From the Corner Office: Nancy Brinker

UPDATED: August 9, 2010
PUBLISHED: August 9, 2010

Growing up, sisters Susan and Nancy Goodman did everything together. Whether running a lemonade stand during childhood or traipsing across Europe as a young adult, the younger, risk-taking Nancy looked up to big sister Suzy for sane advice and solid accolades.

In her new book, Promise Me, the now-grown Nancy relates a story. As grade-school girls, Susan and Nancy put on their first benefit, a variety show starring neighborhood children. They organized the event, sold tickets and delivered $50.14 in cash to a local hospital.

Nancy never could’ve guessed that one day she’d throw huge benefits and invest $1.5 billion in modern medicine. And she’d be doing it alone, with only one goal in mind: to defeat her sister’s killer, breast cancer.

Today, Nancy is known as Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker—she’s served as U.S. ambassador to Hungary, married food-service genius Norman Brinker, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and served on the boards of numerous businesses including Manpower Inc., Meditrust Companies, US Oncology Inc. and Caremark. She also serves as the World Health Organization’s goodwill ambassador for cancer control.

But beyond the accolades and distinguished appointments, Brinker’s finest achievement may be channeling her entrepreneurial spirit and marketing savvy into a race against time—and for a cure—as the CEO and founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Founded in 1982, the organization aims to fulfill a promise Brinker made to her sister to stop breast cancer’s ravages; Suzy Komen, a young mother, died from the disease at 36.

Her sister ’s memory is what wakes her in the morning. “She’s with me every day,” Brinker says. “I do everything in her name, because it’s what keeps me going.”

Brinker has never wilted from a challenge, whether it was her dyslexia-like learning disability or society’s fear of speaking the word breast. She drew upon her tenacity, in addition to her entrepreneurial sense, to grow Komen for the Cure from a shoebox full of potential donors’ names and $200 to the international, milliondollar organization it is today with more than 120 affiliates in the United States.

She says her parents helped foster confidence and determination, while second husband Norman Brinker, and a former boss, Neiman Marcus president Stanley Marcus, contributed to her business savvy.

Her late husband was credited with creative restaurant concepts like the salad bar, in addition to overseeing the profitable rise in restaurant chains like Bennigan’s, Burger King and Chili’s. Before his passing—and after their divorce—they stayed close friends, and he even stayed on the Komen board.

From her experience at Neiman Marcus, where she served an apprenticeship of sorts, Nancy Brinker learned how to connect shoppers with bespoke products and how to work with power customers—including Princess Grace. But she also learned “every person should be treated with the deference and respect you would show your best customer.” It was a service-based attitude that would serve her well throughout her life.

Brinker describes herself as an extroverted introvert. She can easily arrange a luncheon or award ceremony; she knows how to work a room. She’s used those networking skills with Komen, forging relationships across business, government and volunteer sectors. In 2008, Brinker was named to Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world.

But to get any big job done, Brinker requires an introvert’s silence. If she wakes in the middle of the night, she’s likely to get up and go to work, free from phone calls and distractions. “I’m very intense in my work style,” Brinker says. Once she’s on a roll, she may work for 20 hours straight.

It was in the still of the night that Brinker came up with the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in 1983. Today, it’s one of the largest international series of walk-run races, with more than 1.5 million participants worldwide, and an example of Brinker’s creative marketing ability.

“Sometimes I have to be restrained from myself,” Brinker says, laughing, about her zeal for work. But, she adds, a great leader shouldn’t expect anything from staff that she isn’t willing to inspire by example. “You need to be willing to do and give and train and inspire.”

Inspiring employees was one thing she learned from her husband. “He was the all-time champion inspirer of people. It isn’t just about what you’re trying to accomplish, but you must transfer to people the inspiration and motivation to embrace your dream.”

People who come to work at Komen don’t just show up for the coffee and donuts. “They come to change the world,” Brinker says. “People will work hard for a mission.”

Stakeholders—no matter who they are—also want to see results, just as they do in for-profit ventures. “You must demonstrate outcomes, show what you did and quantify it to the person asking, ‘What will I get from investing my time and money?’ ” Brinker says.

The Komen organization’s effectiveness, and its ability to demonstrate it, have contributed to broadening its base of support. Breast cancer, once unmentionable in polite company, now demands attention, and businesses seem eager to be aligned with Komen’s mission.

Brinker capitalized on these sentiments as she pioneered cause-related marketing. In partnering with businesses to display Komen’s signature pink ribbon on products, Brinker found a way to simultaneously raise funds while raising awareness of breast health and breast cancer. Cause-related marketing links consumers, business and the nonprofit world for a beneficial cause—through a single purchase.

“Norman [Brinker] said, ‘If you have a concept, you have to tinker with it and make it as successful as you can. Make it work. Then invite partners to do it with you,’ ” Brinker says. And partner she did, with more than 240 corporate partners in 2008-2009.

“Nobody wants to relate to an institution or brand name alone,” Brinker says. “People must relate to you personally.” She tells her sister’s story to keep her memory alive— and to put a human face on a disease suffered in private.

The pink ribbon is so powerful because it reminds donors of a human face—a mother, sister or daughter lost to cancer. The Komen Foundation’s Race for the Cure has attracted media attention and fundraising dollars, while turning the focus on the women running—and who they’re running for. The annual run signifies a personal connect ion , a promise made to a sister and several decades of promises made to communities.

Brinker continues to focus on new ways to reach more people and do more. Komen now connects with a tech-savvy generation through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. “You have to refresh yourself and reinvent yourself all the time,” she says.

That can involve taking risks or even making some missteps. “Sometimes you have to allow people to fail,” Brinker says. “People don’t always learn from success, but from failure.”

Although she admits failure can be instructive and reversible, it’s not a prospect she likes to think about with Komen’s initiatives. That’s why she relies heavily on her leadership team, board of directors, scientific advisory board and advisory councils for advice and direction.

“I do have a fear of failure. I can’t fail,” Brinker says. Not when the stakes are so high, with so many lives in the balance. That’s what gets her up at night, what drives her through those 20-hour days. She made a promise, and she’s willing to risk everything to fulfill it.