The Pink Ribbon: A Conversation with Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker

Ambassador Nancy G. Brinker captivated the Rubicon team this week at our Rubicon "All-Hands" meeting celebrating Women's History Month. 

Ambassador Brinker is the founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation. This acclaimed nonprofit group has raised $3.2 billion for breast cancer research.  Ambassador Brinker is also the co-founder of The Promise Fund of Florida. She was the United States Ambassador to Hungary from 2001-2003 and the Chief of Protocol of the United States from 2007 to 2009 in the George W. Bush Administration. In 2009 she was the World Health Organization's Goodwill Ambassador for Cancer Control and the author of the New York Times bestseller "Promise Me - How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer." Ambassador Brinker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.  

Ambassador Brinker stated that her work began 42 years ago when her sister Suzy died from breast cancer at 46. Before she passed away, Suzy made her promise she would do everything she could to end breast cancer. 

Ambassador Brinker says that when she founded the Susan G. Komen Foundation, they "had a shoebox full of names, phone numbers, and a broken typewriter, which was fine because our secretary didn't know how to type. We were like an internet startup minus the internet." 

Ambassador Brinker noted that once they had a grassroots organization and more people involved, they began to change breast cancer culture. When they started the Foundation, you could not say "breast cancer" on TV or in the newspapers because it was considered dirty. After Susan G. Komen, "breast cancer went from being a scarlet letter to being seen with a pink ribbon." 

Today, while Ambassador Brinker still contributes to the Susan G. Komen Foundation, her primary focus is the Promise Fund of Florida, supporting community-based navigators who work with patients to educate them on health care options. 

"Patients who have worked with navigators have significantly higher survival rates," said Ambassador Brinker. "Eventually, I believe the Promise Fund will become the gold standard model that can be implemented across the country. Increasing access to care for the most at-risk populations is the best, most cost-effective way to address healthcare." 

Ambassador Brinker said being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the greatest honor of her life, and it began with what she believed was a wrong number. When she received the phone call from the White House, she was in a rush to get out the door and — at first — didn't believe it was the president calling. 

She said: "Could you give me your number and I'll call right back?" 

As Ambassador Brinker asked, the woman calling gave her the number, and Ambassador Brinker called right back. 

"Hello, this is the White House." 

"I literally dropped the phone," she recounted.  "I was so embarrassed … I was stunned to silence." 

Ambassador Brinker was honored along with other such recipients as Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Professor Stephen Hawking. She says she went up to Stephen Hawking and said, "Professor, you may be the only person here who deserves this award. I'm an enormous fan of yours." 

The Professor replied, "I'm an enormous fan of yours." 

I asked Ambassador Brinker from where she believes her dedication to service came. What follows is an excerpt of her reply: 

"It started when I was six, and my sister was nine. People who do things for most of their lives tend to find kernels and grains that were planted very early. Mine came in the world of Polio. ... Many of my friends had been diagnosed with the disease. I saw children in iron lungs. Everyone was involved in the fight against Polio. ... My sister came to me and said, 'I have an idea for a song and dance show. You'll sing and dance, and I'll sell the tickets.' ... I told her, 'I only know two songs!' And she said, 'Then you'll have to sing them over and over.' ... So that weekend we did it; we held a song and dance show, and I sang and danced, and my sister sold the tickets. ... My parents were so lovely about it. We raised $64 from 64 neighbors. I'll never forget the joy when my mother took me that Monday to the Peoria Polio Foundation, and we handed that check over, and it was like we'd handed that woman a bar of gold. And from that moment, I realized that was what I was going to be doing with my life."

Ambassador Brinker said one of her life highlights was serving under President George W. Bush as Chief of Protocol.  

"It's always been a great honor for me to serve our country," she said. "I've been an ambassador three times, and doing this role was enormous. … One of the goals and jobs you have is making sure all the protocol is right from the moment you land to the time you leave." 

She said that working with the Bush family was amazing. She especially loved working with then-First Lady Laura Bush on selecting gifts for their host nations and noted that President Bush always wanted to go to Sub-Saharan Africa to see its progress.  

"I got to really feel what people feel in gratitude to America - which was amazing." 

Near the end of our conversation, Ambassador Brinker talked to us about the Promise Fund of Florida and its goal of eliminating deaths due to late-stage breast and cervical cancer.

"I was fortunate in my life and served for every president since Reagan in a cancer capacity," she said. "Since 1971, when President Nixon declared war on cancer, I was always watching the progress in my life. When I saw Susan G. Komen make such progress, and we were able to lower the death rate so much, I was always looking for what's missing. And what's missing now is the last promise I made to my sister: the underserved poverty problem." 

The Promise Fund of Florida addresses this problem.  

"You can't develop all that we have in the United States and not have it available to everyone," Ambassador Brinker said. "All people — rich, poor, smart, not-so-smart, educated, employed, whatever — want to reach their health care at home, and they want it to be accessible and be affordable." 

Finally, I asked Ambassador Brinker for advice for people who wanted to start something or who had leadership ambitions. 

"I don't think I have to give you all a lot of advice," she said. "I've observed some things that are incredible about your company. I would say do all you can to maintain it." 

She said to always learn and "never quit. People aren't successful because they are just successful. Most people are successful because they know when not to quit."

More blogs