Stick to your mission. It is easy to get caught up in determining what more you could do, but if you won’t be able to consistently do it well. Stick to your mission and execute with excellence.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Salazar.

Heather Salazar is the President and CEO of Pink Ribbon Girls. As a breast cancer survivor, Heather knows firsthand what many women and men really need during their cancer battle: support. Through her work with Pink Ribbon Girls, Heather makes sure individuals fighting breast and gynecological cancers are supported with healthy meals, rides to treatment, housecleaning kits and peer support and education– all at no cost to the patient, and all because no one travels this road alone. Heather graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wright State University in Communication and Social Work. Heather and her family have been featured in People magazine, on The Today Show and the Tamron Hall Show.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

When I was 14 years old, I helped start an afterschool program called Clubhouse. The program provided after-school tutoring for inner-city kids. I fell in love with them. It was the first time I realized that passion drives purpose. It was the first time I learned how important it was to show up for those counting on you. And, more than anything, I realized they were changing my life more than I was changing theirs.

In May 2002, I was 31 years old, raising my three children, all under the age of eight and finishing up my college degree. I had just reached that stage of life where I couldn’t imagine taking on more. Then, I had my first experience with breast cancer. But I was the fortunate one, it wasn’t me who was in for the battle of my life. That was 23-year-old Alexis, who I learned about through a neighbor. Alexis had stage 4 breast cancer. She had a hard life, she grew up in foster care, she had no family support, she rode to treatments on an RTA bus and — she had a newborn baby. A baby she knew she needed a home for. After three nights of tossing and turning, I finally told my husband, Steve, that I wanted to adopt baby Lexi. I begged him to meet Alexis and Lexi, and the next day we did. Within minutes, Steve was on board and five weeks later we had custody of Lexi.

We spent the next year taking Alexis to appointments, treatments and making sure Alexis and Lexi were able to spend time together. Alexis passed away at the age of 24. Watching Alexis lose her fight was incredibly difficult — no one should have to go through it alone. We adopted Lexi on February 26, 2004. It took Lexi time to adjust, but when she finally felt comfortable enough to stay with my parents, Steve and I decided to take a short trip for our anniversary. Before we left for that trip, I did my first self-breast exam — and found a lump. I wasn’t worried, I thought there was no way I would get breast cancer. This was my second run-in with breast cancer. This time, I wasn’t so lucky. Weeks later I’d discover I had developed the same aggressive breast cancer as Alexis — less than a year after Alexis’s death. Today, I’m 17 years cancer-free. I was fortunate to have an amazing support system during my recovery, but I know that not everyone is that lucky.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

  1. Authenticity: I love being real with people. My dad always says, “We all put our pants on the same way.” At our first signature event, I spent 30 minutes talking to the driver of our pink concrete truck who wished he could give more to Pink Ribbon Girls. I shared with him that the fact that he drove the truck and shared our mission was supporting Pink Ribbon Girls more than he realized. Every day he’s out telling everyone he sees about the pink truck he drives and that his truck provides over 1,000 meals.
  2. Transparency: Being transparent isn’t about being the center of attention and only celebrating yourself. It is about being honest, straight-up, and not being afraid to admit your mistakes. As Pink Ribbon Girls continues to grow, we will continue to be transparent. I remember the first time I forgot to highlight a donor at an event. I was sick over it. I called them the next day and apologized, owned the mistake, and together we came up with a solution. It was hard and uncomfortable, but so much better than making an excuse.
  3. Trust your gut: I believe in operating under the “Next Right Answer” rule. I often ask myself what is the “Next Right Answer?” that keeps us moving ahead.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

Someone I aspire to be like, Bob Goff, taught me to “Ask for what you want.” Pink Ribbon Girls would not be what it is today without our strong community, which we refer to as our Pink Ribbon Girls family. We asked them to show up for our clients battling cancer and they do in big ways. They paint their company trucks pink, buy tables at our annual gala, volunteer at numerous events throughout the year and donate money to help us provide essential services to clients and families battling breast and gynecological cancers. One moment that stands out in my mind is when I overheard a driver of one of our pink trucks tell someone that “WE provided 1,000 meals with this truck.”

