Mind wide open
Entrepreneur, company builder, movement starter, onetime consultant to Steve Jobs. Sure, the path looks smooth and effortless. Yet like all of our journeys, it’s been messy, and it’s had wrong turns and disappointments. But Nancy Kramer’s true north is exploration. It’s in her very nature to reach for the next thing. Here’s how she does it.
The sky is battleship gray, as if decreed to fit this Monday morning of a Midwestern winter. Nancy Kramer ignores the dreariness while driving her new electric car along Interstate 70 outside Columbus.
She is energized by the moment. Her hands grip the wheel — 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock — and she’s tuned in to a conference call floating from dashboard speakers.
“Oh Billy, why did you have to bring that up and ruin our day?” Kramer says with a laugh.
Kramer ’77 is driving west, her favorite direction. She often says facing west reflects her personal ethos of curiosity, discovery and change. Those qualities bubbled in her as a child, simmered as a journalism student at Ohio State and served as rebar for her stellar business career. She founded an advertising agency in 1981 that pioneered interactive digital marketing and grew over 35 years to become the largest female-owned and -operated agency of its kind in the nation. Throughout, she maintained an open office culture that encouraged creativity and innovation as ways to best adapt to clients’ evolving needs. Seek, and you shall be free.
An explorer’s spirit remained in Kramer — friends and family endearingly refer to her by last name — after she sold Resource/Ammirati to IBM in 2016 in a multimillion-dollar deal. Instead of retiring, she suggested a job title and description that the new owner immediately accepted. The opportunity has led to fresh challenges and experiences, even bringing light to this overcast Monday in the form of a conference call with colleagues in New York and London. She remains connected to the world, just as she dreamed while growing up in a small Columbus home.
“This is like working for the United Nations,” says Kramer, 63. “Who wouldn’t want to work for the U.N.?”
Andrew Ina, Matt Stoessner, Cara Reed, Jason Shults
Kramer’s actual job is chief evangelist for IBM iX, an offshoot of a global organization long known for hardware but now transformed into a predominantly service-oriented business. She spreads the gospel of how IBM can help companies reimagine customer and brand experiences, particularly in the growing field of artificial intelligence (AI) — she prefers the term augmented intelligence — and machine learning. She speaks about how these technological advances positively impact business and society by, for example, processing data faster or more accurately than humans. That may mean a doctor can make better, more informed decisions or an accountant can rely on AI to stay up to date on the latest tax code changes. Kramer also builds and strengthens client relationships and helps shape a diversified culture within IBM iX, which maintains one of its 40 worldwide creative offices in Columbus.
By advocating for emerging technology, Kramer hopes to tamp down fear at a time when vast and rapid changes are causing societal disruption and discomfort. She’s a human bridge connecting people to machines.
“To me, AI is not scary — it’s another evolution of our advancement,” Kramer says. “In my lifetime, I’ve seen the vast majority of technological advances be very positive, not only to business, but to society. That’s something I find very inspiring and motivating. It’s why I do what I do. Technological advances are making our society a more open society, and I personally believe a more open society is a freer society. With a high level of integrity, technology will continue to make a very positive impact.”
While Kramer favors “man and machines,” not “man versus machines,” she understands it is human nature to fear the unknown. She’s grappled with her own fears. Her success didn’t trek a straight, easy path. There were revenue downturns and the business world’s ingrained parochial barriers to contend with and overcome. She’s also weathered personal uncertainty, marked by a low point of divorce and health issues in 2000.
“Like everyone else, I’ve been challenged by change at different points in my life,” Kramer says.
Now is no different. Kramer is a proud mother, financially secure, happily remarried with a blended family of six adult children and one grandchild, yet this is a transitional time for someone once hailed by Ad Age as one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Advertising. Her company and office oversight are gone. Kramer now has a boss and is navigating an immense and unfamiliar organization.
“She’s still proving to herself that her enthusiasm, creativity and intelligence has a place,” says Christopher Celeste, Kramer’s husband. “That’s what geeks her out. If she’s breathing, she’s going to be working on things that are interesting to her.”
‘Equal parts energy, curiosity and caring’
Paul Papas is perpetually on the go as IBM’s global leader of digital strategy and IBM iX, a design partner for businesses worldwide. Daily calls and meetings come and go in a flurry, but one call he received last year is memorable. It was from Kramer.
“She was busting with excitement, saying, ‘I just saw the coolest thing in the world,’” Papas recalls.
Kramer called her boss from Yorktown Heights, New York, where she had visited an IBM research center and was shown a quantum computer, which simulates and solves complex problems by performing computations far faster than a conventional computer. The cutting-edge machine must be housed at -463 degrees Fahrenheit — nearly four times colder than the lowest temperature on record in Antarctica.
“She starts telling me all the details about it,” Papas says. “So many people would have gone there and would have been daunted by its complexity. But she was bursting at the seams, saying, ‘Everyone needs to know about this. There’s so much we need to do. We need to connect this to everything.’ She had such a genuine excitement about it. It was 100 percent Nancy, equal parts energy, curiosity and caring.”
