Month: July 2014

Penny Alsop

Penny Alsop

Penny Alsop is an ordained Buddhist chaplain in the Zen Peacemaker and Prajna Mountain order. She studied with and was ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax at the Upaya Zen Center. She received Jukai and the name, Inzan, Hidden Mountain, from Roshi Halifax. Previously she took refuge vows with Pema Chodron and Bodhisattva vows with Khandro Rinpoche. Both gave her the name, Nyingje Sheltri, Compassion Crystal Sword. A profoundly grateful mother to Sophia Grace Alsop and proud native Floridian who embraces her Southern heritage, she has had incarnations in this life time as a llama wrangler, back-country guide, ski instructor, urban gardener, small business owner and nonprofit founder. She volunteered as a meditation instructor with FCI, Tallahassee, a women’s federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida for twelve years. She is a Hospice volunteer and partners with Bella, also a Hospice volunteer and gracious, ninety pound, black Labradoodle. Penny is currently working in southeast Florida with a nonprofit organization whose mission it is to provide behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, to individuals with no other resources to secure these services. Penny remains committed to finding ways to help the ease the rigors of transition from prison for formerly incarcerated women and to assist in the mighty effort it takes to find employment, housing and the will to keep trying.

Q: Some of your work has included a Zen Chaplaincy and work with Hospice and inmates with a women’s federal prison. What motivates you?

PA: I would say that I have a strong motivation as a human being who is grateful for her life and secondarily, as a contemplative. From this foundation, many different permutations of being of service have arisen. Some of these forms seem more important than others; helping to ensure that low-income individuals and families have enough to eat seems more important than my commitment to be friendly at work, for instance.

In actuality, I think that everything we each do matters very much. That I have been inspired and have responded to the call to offer myself as a chaplain, a meditation instructor to incarcerated individuals, and to be with the dying for instance, is not any more important than the countless ways we all have easy access to the words, actions and thoughts that when tended to properly, result in our doing good, doing good for others and ceasing to cause harm.

These three things are what is called the pure precepts which members of the Zen Peacemaker Order maintain; but I think that everyone, regardless of their traditions, are fundamentally motivated in this way. We all recognize, on some level, the need to be engaged with our world and each other. We all have a call to respond. If we are fortunate enough to hear that imperative and if the conditions of our life allow, it is our responsibility to each other to put things in motion to be of service and to help to alleviate the suffering of others, including animals. I think that most of us to do respond though it may not be obvious or sexy.

Q: You founded the Damayan Garden Project? How do you feel when you are gardening? How do you feel about the growth of the 501(c)(3)?

PA: This question is a little sad for me to answer because of late, I have not been able to garden. Though just recently, I was at home for a change. I’m often away. The weather was extraordinarily beautiful. It was even cool, which is unheard of in Tallahassee in July. I spent an entire day just piddling in the yard; mowing, trimming, making little water fountains for the birds, creating rock borders and such. At one point, I couldn’t get the weed eater started so I used hand clippers and for about an hour, I trimmed the lawn with those clippers. I remembered being in India and seeing women do this kind of thing with scissors! I didn’t go that far, but if you’d seen me, as I’m sure several of my neighbors did, you might have thought I was taking attention to detail a bit too far.

Being outside with plants, water, sky and dirt between my toes and under my fingernails is pure joy. When I was able to help create gardens for folks and especially when I saw the delight that comes from tending to the production of food that often times can be shared with others; well, there’s little that compares to that kind of happiness for me and it seems, having been a part of the construction and maintenance of hundreds of personal, school and community gardens, many others.

Damayan is the nonprofit organization that I founded in 1990 to help alleviate food insecurity in the low-income population of counties in and near Tallahassee, Fl. That it is still going strong, is a testament to how important, necessary and utterly fulfilling it is to be a part of community gardening. I’m especially interested in urban farms these days. It’s a perspective that is particularly meaningful to those who are in food deserts.

