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"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
The proverbial saying informs Ralph Lauren's philanthropy, from the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention to his Pink Pony Campaign and various other programs he has implemented across America over the years. And just like the proverb, Lauren isn't one to just blindly sign a check for a cause. His version of helping means setting up structured programs that can help improve the cause for the long term.
Case in point: Lauren's 9,000-square-foot Cancer Care center in Harlem. It opened in 2003, two years after Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. pledged a $5 million leadership grant to support the development of such a center. The commitment came after a meeting with physician Harold Freeman, who told the designer of the problems in communities like Harlem and made his case for patient navigation — meaning trained individuals who can guide the cancer-stricken within their own communities through the medical system — at the 20-minute meeting. "He said the simple words, 'I will help you,'" Freeman recently recalled. "He was a man who meant what he said."
Oscar Cohen, who has been a friend of Lauren's since childhood, is the executive director of the Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, which was launched in 2001. He recalled how touched Lauren was by Freeman's words.
"He really isn't interested in getting his name on buildings, and doing philanthropy for the sake of philanthropy," Cohen said. "If he is not moved by a story, he is not interested in being known as a philanthropist. He is interested in wanting to give back in a meaningful and impactful manner. There has to be a story that he will get behind and support."
Cohen remembered the moment before the center's dedication, when he was walking across the street from the center to the park where the ceremony was held. "Ralph said, 'I think this is the most important thing I have ever done,'" Cohen said. "He is very moved by authenticity. Ralph is all about high standards and expectation and honesty. If it's not real, he doesn't respond."