Komen CEO got the nation to think pink
Nancy Brinker, the chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, years ago promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, that she would try to find a cure for breast cancer.
The New York Times
Nancy Brinker, the chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, has done more than any other to create what might be called Pink Inc.
Her foundation generated about $420 million in the 2010 fiscal year alone. Perhaps more than any other nonprofit organization, Komen shapes the national conversation about breast cancer.
Over the years, Komen has raised many billions of dollars to urge women to get mammograms, as well as for treatment and research.
Breast cancer kills about 40,000 American women and 450 men annually. Heart disease and lung cancer each kill more women in the U.S. than breast cancer. But the fight against breast cancer attracts more corporate sponsors, in part because of Brinker, who served as ambassador to Hungary under President George W. Bush..
Executives at Breast Cancer Action, a San Francisco advocacy group, have questioned the value of pink October for 20 years. They say some charities spend millions more on promoting the medical status quo — annual mammography screening, that is — than they do on financing research into the causes and prevention of the disease.
(Mammography has significantly reduced the death rate from breast cancer, particularly for women in their 50s and 60s. But health experts disagree on whether women in their 40s need routine screening, or whether they should decide individually, in consultation with their doctors, based on risk factors like their family history.)
Komen spent about $141 million in fiscal 2010 on public-health education, including awareness campaigns. It also spent about $75 million to finance medical research and about $67 million to pay for breast-cancer screening and treatment.
All that, Brinker says, requires Komen to generate revenue from individual donors and corporate sponsors. And if that means promoting pink KitchenAid blenders, NASCAR vehicles or Scotch tape dispensers, so be it.
It wasn't always this way.
Until 1974, when Betty Ford, then the first lady, disclosed she had had a mastectomy, breast cancer was a taboo subject for many. After she went public, the number of women seeking mammograms spiked, in what epidemiologists would call "the Betty Ford effect."
Several years later, Brinker's sister, Susan G. Komen, a mother of two in Peoria, Ill., learned that she had breast cancer. But she didn't receive aggressive treatment immediately. Later, even intensive chemotherapy could not save her.
In her memoir, "Promise Me," Brinker tells how she promised her dying sister she would work to find a cure.
In Brinker's early career as a sales trainee at Neiman Marcus, she learned some marketing principles — like "never stop selling" — from Stanley Marcus, the legendary Texas retailer. When she started Komen in 1982, she applied those techniques. She was determined to shift people's focus to hope and survival from the grim reality that this disease can kill.
"We were going to have to do things to attract people that didn't scare them," she says.
But Brinker quickly understood that her group needed a grass-roots movement. So, in 1983, Komen held its first race in Dallas to raise money. About 800 runners took part.
"They were bonding, sharing their experiences," she recalls. The runners provided reassuring images. "For the first time," she says, "you could see what survivors looked like."
From her husband, Norman Brinker, a restaurant entrepreneur who started chains like Bennigan's and later took Chili's public, Brinker learned other business lessons, like how to replicate a concept in one city after another.
Komen now has 121 affiliates, mostly in the U.S., which stage a "Race for the Cure." The series of 147 races was attended by about 1.7 million people and generated about $120 million in fiscal 2010. It is Komen's single biggest revenue engine.
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