Damayan is still doing very good work. Of course, that makes me happy and mostly, I am grateful for all the effort of so many people who have ensured that those who need this assistance or who would otherwise benefit, are receiving this help and that those who are offering that help, get to do that. It’s a good thing, all around.

Q: You wrote: “I do this work because it’s needed. That’s the easy part to see. What’s harder is saying I can do it. I will do it. Then you start.” What have you started lately?

PA: Ha, ha, I have to laugh at this question! For many years, I lived in a state of “starting.” I’ve started all manner of things, including a llama farm (one the more fun things I’ve done). That’s one of my strengths, getting things going. It’s been harder for me to keep up with the maintenance of a project that has come to fruition than it is to pull something together out of nothing, or out of chaos. After some years of great personal upheaval and the ensuing grief, I was unceremoniously thrust into conditions where I had little choice but to take a more measured approach to the whirlwind of ideas that constantly float through my mind. I’d had to manage my depleted energy, in other words.

Right now I am working with a nonprofit organization, which is in its infancy, so it is a start up of sorts but not of my doing. I was lucky enough to be asked to help get it up and running. The Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network is responsible for managing a multimillion dollar contract with the state of Florida to ensure that behavioral health services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, are available to citizens in five counties in southeast Florida who have no means or resources of their own to get this assistance. I’m removed from the direct services but have been instrumental in building the infrastructure. Fun. Hard. Good.

What’s brewing in mind for my next effort involves the manifestation of my Buddhist chaplaincy in a very tangible, hands on way and it includes, at least, these things: abandoned animals, eggs, coffee, construction, chickens, bread, business, bees, honey, art, gardening, tiny houses and formerly incarcerated women. We’ll see how all that comes together, soon. Likely, though there’s no guarantee, what comes into being will be the basis for how I live the rest of my life.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

PA: Oh, gosh, I have so many earlier versions to choose from! Here’s one that may be helpful to recall. It’s the version that misunderstood that I had to work very hard to be kind. Turns out, if one brings rigidity to the practice of kindness, it produces the opposite, which is a type of aggression and in my case, it manifested as distance from others. Ouch, that hurts to say.

I have a much more relaxed view of how to be kind as a result of observing how I held too tightly to an image and lost the actual experience of connecting with others, right where they were. I think it’s important to be on one’s toes, attentive and aware, of course, and, I think that this can be done with some relaxation. Naturally, then there’s the danger of getting too relaxed, at least this is true for me. I can get a bit lazy.

Fundamentally, my practice is about being on the razor’s edge between not too tight and not too loose, as our Buddhist teachers often remind us. In my life, trying too hard, even to be kind, has not been beneficial.

So I would say, dear Penny, maintain your practice with a sense of relaxation and humor. I would also remind that version of Penny (and the current version which has already changed since I first started responding to these questions), that though life is short and death is sure, there’s time.

Q: Life is beauty and pain. Tell me about pain in your life.

PA: Oh, good gracious. You’re really digging in deep here, aren’t you! First, I must say, that pain and painless are states of mind; both very real and maybe not so real. So right off, I encourage anyone who may be reading this to consider that as a possibility.

I have a very intimate relationship with pain; some at the most excruciating degree that a western, middle class (though I grew up poor) woman can experience. I won’t go into the details of all that but I will say this about what I have learned about pain and its close neighbor, painless. Right around the corner of pain is painless; and vice versa. One does not exist without the other, and as I’ve said, these are fundamentally states of mind.

The greatest benefit I have derived from this particular journey is the realization that without a judgment of an experience, there is just an experience. More pointedly, I have found, that it is wholly possible, presuming that one has enough to eat, is fundamentally safe from outright harm and has clothing and shelter, however meager, to let both work on one’s mind and heart as a mode of transformation and insight.

To use the more common vernacular, painless isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Though, without deep stretches of painless states, one will be debilitated and unable to work with one’s circumstances. Additionally, if one’s basic needs are not being met, working with pain isn’t very possible. Which is one reason why it is crucially important for us all to be actively involved in any way that we possibly can to be of service to others where these fundamental needs are not being met.

