When Susan Komen was diagnosed with breast cancer in the late 1970s, people walking through the town of Peoria, Illinois, would cross the street when they saw her, out of fear that they would catch what they called “the big C.”
After Komen’s younger sister, Nancy Brinker, made a promise to put an end to breast cancer forever, Brinker founded Susan G. Komen for the Cure — an organization that has invested almost $2 billion around the globe in ground-breaking research, education, screening and treatment.
On Thursday night, Brinker shared her story in Huntsman Hall’s Ambani Auditorium as part of the Wharton Leadership Lectures Series. Brinker spoke with students about how she started a global breast cancer movement during a time when it was still taboo to even say the word “breasts,” while also imparting some lessons she learned in business, leadership and life.
Brinker began by sharing some of her marketing techniques, including the value of delivering conventional messages in unconventional ways.
“We really started with nothing. We were just a small group of women sitting around in my living room,” Brinker said of the organization’s founding. “We had to be creative.”
Brinker and her colleagues built media-friendly events like Race for the Cure, and started conversations in unconventional places, such as sports shows and soap operas. In order to make the disease a less intimidating subject of discussion, Brinker chose her sister’s favorite color, pink, to symbolize the movement. Now this shade of bright pink is used to spread awareness across the world and has “lit up the White House, the ancient pyramids and the walls of Jerusalem,” Brinker said.
Brinker also shared her core principles for integrated leadership: having a clear vision at the outset, focusing on the mission and not being afraid to take on tough challenges.
“That’s the way leaders think — what do we yet have to do?” Brinker said. “Your work ahead might always seem impossible, but it always seems impossible until you do it.”
Wharton exchange student Kalman de Chalendar found Brinker’s talk inspiring, especially her advice to students to strive for greatness despite unexpected obstacles that may come your way.
“Ever since the terrible trauma her sister had, she learned to be prepared for the unexpected,” De Chalendar said. “I liked her message about how such unexpected events can push you to accomplish great things and give you energy to do what you wouldn’t have expected to do.”
Joshua Burdick, first-year Wharton MBA student and one of the event’s organizers, thought that Brinker’s talk fit nicely with Wharton’s recent decision to name social impact as one of its “three pillars.”
“I think she probably looks at this as an opportunity to inspire some young people” interested in working in public service, Burdick said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to find the intersection between the profit-based analytical side and the social sector.”
Burdick added that Brinker has “had the number one impact on breast cancer awareness out of every single person in the world, and it’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to listen to her here.”