Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2005


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Water fight

Water fight
Trish May ’75 (in Athena T-shirt) poses with staff members of a Tully’s coffee shop in Seattle.

Trish May ´75 uses water as a weapon in the battle against women´s cancers.

by Beth Luce

An overwhelming desire compels Trish Bristol May ’75 to do something most people wouldn’t have the courage for. She has made it her day job to try to extinguish the cancers that affect nearly 3 million women in the United States and will kill 66,000 this year. She uses an innovative weapon — marketing.

May left a management job at Microsoft to devote herself to fighting cancer in her own way. In the summer of 2003 she launched a non-profit company, Athena Partners, with the sole purpose of giving 100 percent of the profits to women’s cancer research. Her goal is to raise $1 million a year. In her first full year of operation she netted and donated $90,000 and was named one of four Women of Influence by the Puget Sound Business Journal. May will receive the College Medal at her 30th Reunion June 4.

That’s an amazing start for a fledgling business and a significant blow against cancer. “I’m optimistic that the money we raise can be invested wisely in innovative research that will make a difference in finding a cure,” says May.

Water under the bridge

May started working at Microsoft in 1985, probably before most of the readers of this magazine had ever heard of it. Back then, it consisted of a few hundred employees inventing ways to do business involving a new product: personal computers. “In those days software came in a plastic baggy and hung on a shelf in a computer lab and had no labeling or packaging or branding,” says May, who was director of marketing and strategic planning.

Armed with an economics degree from Connecticut College, a master’s in business administration from the University of Wisconsin and experience honing her skills as marketing manager at Golden Grain, May waded into the Microsoft adventure and helped it grow into its present-day success. In her 14 years there, she thrived on the long workdays, the adrenaline and the heady thrill of innovation. PowerPoint — a product category that didn’t exist previously — was her idea. She helped launch Windows 95 into the education market and developed an award-winning strategy for nationwide retail promotions. Every few years she took on a new product, a new market, a new challenge.

“It was one of those fast rides,” she says. “Always energetic, always challenging, but a lot of work.”

And then life slapped her with a double fistful of cold reality. Her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died shortly afterward. Three months later, only 39 years old and at the peak of her career, May learned she had breast cancer. Through a year of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, during which she continued to work, she survived and is now cancer free. But the experience caused her to make a serious course correction.

Turning adversity into an opportunity, she took a hard look at how she was spending her life. “I started to look at how to have a more healthy lifestyle and how I could make a difference for the cause that impacted me, my mother and so many others.”
May began volunteering at breast cancer events, mentoring and serving on various charitable boards. As her involvement grew, however, she began to look for her unique niche — what she could personally bring to the problem. “There were a lot of the classic charitable events, such as galas and three-day walks, already being done very well,” she says, noting she didn’t think she had much to add to those efforts. What she did have to offer were expert skills in product marketing and an understanding of how to leverage her resources.

She was impressed with Newman’s Own, the private company Paul Newman founded to sell his own secret-recipe salad dressing. Newman donates all the profits after taxes to charity. Now offering a range of food products from spaghetti sauce to lemonade, Newman’s Own contributes $12 million a year.

“I thought there was a seed of an idea there for me,” remembers May. She spent several years researching innovative cause-marketing business models, even visiting the chief operating officer of Newman’s Own at company headquarters in Westport, Conn.

Then she went shopping. Filling a couple of grocery carts with products, she took them home and laid them out on the floor, looking for something that would work for what she had in mind. There were several prerequisites: It had to be a healthful product that was purchased frequently and accessible. It couldn’t be expensive or high-end. She also considered the competition and the cost of entry into the market. “And, more important, I didn’t have a secret recipe for anything.” She didn’t want to spend a year or more coming up with a recipe for the world’s greatest spaghetti sauce.

She settled on purified water, a product category that was growing by almost 30 percent a year. She named it Athena, after the Greek goddess of war, wisdom and healing. The product sells for about the same as the competition, Dasani, bottled by Coca-cola, and Aquafina, bottled by Pepsi.

But Athena water has one thing the others do not.