I have had the great, good fortune to have worked closely with some eminent Buddhist teachers. Pema Chodron is one with whom I have spent time. Pema is responsible for giving me the practices, encouragement, support and sense of humor needed to work with pain. What I mean when I say, “work with” is that I have benefitted from approaching, rather than distancing myself from pain; getting to know the feelings, thoughts and judgments that accompany this very visceral experience. This is no easy task and it can, in my opinion, be dangerous if the proper view and requisite support isn’t in place, if the pain is excruciating. Still, I would say, go for it. These painful places are chock full of gems I would likely not have found anywhere else. I imagine that the same is true for most of us.

Q: What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?

PA: Thank you for this opportunity to be part of your project and thank you for what you’re doing. I appreciate the time, effort and curiosity that it takes to do create and maintain your site.

I love Madeline Albright’s quote that, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Her message is sucker punch to the gut of complacency and distancing from the fact that we need each other and women, in particular, should develop a sense of responsibility to one another.

So I would say that there’s nothing so important about me, it’s a “we” thing. We cannot separate ourselves from each other, try as we might out of a misperception that we are disconnected from one another and thus we erroneously think we must maintain that distance.

I would say that what I have to offer is the encouragement to dive into your life, with all its grimy, loveliness and get to know things as they are, with the people, plants and animals with whom you are in contact. Don’t turn away. Let your experience touch your heart in such a way that a tear comes to eye. Find the people, places and situations that allow you to dig deep; those who offer, without a repayment plan, solace and infusion of energy and very importantly, joy!

Pema, my root teacher in the Buddhist tradition, once said to me, “Penny, get in there and work with people. Get your hands dirty.” I would like to end on that note with the same encouragement to you.

Dede Henley

Dede Henley

Photo credit: Ingrid Pape-Sheldon Photography,

Dede Henley has been in the field of leadership development since 1982. She brings breadth and depth as a designer, consultant, and executive coach at Henley Leadership. She is dedicated to calling forth the highest and best from her clients, their leadership teams, and their employees. Dede provides coaching that enables her clients to translate their vision into action, align personal and organizational values, increase employee loyalty and commitment, manage change, support emerging leaders, and create organizations that thrive. As a course designer, she has assisted in the creation of three internal corporate universities. She designs unique experiences for leaders to open their minds and hearts, enabling them to step into lasting and profound change.

Dede has authored numerous published articles on coaching and leadership development and has spoken on leadership internationally. Her book, The Secret of Sovereignty, earned her the honor of being named one of 100 Top Thought Leaders by Warren Bennis and Leadership Excellence in 2007 and 2008. Dede holds a Masters degree in Organization Development from Pepperdine University and has served as adjunct faculty member at Pepperdine. She is the mother of three and second-mom to three more. Dede and her husband live in Seattle.

Dede has been a champion for having more women in positions of leadership for the past 20 or so years.  In her words, “I care very much that intuition, creativity, compassion and collaboration are a big part of the workplace of the future.”

Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible.  What do people see in you that is incredible?

DH: Well, it was my beloved nephew, so he may be biased!  I know I have come through many adversities with my optimism still intact.  I have been willing to grow and learn as a leader, a woman, a mom, and a friend all of my life.  I have cultivated a 10 year business partnership with a woman named Carol Zizzo.  She and I are close friends and our partnership has helped me to grow up in many ways.  She has taught me about loyalty and staying, even when I didn’t want to.

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

DH: I would say not to fret so much – it will all turn out. You will find someone who loves you dearly and will take very good care of you.  You will do work that you love.  You will live in a house you love in a city you love.   Don’t waste a bunch of time trying to have a clean house so that your mother will approve.  Love your beautiful body – it is strong and will serve you for years to come.  Stop worrying about those extra five pounds and your belly.  Live life one day at a time and enjoy the ride.  Travel less for work so you can spend more time with your children, especially Carly, who won’t be with you after she turns 20.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

DH: Cultivate a remarkable relationship with my now adult children.  They are my favorite people to be with. I am also proud of the work I’ve done.  The way I’ve contributed to people’s lives being better, richer, fuller.

Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.

DH: My 20 year old daughter took her own life.  There is no greater pain for a mother than the death of a child, and a suicide is devastating.  Her death shattered me.  I have found my way back now to life and have put together my heart and mind in a way that has made me a better, more real person.  I am somewhat fearless as the worst that could happen, already has.  This serves me in a thousand ways.

Kelly Rozick

Kelly Rozick_iw

Kelly Rozick is the Chief Marketing Officer for Tower Marketing, a Lancaster PA digital marketing agency and the mom of two kids, a 4-year-old and an 8-month-old. She put herself through college; it took 10 years, but she worked her way up the ‘corporate ladder’ to do what she loves! Kelly’s lives by the advice her dad gave her as a child: “do what you love and you will succeed.” Besides her full-time work, Kelly blogs for Fig Magazine and is involved in helping to develop a local support group for those suffering with eating disorders (the only group within a 50-100 mile radius!). Kelly says, “I suffered for over 10 years and it’s a daily struggle, but I’ve work very hard to recover and now I want to help others do the same.”

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

KR: Don’t be afraid to be you. I spent half of my life trying to be what others wanted me to be just to fit in. I didn’t realize the hurt and damage it does to your own true self. It took a lot of hard work and courage to get to where I am today and I’ll never go back. The funny thing is that as soon as I started being authentic and the ‘real’ version of myself, that is when my path to success began!

Q: What is the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

KR: Wow, this is a hard one… having my two children is obviously the most rewarding. They light up my life every single day – what’s more rewarding than that! The other thing I’d like to mention is my faith and belief in others and their abilities. My job as CMO at Tower Marketing is very fast-paced and demanding at times. Managing a team is not easy, but by choosing to be a leader and not just a boss, I have seen amazing and rewarding results. By mentoring my team, I’ve witnessed not only their individual success, but in turn, the company overall. It is extremely rewarding to see others grow into a higher version of themselves – knowing I had a hand in it.

Q: Life is beauty and pain.  Tell me about pain in your life.

KR: I’ve had many pains in my life, as do most, but one overall pain that I know will not go away in my lifetime, is the devastation created by true evil and ignorance in other human beings. I’ve always been very sensitive in this area – I believe it is a trait in many others who have suffered from major depression, as I have. I remember being incredibly disappointed and sadden by the un-kind acts of others. I used to think, “How can we treat other human beings with such disrespect and hatred.” I was brought up to love unconditionally, to forgive, and to treat others as you’d like to be treated. I am sad to see these traits in people today fading, and worry often for my children.

Besides depression, the other pain I’ve experienced is battling with an eating disorder for over 15 years of my life. I won’t go into the details of this pain, but I will share that when you experience a disorder like this, it makes you dead inside. You become something like a walking zombie – just going through the motions of life, numb, broken, and invisible. I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful support network of family and friends to help me recover. After coming out of my eating disorder and having a second chance at life, I wanted to experience everything. I was not only starving myself of food, but of life, and the positive side of the disorder is the zest I now have for living and not being afraid to try new things and meet different people. I am alive, I am free… and it feels beautiful!

Q: How has your struggle with eating disorders changed how you look at life/look at other people? Tell me more about the support group that you are starting.

KR: It’s changed how I look at others in a way that even when people are smiling or happy, they really might be struggling or in pain on the inside. It taught me not to judge a book by its cover. It taught me that I wasn’t the only one suffering from something so terrible. I can’t speak for others, but for me personally my eating disorder made me a very selfish person. All I did was think about food and myself all day, and how I would avoid situations, or people. I would think, “I need to fit in at least 3 rounds of exercise today before I can eat a few cheerios.” Or, “How can I trick people into thinking I’m not hungry when I look like a skeleton.” These types of thoughts filled my head 24/7 – so there was really no room for thoughts of anyone else, except for myself. Sad, but true. My disorder changed how I look at life in a major way. I used to think that we were put on this earth to suffer and it was some cruel punishment of a higher power. However, once I began to recover, I realized that life is full of opportunities! I realized that life has ups and downs, but it’s the same for us all and in order to survive and thrive, we need to accept it – even in the down times. I learned how precious life is and how important my family was to me and how I wasted so much time not showing how much I appreciated them. I learned that life is an experience and if you’re not experiencing anything and just doing the same old boring thing everyday because you’re too afraid of what will happen; you aren’t living and might as well be dead. I read once where someone compared having an eating disorder to committing a slow suicide. This has stuck with me for several years, because it is so true. I was killing myself everyday I let pass-by in my disordered behaviors and thinking. Just so I’m clear, eating disorders are not just a choice where you decide to start and stop. It is a disorder that needs professional treatment and care. So, although suicide is a choice made by an individual – it’s not just a choice. There is a whole lot more behind it.

