north of neutral dialog

November 11, 2010

by anne lueneburger

Francesco Clark, President & Founder, Clark Botanicals

This summer, as I was walking past the display window of a local beauty salon, I saw the cover of a book, ‘Walking Papers’. I was intrigued to see a book amongst lingerie and make-up… The author, Francesco Clark had, I learned, been paralyzed as a result of a swimming pool injury at the age of 24. Now, 8 years later, his autobiography tells the story of the tragic accident and its consequences in a genuine and moving voice. More importantly, his story shows how Clark has succeeded in building a meaningful and fulfilling life for himself, and for others.

A few weeks ago I met with Francesco Clark, who lives in his antique-filled family home outside Manhattan. It certainly had an idyllic feel as his 91-year old Nonna greeted me in Italian and served us tea while we were getting settled for our dialog.

What he does

Francesco Clark is Founder and President of Clark Botanicals, a line of paraben-free skincare products distributed in over 90 stores worldwide. Clark is also one of a select group of ambassadors for The Christopher Reeve Foundation where he acts as an advocate for spinal cord injury research, and also dedicates parts of the proceeds from his company Clark Botanicals. As the co-chair of the Champions Committee at the Reeve Foundation, Clark regularly brings together a group of philanthropic and influential New Yorkers who help to support the foundation’s critical work through running events which have raised up to $2million.

Life before the accident

Clark was raised in Bologna, Italy, until at the age of 7 he and his family moved to the US. His father opened his own medical practice that he continues to run together with Clark’s mother, a nutritionist and phlebotomist (in addition to having a PhD in languages). The ‘sandwich child’ of an older brother and a younger sister, Clark was known as “the energy ball” in this tight-knit family. In 2000 he graduated with a major in international relations and romance languages from Johns Hopkins and, after a short stint with a consulting firm in Chicago and Mademoiselle magazine in New York, he joined the prestigious magazine Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion assistant. At the age of 24 he was leading the life of an independent young professional in Manhattan, working long hours and dedicating much of his time to his future career.

The split second that changed everything

In the summer of 2002, Francesco Clark was spending a weekend in a summer share on Long Island when a nocturnal dive into the pool’s shallow end left him paralyzed neck down. “The second I dove in, my chin hit the bottom and my head snapped back.” As he lay with his head underwater, unable to move and slowly drowning, someone noticed what was going on and pulled him out. That very first night, doctors predicted he would not survive, let alone ever breathe on his own again.

A long and painful recovery process began. After the first months of intensive care at the hospital he remembers, “My days were filled with long, dull drives to physical therapy”. Living back home again, he felt like his “life was on pause.” The medical world repeatedly told Clark to manage his expectations, accept his fate and live within the boundaries that they perceived to be realistic.

This was not the message Clark was ready to hear. He spent $35,000 converting his family home’s garage into a gym with state-of-the-art equipment on which he spent (and spends) up to five hours a day to help rebuild his motor functions. With the help of his supportive family, but also very much as the result of his own perseverance and bravery, he explored and researched innovative treatments and approaches to improving his condition. And the first results were encouraging: he was breathing on his own and able to use his hands. Stem-cell surgery in Beijing allowed him to recover more sensation in his body, leaving the skeptical medical community in awe.

Yet, while he was seeing physical progress, emotionally he continued to struggle. He had been very social and active in his past life, and attentive to his appearance, yet now he chose to lead a rather secluded life: “The first few years I was really depressed. Other than my family, I was not looking to see anybody. I wore the same shirt day in and day out, shaved my head and avoided looking into the mirror as I could not stand my own reflection.” Guilt for needing extensive support from the people he loved, and resenting his own dependency on others, made it challenging for Clark to look beyond his own personal tragedy.