“I challenged the conventional thinking — and this really turns marketing on its head,” May says. “The common wisdom would be that a product must have a ‘point of differentiation’ to compete. What I decided to do was go to the other end of the continuum and take a commodity and make the cause the sole and most important point of differentiation.” Translating for our non-economist readers: The thing that is different about this product from the customers’ point of view is that all the profits go to charity. Research shows that 80 percent of the time, people will choose a product that supports a cause over a similar product.

Water, water everywhere

Soon after capping its first bottle, Athena Partners had signed with 500 distributors in the Northwest, including Safeway, Quality Food Centers (Kroger on the East Coast) and Tully’s coffee shops. Today, among other places, it’s distributed in the cafeterias of Safeco Insurance and by many of the hospitals in Washington state. Patients who receive mammograms and chemotherapy at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance also receive a bottle.

On Mother’s Day last year the company made its first donation — $30,000 to Northwest cancer research efforts. Less than a year after launching the company, Athena had sold 1 million bottles.

More success soon followed. Last October, during national Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Athena partnered with Tully’s to sell 60,000 pink wristbands at $1 apiece, with every cent of the purchase price going to cancer research. Through the company’s web site, another 130,000 have since been sold.

Part of May’s strategy was to use the donated profits for research as a way to leverage her initial investment, a concept she took away from Microsoft. “I had some resources after leaving Microsoft. I could write one check, but I wanted to take that same money and invest it and grow it into something that would return more.” She’s very careful about choosing recipients for the donations and plans to form a medical advisory board to help make the wisest decisions.

Athena Partners is at a threshold now, May says. She’d like to take it national, but water is heavy and expensive to ship very far, so she’d need a network of bottlers and distributors across the country — and a national marketing campaign, which is not cheap.

She plans to add additional products, building on the Athena brand recognition. Although she’s not ready to divulge a new product yet, she knows it has to be something inexpensive to manufacture and transport, with a wide general appeal. “What’s important is to find an easy way that people can show their support by buying a product.”

May learned to take things to the next level as a student at Connecticut College. She says CC taught her to challenge herself, to question her reasoning and think very rigorously about how to approach and solve problems. One of her most inspirational teachers was Professor of Economics Ruby Turner Morris, who forced her to critically examine her thinking. “That kind of approach has helped me throughout my career.”

Education is a big part of May’s vision, so she included a resource guide on her web site,, for anyone who wants to learn more. The guide, developed by medical librarians, contains links to information on women’s cancer.

Rainy days

May lives in Sammamish, Wash., with her husband, Peter May. In her small and sparsely furnished three-room office in a light-industrial neighborhood of Seattle, May, 51, works with one full-time and one part-time employee and dozens of volunteers who help by packaging and selling wristbands, calling on grocery stores and handing out water and information at fundraising events.

When pressed for a reason for what she’s doing, May, who doesn’t draw a salary, says part of it is the challenge of solving the problem and part is that she desperately wants to make a significant contribution.

“I am so deeply committed to this cause. It is something I saw take my mother’s life and threaten mine. It’s channeling my fear, my anger and my passion into a way I can move forward and deal with it.”

Building a company, even a charitable 501c3 company, is difficult work. Sometimes she feels discouraged, she says, and for every success there are many failures. “But we just keep going forward. There are a lot of no’s, but you just have to take the no’s and keep going.”

Many people in May’s place would be content to do less.

And she admits that some days she asks herself why she’s doing this. “I wake up in the morning and think every day is a gift, and every day I make a choice. I could go into work, or I could stay home. And when I get to work and I get these great phone calls from people who we’re helping, or we’re getting feedback, or we’re making one more sale or we’re earning more money for the cause, it just reinforces that I made the right choice. Just knowing that I have that power to make that choice — it feels right when I do.

“I’m here, it’s great, I’m glad to be alive, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”

May talks about the everyday people who inspire her, such as the woman volunteer who has sold 700 Athena wristbands to friends and family. “That’s their way of rallying around her and supporting her, because they know it’s going to further research that may find a cure to save her or people like her,” May says. She explains with obvious pain in her voice that the woman has stage-four cancer and her prognosis is not optimistic. “That’s why I’m here,” she says, punctuating each word as if digging in for a battle. “We have got to find a cure.”

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