Which brings me to your next question… the eating disorder support group. So, I began taking yoga about 6 months ago and I love it! Since I’ve been practicing I’ve met some really amazing people, doing really amazing things. One of my yogi friends, Julie, she’s actually an instructor there, I connected with immediately. We have an eating disorder history in common. As our friendship developed, I realized that I had a duty to help others suffering from this terrible evil. Julie told me how she was having some people over to her home to try and begin a support group, but that it was time consuming and that she would love some help with getting it going. I immediately jumped at the opportunity to offer my help and I’m so glad I did. Our group is the only eating disorder support group in the Central Pennsylvania area. We’ve had people come from as far as Delaware and Philadelphia. We don’t have a packed house yet, but we’re working to spread the word and hoping to comfort those in need by sharing our own experiences and working together to stay strong and experience life. We do have a new, neutral location for our group as of a few weeks ago, and we are gaining new visitors each week. We also started our own facebook page, which has over 200 likes. Even if we never pack the house, helping just a few would make it worth our effort and time.

Q:  What question did I miss?  What else should I know about you?

KR: I laughed out loud when I read this question, because my boss always tells me that I should write a book about my life adventures. Needless to say, there are many things I’ve experienced, but one thing is for sure, I’ve had a lot of jobs! From my high-school summer job harnessing a part for air conditioning units 8 hours a day, to commercial real estate, to biology teacher’s assistant – you name it, I’ve probably done it. I have to say that I’m glad that I was able to experience so many different industries and work with so many different people. It’s been a very educational experience, but one that has definitely helped get me where I am today.

Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible.  What do people see in you that is incredible?

KR: I believe more than anything my loyalty to others. Loyalty is one of my greatest traits, and one that I’m very proud of. When I believe in someone and invest my time in a relationship, I’m in it for the long haul – through thick and thin.

Q: How did you hear about Interviews W/ Incredible Women?

KR: Well, I have seen a few people I know from the studio where I practice yoga, on some of your interviews and was curious. I by no means think I’m super incredible, but I’m working on improving my self esteem and confidence and I thought this might help me learn more about myself, actually. As I’m sure you are aware, women have a hard time realizing how amazing they are and what incredible creatures we all are. I would just love the opportunity to help you spread your message, from one woman who has struggled with lack of confidence all her life to who I am now – I’ d love to share the message to other women that success and self worth are totally possible!

Ellie Gompert Burke

Ellie Burke

Ellie Gompert Burke is the co-founder of…Stretch Your Limits, a nonprofit that helps children from all socioeconomic backgrounds foster self-awareness through low- and no-cost instruction in yoga and meditation. Ellie is also a yoga instructor at Ellie Burke Yoga. I loved working with Ellie because of her down-to-earth approach and her way with words. Besides teaching yoga and running a nonprofit, Ellie has toddler twins. She embodies these words from Maya Angelou, “let nothing dim what shines from within.”

Q: As the co-founder of, what have you learned from running a non-profit? What keeps you going? What impact do you see from the incredible work that you tirelessly do?

