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Vital Voices is sad to share the passing of Mary Shnack, a longtime friend and consultant, after her battle with cancer. Melysa Sperber, director of our human rights program, and former colleague Zoe Dean-Smith share their reflections on Mary’s life and work. 

Capturing Mary Schnack is an impossibility, not only because she moved quickly. She lived life to its fullest, and then some.

Mary excelled in communicating – she was a master of words, both spoken and written. As we struggle to string together those words that best honor her, we remind ourselves to choose words thoughtfully, to believe in ourselves, and to speak with determination – qualities she steadfastly demonstrated.

Mary lived and enlivened. Each time she traveled, she carried two bags: one of her belongings, and another full of medical supplies that she donated to a hospital, clinic or charity in need. She cared little about acknowledgement, and most about connection and compassion. In India, Palestine, Argentina, and her beloved Kenya, she worked for, with, and through Vital Voices to touch and inspire women and girls by strengthening their voices and building their self-confidence.

Mary exuded passion. Her energy was magnetic, and those close to her for only an hour, for a few days, or (for the fortunate) for a lifetime, felt it directly and deeply. She was uncompromising in her belief that each person, particularly young women, has the power to determine her course, to pursue her own passion no matter the size, width, or magnitude of the obstacles that may have presented themselves.

Laughter was a staple in Mary’s life. She embraced fun, and she found humor even in stark circumstances. Whether spending eight hours getting her hair braided by budding young Kenyan entrepreneurs, delivering marketing sessions to hundreds of women leaders applauding her for more, or growing women’s enterprises by importing handcrafts from around the world, Mary found joy in every moment because she was sharing it with others.

Mary defied odds. She challenged the cancer that took her life, beating it back seven times with grace and humility. As she sought – and found – opportunity and enrichment in every corner of the globe, few knew the heavy burden she carried and the strength she mustered to overcome the the battle her body waged against a disease she defiantly refused to adjust her life around.

Mary was a survivor. I cannot think of a word that better captures her. 

Melysa Sperber


When I met Mary, at the Pan African Women Invent and Innovate Conference in Ghana in 2005, I was blown away by her pragmatic approach to marketing and the tools she very graciously shared with her audience on how each of us could put our respective organisations on the global map in terms of visibility, through proactive communication. I went home to Swaziland after the conference armed with a new toolkit of small and easy steps which did in fact begin to transform the marketing strategy of our business. We consciously began to publicly celebrate our successes and share our stories. Mary’s guidance in this respect is something that I continue to share with the many businesswomen and SME leaders that I have the privilege of working with.

Zoe Dean-Smith, Social Entrepreneur and Program Manager of The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation


For more information about Mary, visit her website: Mary Schnack and Associates