Brinker worked hard to charm donors and raise the profile of the organization. Building on the burgeoning fitness craze in America, the races grew slowly but steadily. Then, in the early 1990s, they exploded in size and popularity, a development Susan Carter Johns attributes to a new idea: Komen began to recognize breast-cancer survivors at the events with pink T-shirts, visors or ribbons indicating how many years had passed since their initial diagnosis. “This inspired incredible hope,” Johns says. “You’d see a woman going through chemotherapy next to a woman with 21 ribbons on her visor. This sea of pink—it gave a very visual picture of how many women were affected by breast cancer. That’s when it really caught fire.” (The genesis of those pink ribbons remains a point of confusion. The Estée Lauder Web site states that Evelyn Lauder and Alexandra Penney, then editor of Self magazine, “created the Pink Ribbon as a symbol of breast health” back in 1992. The Komen organization counters that the first Race for the Cure logo—an abstract female runner outlined with a pink ribbon—dates to the mid-1980s, and says pink ribbons were first distributed by Komen at the New York City Race for the Cure in 1991.)
Over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s, Brinker forged a number of corporate partnerships, making Susan G. Komen the first advocacy organization to essentially market breast cancer as a cause to consumers. During its enormous expansion in the 1990s, Komen added professional staff who took over day-to-day operations. That enabled Brinker to transition into an even more prominent role, testifying before Congress, serving on government panels and holding a seat on the foundation’s board of directors.
In 2001 she was required by law to relinquish that seat after accepting an invitation from her old friend George Bush, then President, to serve as U.S. ambassador to Hungary. Brinker remained a public face of Komen, however, and planned to use her post to promote women’s health in Eastern Europe. Instead, she found herself sidetracked into a new kind of cause marketing: promoting U.S. interests in the run-up to the Iraq war. As her first highly visible official duty, the State Department asked her to give a talk denouncing the rise of hate speech in Hungarian politics, which didn’t make her job any easier. “My relations with the government were very difficult,” she recalls of those early months. Her time abroad was, as she puts it, “lonely, and it was fabulous, and it taught me how strong I’d have to be moving forward.” It was in Hungary that she acquired László Fehér’s 2001 Self-Portrait with Staircase, the painting that now hangs in her Florida living room. (Her collection of Hungarian art has been shown a number of times in museums and galleries in the U.S.)
She returned to Dallas and her role at Komen in 2003, continuing until 2007, when President Bush named her chief of protocol at the State Department. Now she was on the other side of the diplomatic fence, welcoming ambassadors to her country, and she set out to make them feel more connected to the United States. The ambassadors were generally charmed. “Nancy puts people at ease,” says Charity Wallace, who currently works as chief of staff for Laura Bush and who formerly served as Brinker’s deputy chief of protocol. “She’s very compassionate, generous, accessible, whether with the pope, a head of state or people cleaning the offices.”
Then in December 2009, Brinker took the reins as CEO at Komen. To some, it was a surprising move—for the first time, Brinker is an employee of the organization, accountable to its board of directors—but the decision corresponds to the new sense of urgency she feels about her mission. Komen’s fund raising has taken a hit recently; revenues are down compared with those of the past five years.