EB: In order to run a nonprofit, you really have to believe in the mission and love the work. Although YoKid has been around for 8+ years, we are still very much in the start-up/growing phase with one full-time and one part-time staff doing everything that it takes to keep an organization up and running. As the Director of Teacher Training, I am somewhat removed from the day-to-day programs that we run. But I am fortunate to know, firsthand, about the impact of yoga and the benefits that it offers practitioners, so I never question the value of the work. We also get feedback regularly from students, parents, and teachers praising the work, which is helpful! We hear about kids connecting with themselves and with an inner stability and strength for the first time in their lives. We hear about kids developing tools to reduce stress and increase peace in their lives. We hear about kids feeling whole and complete and connected. All of that fuels our work.

Q: You’ve taught yoga for 11 years. What is it about yoga that keeps you so engaged? What do people need to know about this practice? What does yoga mean to you?

EB: You know, it’s interesting. Teaching has its ups and downs, its moments of deep engagement and passion and moments of ‘just-getting-by.’ I’ve recently sort of come out of a less-inspired period that was really influenced by my own questioning of the practice of yoga. I have been questioning why we do this practice, what it’s really about. Are teachers even teaching yoga any more? Are students practicing yoga or are we just making shapes with our bodies?

But, teaching, just like the practice itself (and just like life itself), requires that you keep showing up. Arrive right where you are and stay in the experience. So, even when I was feeling more skeptical and less convinced about yoga, I’d show up and see the powerful impact that the practice was having in the lives of my students. And I’d think to myself, there has to be something there. And now, of course and because it always does, yoga is impacting my life in new and profound ways. Yoga is experiencing your innate connection to life so, in essence, it never comes and goes or has ups and downs – only our minds do that. When I remember and experience this that I am re-inspired.

Q: Where do you find bliss?

EB: In the moments. If I really pause and just hover in the moment, I find that the bliss is right there. I know that sounds really simple and, perhaps a little cliché, but I really, really have found it to be true. Trying to get into the moment can be full of effort but when you arrive in the movement it is effortless, struggle-less, bliss.

Q: What is your message for the world? What do you wish you knew when you were younger?

EB: I would have loved to know that everything works out okay…even better than okay. That I would connect with amazing people, that I would be loved and accepted for who I am, that I would grow and learn more about myself than I ever thought possible and that I would be capable of doing anything I chose to do. All of that would have been really helpful to know and understand when was younger.

My message for the world is, be curious, allow life to move through you and around you, and when in doubt, connect more.

Maimah Karmo

Maimah Karmo

Maimah Karmo is a remarkable woman. Eight years ago, her life was torn apart by a diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer. She had a beautiful three-year old daughter and her entire life in front of her — or so she thought. With the words, “You have breast cancer” everything Maimah knew ceased to exist as the same. The world held a different reality.

Maimah says, “I had to learn fast. I had to adapt. I had to figure it all out — I had everything to lose, including my life. While undergoing my second round of chemotherapy I made a promise to God one night to give him my life in service. The next morning my entire life was different and Tigerlily Foundation was born. Although I was still sick, I felt stronger and bolder than I ever had. Most of all, I felt a fearlessness about life I’d never known.”

Since starting Tigerlily, Maimah has dedicated her life to helping young women around the world. She is a motivational speaker and has appeared in various media outlets, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Essence, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Redbook Women and Cancer, Cure Magazine and more. She has also been featured on Fox 5, ABC 7, CBS, the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America and numerous national radio stations. In 2009, Maimah was awarded a L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth award, among others. Maimah is an active member of other advocacy organizations. In May 2011, she was named one of Running Start’s “Women to Watch”.

Most dear to Maimah’s heart is being the mother of a beautiful 11-year-old girl, whom she adores.

Q:  You’ve been identified by someone as being incredible. What do people see in you that is incredible?

MK: I’m the worst person to ask that question, as I’m my own worst publicist. I will say that I love very deeply and give love freely. I’m open and honest; I’m vulnerable and strong. I think what people see in me is a reflection of themselves.

Q: You said that breast cancer forced you to be authentic. What does living an authentic life mean to you now? What do you hope to teach your daughter about how to live her life? What does she teach you?