Superman dies

After Hollywood legend Christopher Reeve (who had played ‘Superman’) became a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic in 1995, he dedicated the last decade of his life to launching an international movement to support those living with paralysis. As he endured and fought his own trauma, he continued to inspire others, becoming a real ‘Super Man’. Clark had been amongst his followers since 2003, when he came across an article in The New Yorker about the success of Reeve’s determination to regain sensation and movement. It had inspired Clark to “stand his ground”, to keep pushing forward with aggressive physical therapy, and to make improvements on his own.

And then, in 2005, Christopher Reeve died at the age of 52. It came as a shock to Clark:”The whole time I’d been injured, I’d had a feeling that someone had my back. What now?” Something clicked. It was the turning point as he describes, ”I knew it was time to start asking myself how can I make a difference?”

Transformation from within

Superman had died, but it looked like another one was in the making. In small steps, Clark started to reach out to his local community, extending from being an advocate for himself to becoming an advocate for others with disabilities. He gradually lost his fear of people feeling sorry for him and no longer wanted to be “invisible”. Next was his involvement with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, where he took on the responsibility of National Ambassador.

As part of his accident, Clark had not only lost his ability to walk but also to sweat, which led to clogged pores and a poor skin complexion. None of the existing creams and potions were able to solve the problem, so Clark and his father set about trials in their kitchen’s sink with the aim of developing their own skin care, which was derived from nocturnally-blooming flowers that had antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and immuno-stimulating effects. The lip balm alone took 27 tries before the two Clarks got it right. At first only for personal use, soon others tried the creams and word of its benefits spread fast.

In 2005 Clark began selling his products on his website, And today, five years later, Clark has taken significant leaps forward: Clark’s Botanicals received the Cosmetic Executive Women “Indie” Beauty Award, and it was given the Fashion Group International 2008 Rising Star Award. It is now selling at prestigious US retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Henri Bendel in New York and Fred Segal in Los Angelos, and has also started selling in select locations in Europe and Asia. The firm sees a remarkable 98% return rate for its online customers.

Clark’s inspirational story has been covered by The New York Times, was featured on PBS as part of their “This Emotional Life” series, and he is already working on his second book – a collection of short essays. Clark plans to share lessons he has learned from life and, getting to know Francesco Clark, I have no doubt that there will be some light-hearted and humorous anecdotes.

What’s changed?

When I ask Francesco Clark what has changed inside of him, he smiles. Looking at his attitude to life now, he can see that there has been a significant shift. Whereas before the accident his focus had been on the future, after the accident much of his daily energy concentrated on recovering his past. Today, however, Clark continues to look forward, and his dream is to be able to walk again one day. “My goal is to be out of my wheelchair five years from now.” This goal is much less about recapturing what he has lost, however, but rather an integral part of his belief in a future. And while he is disciplined about working-out every day for many hours, he is able to enjoy the here and now. He savors spending time with the most important people in his life: “I value more the authenticity and compassion in friendships than I used to.”

“I have always had the attitude of ‘what can be done?’, and that has sustained me over the years.” The biggest change, he shares, is that “I no longer make excuses for not having the life I want.”

Clark’s not someone who imagines his future as ‘plain vanilla’, and sees himself “living in my own apartment in the city in ten years and running a non profit organization, functioning as a resource center for people with disabilities.” He smiles as he goes on: ”And I would love to treat my family and friends to a nice vacation somewhere to thank them for all that they have done for me.”

Francesco Clark experiences, as we all do, difficult moments and days in his life. However, confirming what much research has shown, the emotional effects of a tragedy such as paralysis have been temporary. As positive psychologist Diener (1994) found: ”After a period of adaptation, people with disabilities usually report a near-normal level of wellbeing.” So, the secret of happiness is less a question of getting what you want, but more a case of wanting what you have…

One Response to “north of neutral dialog”

  1. feastonthecheap Says:

    He always inspires. Francesco is a powerful example of living in the moment while believing in the future. I am, as always, in awe of his incredible spirit…wanting what you have. Is there anything more?

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