Long before Google, Kramer was her own search engine. As a child, she habitually lost herself in the local library, reading books about people and far-off places, especially Africa, which seemed exotic compared to home. She grew up the younger of two children in a 1,000-square-foot house in east Columbus. Dad delivered cookies for Keebler. Mom didn’t work, something young Kramer couldn’t understand. “That seemed boring, very limiting,” she says. She yearned to explore the world, and Ohio State propelled her.
“When I moved onto campus as a sophomore, I was exposed to people from all over,” says the first-generation college graduate who paid her way working as a cashier at the former University City Kroger on Olentangy River Road. “I felt the world opening up from the depth and breadth of things at Ohio State.”
An elective class in Swahili proved transformational. The professor encouraged Kramer to visit Africa, long beckoning in her imagination. Inspired, she saved money for a year after graduation and then traveled alone to Kenya. For a month, she took photos in the bush and talked to locals. “It wasn’t a thing that women did at that age at that time,” Kramer says. “I think it was the first time that I realized that I could dream about something and then I could actually make it happen.”
Kramer soon became captivated by another dreamer. His name was Steve Jobs. He had just formed a tech company called Apple, and Kramer read about him while selling Columbus radio advertising, her first job after college. She was inspired by Jobs’ missionary zeal about how personal computers would change the world. She grasped his vision and earned a contract to market his products across five Midwestern states. She formed Resource in 1981, and within three months, Apple asked her to expand to the national market. Soon after, she met Jobs, her firm’s sole client for four years.
“He was brilliant and, like most people, dysfunctional,” Kramer says. “He was very demanding. But first and foremost, demanding of himself.”
Resource proved to be bold and reliable, adding clients over time and branching beyond tech companies after 15 years. The firm was lauded for having a transparent office culture instilled and nurtured by Kramer and her colleague Kelly Mooney ’86.
“Kramer’s willingness to learn new things is her hallmark,” Mooney says. “She always said she liked to pretend that she was a kindergartner so that she was able to ask really simple questions about some things in order to just learn. She wouldn’t presuppose answers. I think that child-like wonderment and curiosity always served her well. Being in a new territory all the time in technology, you had to be constantly open to seeing something from a new perspective. She was a champ at that.”
Even champs get knocked down. In 2000, the dot-com bubble burst, and the company — by then called Resource Interactive — lost 70 percent of its business in 90 days. Kramer laid off employees for the first time, a heart-wrenching move for someone who prides herself on empathic leadership. At the same time, Kramer was navigating a divorce and raising a son and two daughters.
“I was having anxiety attacks,” Kramer says. “I was in the hospital multiple times thinking I was having a heart attack or something. They had me hooked up to an EKG machine. It wasn’t pretty.”
Therapy, yoga and morning workouts — a routine Kramer maintains today — improved her health. Her business required a more radical makeover. In 2001, Kramer merged Resource with two other entities to form a new enterprise that reduced her ownership to
20 percent. Within six months, she realized “it was a disaster” and — as a single parent at age 45 — gave up all of her equity to negotiate an option to buy out the digital agency division within two years. “It was the ultimate Hail Mary pass,” Kramer says. She bought back her company and promoted Mooney to president and partner (and to CEO a decade later). Together, they expanded Resource’s client base into retail and consumer packaged goods with an emphasis on social media management, a move that sent revenue to the $70 million mark. They purchased New York creative agency Ammirati in 2014 and two years later — with the market still changing rapidly — sold the business to IBM.
“It was kind of daunting,” Kramer says. “I felt a great amount of personal responsibility for our clients, for our associates and for our community.”
On the eve of the sale, a wave of fear hit Kramer. So much seemed uncertain. She found a quiet space at home and wrote a journal entry. The title: “Being Scared.”
“Whenever there’s change that’s disruptive, people become uncomfortable,” Kramer says. “That’s happening now with the advent of AI and machine learning.”
Kramer and Celeste, who married in 2007, provided a shared message about change to their children while shepherding the six into adulthood.
“We would always say to the kids that life expands or contracts in direct proportion to how we deal with fear,” says Celeste, an entrepreneur and startup consultant. “The question is: What kind of life do you want? If we’re afraid, life contracts. If we’re brave, it expands. Kramer’s a good example of that.”
At IBM, she’s found a way to contribute to the greater good by learning about and preaching the positive ways that evolving technology will improve all of our lives.
“This is about looking to the future, looking to the horizon, the next generation,” Kramer says. “I find it incredibly exciting and inspiring.”
‘Courage and strength’
Here’s a secret about Kramer: she’s an introvert.
Yes, she’s the woman with the engaging laugh and big personality — “a goof,” one co-worker calls her — who seamlessly interacts with power brokers and ordinary folks. She’s the public figure serving on the boards of The Columbus Foundation, the Columbus Partnership, The Ohio State University Advancement Committee and Wexner Center for the Arts, among others. She’s the founder of the Free the Tampons movement, co-creator of TEDxColumbus and advocate of Smart Columbus, a federally supported endeavor to reimagine how people move about her hometown. She’s the mentor and inspiration to many women.
“The courage and strength she’s shown in reimagining her life and reinventing herself while staying so focused is really pretty powerful,” says Jordan Davis ’11, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership.