MK: My daughter reflects me back to myself. As we get older, we tend to look at ourselves in terms of expectations and we are judgmental of ourselves. But my daughter looks at me with so much honesty. My friends and I were working on a vision board together, I spent hours creating it, and I said, “Noelle, come see what I did.” And she said, “I don’t get it, you already are those things that you want to be.” She reminds me to be less judgmental of myself, accept myself where I am, and to more authentic, because it is okay to be me.

Being authentic means being who you are, where you are, when you’re there. I’ve been blessed by authentic girlfriends. We are able to be our girl selves and our woman selves together – vulnerable and strong, goofy and serious, all with no judgment. It’s amazing to have friends who celebrate all of the things that you are. You’re not afraid to show up because you have people who support you in your growth.

I didn’t have a lot of girlfriends growing up, I always wanted a sister. But now I have friends and their unconditional love and support allows me to be who I am. One great thing about authentic friends is that they see things in you that you don’t see in yourself. They see your greatness and potential and it helps you to peel off layers. When you peel off all the layers everyone is pure love, everyone wants to be accepted — where they are, when they’re there, wherever they are.

Q: The Tigerlily Foundation is built to inspire, educate, and advocate for women with breast cancer. Like a tiger lily, women are always changing — blossoming or dormant, growing and evolving.  How has The Tigerlily Foundation evolved for you?  How has your life changed in unimagined ways?

MK: It’s been an amazing and incredible journey. I came to this country as a refugee when I was fifteen years old. I took a fifteen hour flight alone, built up my life, and then was diagnosed with breast cancer. My life fell apart. I’ve always been searching for who I am and what I’m supposed to be and, just when I felt like my life was together again, I got diagnosed and it all fell apart.

Oftentimes we want things and when we get them we find that we are trapped by maintaining those things. It’s like finally getting what you want, then you find you’re not happy. I had come to the United States with nothing, so for most of my life, I had worked to create stability and acquire things. When I did finally get “there”, I found that there was still something missing. So after being diagnosed I started to find ways to serve people. Breast cancer gave me a different perspective. I needed to be someone who asked questions, who stood up for others. My diagnosis was crazy, unexpected, and life changing. I couldn’t continue with my career because I felt a burning desire to work with women under 40 who were diagnosed with breast cancer.

I began the Tigerlily Foundation as a blog and offered one program where I sent bags to women who were diagnosed and undergoing treatment. I began getting calls from hospitals and organizations, and from there started speaking and adding programs, which grew into a 501c(3). Everything grew really fast. I wasn’t expecting it to grow at the rate that it did. Sometimes, I feel as if I became an accidental leader!

I saw myself as someone who would make a difference, but I never set out to be leading. In my heart of hearts, I am a homebody, quite shy and prefer to remain behind the scenes. One of the reason that Tiger Lily has grown so fast is because I’m able to be humble – I am a servant leader at the core. When I found myself on Oprah less than two years after beginning Tigerlily Foundation, it was amazing. She asked me if I had written a book – and it was painful to say “no”. However, I finally did write one. It is called “Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose Through Breast Cancer.”

Sometimes I look back because the last eight years have been a roller coaster, but it’s been fun. I’ve survived three wars, been held at gunpoint, struck by lightning, and had breast cancer and survived, so now, I just “live”. I don’t hold back. I express how I feel — I’m open and honest. There’s no way to pigeonhole me. I don’t fit into any mold.

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer, I consider this is my afterlife. I see everything with a fresh set of eyes and I jump into life. I made a decision to not tone things down and to just to show up as I am. When I live this way, it encourages others to live openly and boldly as well.

I realized that my cancer wasn’t just about my body and the awful cells that threatened to destroy it. Cancer starts to permeate our lives long before we even know it exists. It can affect our minds at youth, it permeates unhealthy relationships, it keeps us in jobs that make us miserable, it keeps us in unhealthy battles with food, weight, and body image. Life cancer can take away your peace and infiltrate your life so that you are no longer the confident, strong, fearless individual that was born into the world. So many people are afraid of cancer, as I was and to an extent still am at times, but the thing that I fear most is not living and merely existing. That is a sure and slow death.