I couldn’t stop smiling, he was right WE did this together. This organization allows us to be so much bigger than any one of us could be on our own. The Pink Ribbons Girls family truly exemplifies the power of WE.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Our big audacious goal is to offer Pink Ribbons Girls services nationwide, in every region within the next five years. I believe we will reach that goal. We provide tangible, much-needed services to families fighting their toughest battles. We provide FREE healthy meals for the entire family, rides to treatment, house cleaning supplies and personalized peer support. We believe no one should worry about how they will feed their family or get to treatment — the fight is hard enough without those worries! In 2021, Pink Ribbon Girls provided nearly 152,000 healthy meals, 16,000 rides to treatment and more than 1,100 housecleaning kits to breast and gynecological cancer patients and their families.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

We adopted our fourth child, a little girl, because her mother, Alexis, died of breast cancer at the age of 24. Many times, Alexis rode to and from treatment on public transportation. Can you imagine? A year and a half after she passed away, I was diagnosed with the same kind of aggressive breast cancer, only at an early stage. Alexis taught me how important it is to complete self-exams and that young people can, and do, get breast cancer. I found my lump on my first-ever self-exam. I was 31. I would have been dead before my first mammogram.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

One of my favorite quotes from a breast cancer client: “Free isn’t actually free. Someone, somewhere, is paying to help cancer patients during the hardest time of their life. A generous donor, an organization or company is behind every Pink Ribbon Girls service.”

We encourage you to read impactful client stories at:

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

Become a donor, doer, and/or door-opener. Donate money, donate time by volunteering at one of our many events, answering/returning calls in our corporate office, planning a third-party event, or spreading the word by connecting us with new sponsors and partners.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Build a strong team with a skill set complementary to your own. One of our first donors shared the best wisdom. “Heather, you are the visionary, the mover and shaker, make sure you surround yourself with people who are strong in areas you are weak.”
  2. Your board is your most powerful asset, make sure you fill your board with doers, donors, and door openers. Make sure you ask for what you want and give them clear expectations.
  3. Stick to your mission. It is easy to get caught up in determining what more you could do, but if you won’t be able to consistently do it well. Stick to your mission and execute with excellence.
  4. Raise your hand and ask for help and wisdom from the experts around you. You can reach your goals so much faster by being willing to learn and receive coaching and feedback. As one of our colleagues stated, feedback isn’t failure.
  5. Fail fast. Fail forward. Jump and be willing to take the risk. The quicker you fail, the quicker you course correct and the more people you can serve.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

One of the greatest things about leading this organization is having a great team. Hire people smarter than you and get out of their way. One of our team members came to me at the beginning of the pandemic and said, “Heather, this is our chance for Pink Ribbon Girls to step up and shine.” Over 40 percent of our clients were food insecure and now their children weren’t being fed at school. She said, what if we increase our meals from three meals per week to five meals per week for anyone who suffers from food insecurity. I was scared. Fundraisers and major gifts were canceling left and right due to the pandemic. Yet, my gut knew she was right. We decided if we were going to have to shut our doors, we were going to do it because we were doing the right thing and helping the most people. Fortunately, we never had to — it wasn’t about us, it was about them.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Let’s be honest, setbacks are hard. Growth is hard. However, I truly can’t believe how humbling it is to do this work, to be a small part of their journey and, above all, to have the gift of time.

When setbacks come and trust me they will come, I get frustrated and overwhelmed like anyone else. I pause and take a time out. After the pause, I think about our clients. As a cancer survivor myself, it is not lost on me that time isn’t guaranteed. I don’t know why some of us get to live and some of us don’t. I wish I had those answers, but I believe with all of my heart that it is our job to honor those that cancer robbed of life. We can do this by living our purpose, loving our family and making a difference. How can I let a setback stop me when we have young mothers fighting through chemotherapy and praying to see their kids go to kindergarten or graduate high school. We have important work to do.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them.

This is the easiest question! Sara Blakely, she doesn’t know it, but she is my BFF. I am sure we would be fast friends. She loves her family, prioritizes being a mom, is authentic, invests in women and making a difference and she has fun! I think about the way she lives her life and she continually impresses me. She is unorthodox and doesn’t do business like anyone else. I have been called unorthodox in the way I’ve wanted to scale and grow more than once. One of our donors said: “Pink Ribbon Girls broke the mold in non-profit organizations.” I couldn’t help but think: Yes, just like Spanx!

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Instagram (personal):@Heathernsalazar

Instagram: @Pinkribbongirls

Facebook: @Pinkribbongirls


Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.