Q&A with Francesco Clark: A Story of Fierce Determination and Resilience
Francesco Clark’s story is one of new beginnings. Paralyzed from the neck down after a tragic night swimming pool drive, Francesco’s life took a dark turn until he found renewed purpose while on his road to recovery. As a result of his injuries, Francesco was unable to sweat, and a painful skin condition developed. With the help of his father (a doctor), they began to mix soothing lotions with botanicals until they found that they had created wonderful products that not only provided relief for Francesco, but also would do the same for others. Soon his mother and sister were sampling and bottling lotions in the kitchen, and before they knew it, a business was born. Francesco Clark’s Clark’s Botanicals is now available at Fred Segal, Saks Fifth Avenue, and other retailers and has been featured in W, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, and other publications.
As a National Ambassador for the Christopher Reeve Foundation and now the author of his own inspiring memoir Walking Papers, Francesco Clark shares his story of hope, healing, and the key ingredients to overcoming extremely difficult circumstances in life and business. I was so fortunate to speak with him and want to share his experience and inspirational outlook on life with you.
Angella Nazarian (AN): Can you tell us a bit about your journey?
Francesco Clark (FC): Ten years ago, I had my dream job as a fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar, working hand in hand with visionaries in the fashion industry. At twenty-four years old, I was celebrating my next move in my career. The last day of my work at Harper’s Bazaar, I went along with a group of friends to Long Island for Memorial Day weekend.
It was a beautiful Friday, when I accidentally dove into the shallow end of the pool and hit my chin to the bottom of the pool, and my head snapped back. I shattered my C4 vertebrae and could not move or feel anything. I was rescued and lifted by helicopter to the hospital for surgery. The doctor kept telling me that I had a thirty percent chance of survival. I did survive and was on virtual life support and could not move my body from the neck down.
From that day on, I have challenged my doctors’ grim prognosis and took charge of my recovery. My view is that I don’t have a disease but an injury, and there is a real possibility to regrow nerves in my spine. A stem cell surgery later and countless hours of therapy, I can now move my arms and wrists, feel my chest, stomach, and back, and feel the temperature in my legs. Regardless of my limited mobility, I have gone on to write a book, build a business (Clark’s Botanicals), and be an advocate for spinal cord injury by becoming the ambassador of the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
AN: What has been your proudest moment?
FC: My niece, who is four years old, recently went to the American Girl doll store in New York City, where you can also purchase clothes and accessories for dolls. She was upset that she couldn’t buy a wheelchair for her doll! To me, this was a great example of how honest and loving a child or person can be. I could feel that a four year old can be so connected and has the ability to understand that it doesn’t matter that one has a physical impairment. Love sees beyond that!
AN: Can you remember the moment when you were at your lowest point? How did you regain the hope and energy to carry on?
FC: My lowest point in my life was when I was in physical therapy seven hours a day. My days felt robotic, and my life had become one-dimensional. I can honestly say that I needed to get to that low point to want to have more in my life. Soon after, I exploded into a state of productivity and gained a new sense of awareness of who I wanted to be. I set about writing a book, establishing a business, and filling my life with things that brought a renewed sense of energy to me.
AN: If you had a message to share with everyone, what would it be?
FC: Always step outside the box and question yourself and everything in a positive way so you can grow. Define your dreams and look at what is important to you and truly go after it!
AN: Who are the people in your life who won’t let you fail?
FC: My family—parents, sister, and brother—doesn’t give me an option for failing. They have served as an extended version of my psyche when I thought I couldn’t deal with things.
When I came out of surgery right after my accident, my doctor told my family that I wouldn’t be surviving my accident past a week and would not breathe on my own or be able to move my body. My mother looked at me and said, “Francesco, move something.” I was laying in bed in ICU, and I managed to twitch my shoulder. My mom turned to the doctor and said, “Well, you don’t know my son!”
AN: What is the one characteristic that you would say defines you best?
FC: Resilience! Resilience embodies optimism, humor, and imagination, and it is with this type of spirit that I find solutions to problems that block my path.
AN: What nourishes you and gives you strength?
FC: So many things in life nourish me. I definitely find so much joy in seeing my niece and nephew grow and learn new things, such as walking, writing, or riding a bike. There is this sense of wonderment in kids that enables them to think anything is possible; I love that so much.
I have a passion for all that I do. I don’t do anything unless it holds a special significance to me. I see this kind of passion in kids on an everyday basis, and their presence really centers me.
AN: Do you have any words of advice for someone trying to heal?
FC: Don’t let anyone define who you will be. Whether you get better or not, happier or not, it has nothing to do with other people’s assessment.
AN: You have managed to build a great business, Clark’s Botanicals. What is one thing you learned through launching your product line?
FC: I realized that usually people don’t understand your idea until you prove it to them. In building a business, you have to prove yourself over and over again. It can be a fun and exciting process because, in doing so, you become more affirmed in your vision.
Building my business also has brought me a sense of purpose. Part of the proceeds of the sales of the moisturizers is earmarked for research in spinal cord injury, and it is my way of giving back.
AN: You talk about living a life that has unlimited potential. What are the steps to unlocking our potential?
FC: First and foremost, we shouldn’t worry about what others think of us.
Then, we also have to put aside our own self-limiting thoughts. We should dream about what we want, without restrictions, and work toward it. Why should some people be able to achieve their dreams and not you? I don’t believe in that thinking. I believe we all deserve the best.
AN: What is your motto?
FC: You need to do the work to reap the rewards. You need to be present in your life to be happy. Happiness just doesn’t fall into your lap.
AN: How did you become a National Ambassador for the Christopher Reeve Foundation?
FC: The day that Christopher Reeve passed away, I noticed that, all along, I had been focusing on someone else’s efforts to find a cure for spinal cord injury. I decided that I also needed to have a voice and give a voice to others.
I contacted the foundation and emailed the president, who visited me that week. I met with other directors, and they extended me a position as an ambassador a month later. The organization is a beacon of hope, and I am so honored that I get to be part of a movement that my personal hero (Christopher Reeve) had founded.
To learn more about Francesco Clark and Clark’s Botanicals, please visit: http://www.clarksbotanicals.com/
Angella Nazarian is a bestselling author and noted speaker. Both of her books Life as a Visitor and the newly released Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World have become bestsellers for the publisher and have garnered glowing reviews from Arianna Huffington, Tina Brown, Martha Stewart, and Diane von Furstenberg. To learn more about Angella, visit her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.