The morning my life changed, I made a vow to live as loudly as possible. I would jump into the things that made me afraid, I would risk everything to feel, to live, and to love. Most of all, I would be fully present in life and give of myself so that others may have the incredible joy I feel every day of my life.

Q: You write that “The fearless female’s journey is not without fear it’s about leaping into the fear.” Can you tell me about a time when you leapt into fear?

MK: I would say that as Tigerlily Foundation grew, it scared me. People were seeing me as an expert or authority about breast cancer. I was so afraid of being the person that people looked as someone in such a position of authority. I had set out to help some women, and didn’t expect the outcome to be so big – and that scared me. I didn’t know that being “just me” would come with responsibility. I didn’t realize that God chose me for this and I needed to make a decision to show up and engage. Every time I show up on a stage or when people are looking at me, I feel a responsibility to fully show up, so I breathe and I show up! I get asked to speak in places that I didn’t expect, as I often am now on Capitol Hill – speaking as a breast cancer advocate. What all of this has taught me is to step into the fear, whether it’s of public speaking, or maybe saying the wrong thing in front of really smart people, or of not making the impact that I’d like to make. I focus on the present, and enjoy the moment. Being able to make a difference in the lives of others is such a humbling experience.

Besides my work, falling in love for the first time, after treatment was scary as well. When I got diagnosed, my relationship with my daughter’s father fell apart and it was so painful that when I needed someone the most they left. But it was a gift, because I learned to be so strong and I might not have found my purpose if it hadn’t happened that way. I’m so thankful for the way my life has unfolded. However, the pain of a broken heart made me keep people at arms length. I was deathly afraid of having a romantic relationship. But I met somebody who was so under the radar and before I knew it I was head over heels. It was a gift, because once I realized I was scared, I just stayed there with my fear. I meditated and worked with a reiki person. It was really powerful to choose to stay and to learn and I’ve really grown in that sense. I’m at a place where I’m ready, willing, and able to be with someone.

Q: In an interview ( you said that “The best experience for me is to live, and to give life to other people.”  How do you give life to others?

MK: You give life by living. We all do. It is the circle of life. The women that we help at Tigerlily Foundation come to the foundation because they might be scared after a breast cancer diagnosis; they might be dying or feel like they are dying. The Tiger Lily flower, in particular, the stargazer lily, our favorite, symbolizes transformation. It’s a perennial, in the fall and winter the leaves fall off, and in the spring and summer they grow. Just like the women. We work with women to help them survive and thrive and to wake up to who they are meant to be.

I often speak to women about empowerment and who they want to be in their lives. The goal is to inspire them to live their life and not to wait. I started Tigerlily when I was in treatment. I started something out of nothing and it’s grown to be something. If you are “alive” and awake, you can give life by inspiring others to survive and thrive and to be a light to others. I’ve work so hard to be present to others and to share light with others. The more we show up, the more we can help others to do so as well.

How can you be the change you wish to see in the world? You can’t just wait for someone else to do it. We have to cause something to happen!

Q: What advice would you give to an earlier version of yourself?

MK: I would say, “You’re good.”

I’m actually painfully shy, which people don’t know about me. Growing up I always wanted to be in the corner, never in the spotlight. I used to feel like a loner, but I was OK being by myself. I fit in with all kinds of groups, but didn’t belong to any of them. My father always said to me, “You don’t have to follow the crowd. He said, “do what feels right for you and people will follow you.” He taught me to learn to be who I was and to walk confidently.

I used to worry a lot about my future, but now I realize that it’s all good; it’s OK. I just tell myself: It’s OK. You’ve already won. You’re already there. If you worry about the past and the future, you’ll never enjoy the gift of the present.

Q:  What question did I miss? What else should I know about you?

MK: I’d love for readers to pick up my book: Fearless. I’d love for them to donate or join us. I also recently launched a digital magazine called Bliss Magazine. It’s all about being happy and pursuing your life’s purpose. I also gave a TED Talk last year. Thanks so much for your support!

If you’d like to learn more about Maimah, you can see some of her interviews here: