Safety 2011: The Power of One

June 14, 2011
Nancy Brinker, founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, advised ASSE Safety 2011 attendees to believe in “the power of one.”

For Brinker, understanding “the power of one” has served as the foundation of her life’s work. It began in the early 1980s, when she promised her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, that she’d make it her mission to help other women suffering from breast cancer. Now, 3 decades later, Brinker heads the world’s premier breast cancer research organization, which has raised and spent over $2 billion for research, treatment, care and screening.


Brinker faced challenges when she first tried to make good on her promise to her sister in the early 1980s. She described cancer – and breast cancer in particular – as a social stigma. The word “breast” could not even be spoken on TV or on the Senate floor. There was no hotline or Internet support for breast cancer patients. In fact, many people believed cancer to be contagious.

“When we started, society was pretty much against us,” Brinker said. “I know safety professionals often face the same challenges. Your work involves trying to change a culture. You need colleagues to help adopt a mindset and a mission, and that’s not easy.”

Brinker’s persistence has paid off. What began as a meeting with friends in her living room, $200 and a shoebox full of contacts has grown into a global organization that offers women across the world support and hope. Earlier this year, Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced a resource initiative for a breast cancer vaccine geared for recurrence, a discovery Brinker said “could be one of the most significant breakthroughs in our lifetime.”

The Passion and the Power

Just as many safety professional describe the passion they feel for their work, Brinker credits her own passion for the breast-cancer cause for sustaining her as well as the millions of people worldwide who joined the effort. Her job grew to be more complex and challenging than she had anticipated – originally, Brinker thought a cure could be found within a decade – but still she persists.

Brinker often reminds her colleagues that they are on a tightrope. They have a specific mission, a goal to work toward. “If you look right or look left, you’re going to fall off. Keep your focus on the mission at hand,” she advised.

In the same way, Brinker said, safety professionals’ careers demand juggling, as well. EHS leaders must stay focused to achieve their own goals. After all, Brinker added, success doesn’t come easily. And remember: It’s not a sprint – it’s a marathon.

“In your own work, never doubt the power you have. The largest challenges can be fought with one idea, one goal,” Brinker said. “One person can change the world.”

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