. Maria received TGen’s Collaborative Spirit Award, which recognizes an individual or organization who comes alongside TGen to help further its mission. And like most nonprofits that support research, there's a story about how it all began, and most often in whose memory. Today, we'll hear that story of Purple Pansies and so much more. Maria Fundora, welcome to TGen Talks.
Maria Fundora [00:01:13] Thank you, Carrie, for having me on. I'm just delighted to be here and extremely excited to chat with you today.
Karie Dozer [00:01:19] Let's start by talking a little bit about your background. You're a Cuban immigrant and you run a successful business and that in itself is pretty remarkable. But to those who know you, you're passionate and driven both in business and in life. How does all that evolve? How does Maria Fundora become the powerhouse woman she is today?
Maria Fundora [00:01:39] Wow. Great question. I'm an immigrant to the United States. I came to the United States when I was six years old and my parents migrated to Chicago, Illinois. So I grew up in an Italian and Polish neighborhood. Set the background for continuing to be growing up with immigrants because there were people there that were either had migrated to the United States or were first generation Americans. So had even though I'm an only child, I had an opportunity to still be surrounded by family, even though they were extended family. So the person that I am today, my father was a restauranteur and my mother was lucky enough to start working for Ma Bell in Western Electric, which she retired after 35 years of service. So I grew up in the restaurant industry, and one of the things that I would tell my mother all the time are my parents. I'm never going to marry anyone in the restaurant business and definitely not another Cuban person. And well, God looked at me twice. I majored in communications at the University of Illinois. I thought that I wanted to work in radio or I wanted to work in television. I actually had my first job out of college in 1984. I came down to work for an organization that I led the sales team in Atlanta, and that's how I got to Atlanta. I met my husband on a blind date in 1987, and we got married two months and sixteen days after we met. My husband was a restaurant tour, and he said to me, well, if we are going to see each other, we're going to have to work together. And that started my career in hospitality, and I've never looked back. Hospitality has given me the opportunity to be able to meet all kinds of people and make personal connections. And so in doing that, I've had the pleasure of meeting just amazing individuals that when my family got struck with pancreatic cancer. It planted a seed that I needed to be able to do something so other families would not go through what I went through. And that's how I started on my pancreatic journey. And the restaurant or hospitality is my place where I make contacts, where I meet people, where I find other people like myself who want to be able to support cancer, especially pancreatic cancer.
Karie Dozer [00:04:25] So you said you weren't going to be in the restaurant business, right? And you weren't going to marry a Cuban. But correct me if I'm wrong, your husband's Cuban as well.
Maria Fundora [00:04:34] Yes. That's why I said God said twice. He's he was a restauranteur and a Cuban. And so we had a lot of things in common right off the bat. One of the things that we had in common was about caring about others and doing charity work. Immediately, when we married, when our restaurants were in the Buckhead area, we were doing fundraisers for different causes where we would donate part of our proceeds or all our proceeds for the day or the week to a certain organization. So a lot of that we had in common, and both of us Purple Pansies was actually born from both our joint efforts about helping others because he saw what my mother went through and he said, we have got to do something. And that's how kind of it all started.
Karie Dozer [00:05:28] Your mom unfortunately passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2007. I believe in 2008. You held your first fundraiser on Mother's Day. Shortly thereafter, you came up with the name Purple Pansies. Tell me a little bit about how that came about and if you would tell me about your mom.
Maria Fundora [00:05:46] Oh, great question. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May of 2007 and May 21st, to be exact. She died September 6th of that year. And it was such a horrific loss for the family. My mom was the matriarch, also, of course, an immigrant to the United States. Very humble roots, very poor woman, grew up on a farm in the western side of Cuba, didn't wear shoes until she was ten years old, and she was given the opportunity to migrate here to the United States and bring myself. My dad came first in 1962. So what I saw growing up in my mother, my mother was a woman who just worked tirelessly, tirelessly and. Leslie. To be able to provide for the family. But not only that, but whatever we had, we shared with our neighbors, whether it was people that she met at work or whether there were people in our neighborhood. But as she heard from a family that didn't have enough to eat, she'd make extra. Even when she was working, or if we had extra clothes, she would donate. And that's what I saw growing up my entire life. She was an amazing woman with coming to a new country without knowing the language. Just absolutely amazing. So before we never used to open on Mother's Day, it was kind of a sacred day, kind of a cultural thing as well. And I said in 2008, I'm going to open on Mother's Day, and whatever I raise, I'm going to donate to pancreatic cancer. We raised that day 30 $500. I remember that was my first donation. I donated it to an organization, I think, out in California, and I found out that purple was the color of pancreatic cancer. And that year was kind of a harsh winter in Atlanta. A friend of mine called me and very excited, said, you know what's growing in my room right outside my door is that I have no idea. She said, a pansy. And I said, Wow. Purple pansies flower. That's resilient. A flower that grows and stays alive in the winter. I think that I'm going to call my grassroots organization Purple Pansies. And we had our first event in the summer of 2009 with that name. We were a grassroots organization. I held two events a year, our community event in the summer, and our gala, which I held in my restaurant until 2018. And it was just it was an amazing time, maybe two years into it. Kerry, I. I have a friend by the name of Howard Young. He is also in hospitality in Atlanta. And he came to me. He is a pancreatic survivor, a patient of Trent's. And he said, Have you heard about TGen? I said, I don't know what John is, and told me a little bit about it. And what I found fascinating is that that year, that event in 2010, I believe, I met Erin Massie and she was from TGen and she came out to our two-hour event. I thought, wow, this is really this organization is really grassroots. And I've never looked back on the partnership between TGen and Purple Pansies. All our research dollars have gone to Tea Gen from 2010 2011 to the present time in 2018. The last time we held that at the restaurant with having 100 seats, we raised that year to $150,000, which we were extremely proud of. Having those that amount of seats to be able to raise that kind of money. But that just shows you what hospitality can do and what food can do to bring people together. 2019 One of my supporters, a gentleman by the name of Tim Brown, became president of Kroger, the Atlanta division, and he had been to every event that I hosted since 2009. He was a great friend. Wherever he was in the country, he'd fly in for the event. And he said, I think I have an opportunity to put pancreas cancer on the national map. And he partnered with us. In 2019, we moved to another location and held our first event outside of Casa Nuova. It was just amazing that year I think that we raised $550,000 for our cause. Dr. Van Hoff came out that year. Had my own health journey. I'd gone into liver failure that year as well, and I had been put on a transplant list and I was very hopeful that I would not get a call for my new liver before the gala because I couldn't let my friend Tim Brown down, who had put his reputation on the line. And I definitely could not put let Dr. Van Hoff down either. But I got the call before the gala. And I was lucky enough that I had a very successful surgery and was able to attend the gala and say a few words that year. It was a game changer for us. Kroeger opened the doorway for purple Pansies to get into getting partnerships with larger corporations. Besides, all the individuals that I had made contact with through Casanova, as I continue to do actually right now. So pandemic year. I had a friend who said, Maria, if you can raise in a pandemic 650,000, I'll match it and I'll continue to support you and our teacher. And I said I said to Tim Brown and Jan Chalovich, who is my co-chair, I said, guess what? We've got to raise $650,000 so we can get this match and raise a million to I know it's pandemic, it's COVID, but we're going to do this. And guess what, Jerry? We did it in pandemic year and we've raised over $1,000,000 since 2020. I'm very hopeful for 2023.
Karie Dozer [00:12:37] So I seem to hear a common thread. I keep hearing about collaboration and as you know, TGen is built on collaboration and particularly since it's joined City of Hope and your funds support Dr. Von Hoff and his work in pancreatic cancer. What is it about Dr. Von Hoff and TGen and City of Hope that makes you believe that they're on the right track and deserve your support.
Maria Fundora [00:12:59] Wow. I wish that everybody on this podcast would have the opportunity to meet Dr. Daniel Von Hoff. He is an amazing gentleman who cares about the patient and cares about finding the right treatment for the patient and that for myself and collaborates with people all over the world. For me, that's a game changer. Knowing this gentleman, I had an opportunity to meet with him a couple of days ago one on one, and I feel like I've gotten a vaccine that, wow, I got to continue to raise money for and City of Hope and Dr. Van Hoff, because as you just said, Kerry, they're collaborators. They care about the patient. That is their drive. They care about new treatments. If something's not working, they're going to look elsewhere to try to make things work. And especially in the world of pancreas cancer, where before there was 1% survival rate. I'm proud to say that now there's 12% survival rate. That's huge. And I'm hopeful that in my lifetime that percentage level will continue to go up and see a cure for pancreas cancer.
Karie Dozer [00:14:17] So you received the Collaborative Spirit Award at TGen's Founders Dinner just the other night. And during the video tribute portion of that, Dr. Von Hoff said, you know, Purple Pansies has not only helped drive research, but it's brought greater awareness. How does that make you feel?
Maria Fundora [00:14:36] Well, as a human being. It makes me feel wonderful. It makes me feel that my mother's death did not go in vain. Because for myself personally, I do this every year in memory of my mother. So other families do not have to go through what my family went through. So to hear Doctor Von Hoff say that it just validates every emotion. Every breath that I take to be able to continue, to continue to be able that every person that I talk to when I'm serving a meal. Pancreas cancer will come up because they've heard about myself or they've heard about the work that we do and they want to do more. So I think that I'm in the right place hospitality to be able to get that message out because you build a bridge with people when you when they let you in their personal space and you share a meal with them. It's really personal. And all of this is extremely personal because you don't know when you're at when you're going to get impacted. So people listen, and I'm just so proud to support Dr. Van Hoff and his work and teacher and City of Hope. They're amazing.
Karie Dozer [00:15:50] So what's next for Maria? What's next for purple Pansies? Look into your crystal ball, if you will. Tell me what you see happening over the next decade.
Maria Fundora [00:15:59] I am hopeful that we will continue to raise millions of dollars for pancreas cancer because to get new treatments and standard of care, you need funding. So my goal will still be to continue to raise funding. You need more dollars to be able to do that. As far as from an awareness standpoint, I would love to be able to see a major league team or an NFL team where purple. In honor of pancreas cancer. I would love to be able to see that in my lifetime, like they do for breast cancer or even having one of them. I'm from Atlanta, of course. Delta Airlines is in my city to be able to see Delta do for pancreatic cancer what they do for breast cancer. From an awareness standpoint, I'd love to be able to see that in my lifetime.
Karie Dozer [00:16:55] Maria, thank you so much. You are awesome. Thanks so much for being here today. And best of luck with everything and the future. TGen is really, really lucky to be friends with you.
Maria Fundora [00:17:04] I appreciate being here. Thank you so much for asking me to come, Karie, God bless.
Karie Dozer [00:17:10] For more on TGen’s research, go to TGen Dot Org Slash News. The Translational Genomics Research Institute, part of City of Hope, is an Arizona based nonprofit medical research institution dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life changing results. You can find more of these podcasts at TGen dot org slash TGen Talks, Apple and Spotify and most podcast platforms. For TGen Talks. I'm Karie Dozer.