However, that same woman — well-known Kramer — is most comfortable at home with her nose buried in a book.
“Nancy is a little shy,” says longtime friend Mary Jo Ruggieri, a holistic health practitioner and former Ohio State synchronized swimming coach.
Yet last June, Kramer found herself in France on behalf of IBM iX at the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, delivering a speech about infusing artificial intelligence into customer experiences. “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have even known how to string those words together,” Kramer says. “It was a new party trick for me.”
Since joining IBM, she’s doggedly researched and asked questions about AI, machine learning, blockchain and quantum computing. Kramer says she’s learned more in the past two years than in the previous 10, and all of it has reinforced her long-held belief that new technology will help society.
Now she’s challenging doubters to change their thinking, something she had to learn to do about her own self-image. “We all have things that we’ve worked to overcome,” Kramer says. “My mother used to call me a dumb blonde. This notion that I was stupid was something that I had to work really hard to overcome.”
For this childhood dreamer who longed to be out in the world, speaking to strangers on an international platform at Cannes represented a milestone, one of Kramer’s too-many-to-count breakthroughs.
“Getting up there and doing it was uncomfortable for me,” she says. “With uncomfortable situations, oftentimes we grow and change. That was a big growth moment for me. It was very rewarding.”
Kramer spoke that summer day in 2018 about what’s on the horizon and why we shouldn’t fear it. As always, she spoke from the heart, and from personal experience.
One day in 1977, this former Ohio State journalism student pitched a story to her Lantern editor about a downtown skyscraper under construction. She even volunteered to go to the top of the new Nationwide Plaza building. (Kramer hates heights. “If I get too close to the edge,” she says, “my stomach goes crazy.”)
Somehow, on that day 42 years ago, she calmed her nerves, put on a hard hat and rode a construction elevator to the roof of that 40-story building.
“I think about that now and I’m like, ‘What was I thinking?’’’ Kramer says. “I guess I was willing to do it.”
Leadership from the ground up
Nancy Kramer’s leadership style is metaphorically summed up by a photo she often shows to students and professionals when speaking about her career. It depicts a tree planted in sunshine.
“I tell them that I see myself as the soil that’s there to kind of support, foster, nurture and supply nutrients to the others,” Kramer says. “I’m there to facilitate. I’m there to create space for others to be successful. I’m definitely not the tree. I’m not the sun. I’m not the tree roots. I’m the dirt.”
Kramer has put into practice the idea of helping others by mentoring women throughout her career. She says such a role has been a responsibility — and something that has brought her much joy and fulfillment.
“When I’m talking to a young woman, I do my best to help her see what her capabilities are,” Kramer says. “I mirror back what I see so she can better recognize what her capabilities and skills are and how her wonderful presence in the world can have a huge impact. I try to encourage and instill confidence in women to be themselves.”
Jordan Davis ’11 (above) recalls how Kramer’s support and encouragement led her to her job as director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership.
“She was a champion for me as I transitioned to this role,” Davis says. “That’s the invaluable thing that mentors do — they have your back when you have ambitions, and they counsel you when things are challenging. I’ve cried in her office and celebrated with her. She’s been there through so many moments in my career.
“No matter the conversation or the setting we’re in, I learn things from her. I love her approach. She’s honest about her emotions and her feelings about things. She’s willing to be vulnerable, but she’s confident in her vulnerability. That’s really powerful and needed in boardrooms and in the business world.”
What women want: Nancy Kramer knows
Ohio State began providing free menstrual support products in many restrooms on campus in 2018, a move Nancy Kramer helped popularize in the business world through years of advocacy.
The 1977 graduate created the Free the Tampons Foundation in 2013 with the belief that every bathroom outside the home should provide such items.
“The first time I went to Apple’s corporate headquarters back in 1982, I walked into the women’s restroom. There, I saw tampons and pads laying out for anyone to access. It was the first time I had seen that in my life.
“I started asking myself, ‘Why do restrooms not have these items? Because it’s kind of like toilet paper. It’s there to help women tend to our normal bodily functions when we’re not in our home.’ So that sent me on a quest.”
Kramer immediately stocked the restrooms of Resource Interactive, her then-fledgling digital marketing firm. She told other businesses about the idea and persuaded her daughters’ private school to offer them, too.
The Free the Tampons Foundation launched with a talk Kramer gave at TEDxColumbus in 2013. “It really helped catalyze a movement that has taken on a life of its own,” she says.
In 2016, New York City passed the nation’s first law ensuring access to menstrual products in public schools, shelters and correctional facilities. Last year, California, Illinois and New York enacted laws requiring high schools to offer free tampons and pads.
“I’m really proud to say that Ohio State’s on board with this effort as well,” Kramer says.
Undergraduate Student Government at Ohio State began a tampon accessibility pilot program in January 2018, prompting the university to install 20 dispensers for free tampons in Ohio Union and Recreation and Physical Activity Center restrooms. More than 90 bathrooms on campus now have free access to the products, and the nonprofit activist group PERIOD at Ohio State is petitioning to expand the initiative to every building. The group also advocates for an end to sales taxes on menstrual products.