July 10, 2022
A Courageous Life
By Jemi Lassiter
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kiki Ramsey
Dr. Kiki Ramsey is the founder and CEO of Positive Psychology Coaching and Diversity Institute (PPCADI) and Kiki Ramsey International. She helps leaders work from their strengths instead of their fears and create organizations that support belonging and provide psychological safety for their employees.
Dr. Kiki Ramsey is not one to mince words. Without batting an eye she will tell you that she was 10 years old when she realized her mother was addicted to crack cocaine and 17 when she had her first child.
Without missing a beat, she will loop you into the dynamics of positive psychology and the impact of moving forward no matter the circumstances.
And, she’ll flow between growing up as the daughter of an addict and the psychology of working from your character strengths to fulfill your life’s purpose as if those two seemingly disparate topics were meant to be side by side.
During our interview, the in-demand leadership coach and international speaker showed me that her candor and composure are why she is so effective. She pulls from the very roots of her being, the good and the bad, to reach the leaders inside of her clients.
Becoming Dr. Ramsey
At 44, Dr. Ramsey is a serial entrepreneur who has built a life contrary to her upbringing. She started as a middle schooler carrying a briefcase full of candy.
“I was a little entrepreneur. I would go to the little candy store in my neighborhood, get those little penny Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, Airheads, Jolly Ranchers, all that stuff and I would sell it everyday. I’d make at least $20, $30 a day”, said a smiling Ramsey.
As an adult, she carried that same spirit into her work and launched her businesses while she worked full time at Johns Hopkins.
“It’s really interesting because I was a 1099 [contractor] for a few places and W-2 [full-time employee] with Johns Hopkins. Then I quit and became a 1099 for Hopkins. I was very set on entrepreneurship”, explained Ramsey.
Her former employer hired her back as a contractor to do the same work with less hours.
Today, she is a speaker and a coach with more than 1,500 clients and the ability to reach 20 thousand people a year through speaking engagements. She has a team of 18 coaches and an assistant helping to lead the charge.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Kiki Ramsey
In 2021, Ramsey graduated from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology with a Ph.D. in Business Psychology.
“I have two businesses: Kiki Ramsey International which is my organization. That’s where I speak and do keynotes. I also have PPCADI, the Positive Psychology Coaching and Diversity Institute. We do leadership [coaching] and diversity training”, said Ramsey.
But, before the businesses. Before the briefcase full of candy. Ramsey had some harsh realities to face as a child in Greenville, SC.
“It was a really tough upbringing. It was rough, very rough but there’s always good parts in there”, said Ramsey. “My whole goal was to get my mom off of drugs. That was the whole goal. That was the impetus for me to go into the helping profession.”
Throughout her mother’s addiction, Ramsey sought out resources and acted as an advocate for her mother. It laid the groundwork for who she would become later in life.
She became a mother at 17, went to college to study business and become an entrepreneur until she hit her first collegiate roadblock.
“Accounting II was the straw that broke the camels back. When I got a D in Accounting II, I said this ain’t for me”, laughed Ramsey.
She switched from being a Business major to focusing on Child Development and Family Studies and fell in love with helping in a professional capacity. She charted a new course from entrepreneur to psychologist and dug into studying.
For Ramsey, her college studies and future career were squarely focused on helping her mother and supporting herself.
Failure, Fear & Forgiveness
Ramsey speaks profoundly on the impact of fear in our lives. The topic is front and center for her because fear reveals itself in unexpected ways that determine how leaders make decisions, respond to adversity and build or break their team. Before Ramsey was able to write her first book “Get Courageous Now: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Passions and Purpose in Life” and the accompanying journal, she had to come to terms with her own fears and that led our interview into new territory.
“So, for me, [my biggest fears are] the fear of failure and the fear of lack. The one that is biggest is fear of failure and it’s because I watched my mom, all that she went through. I know she could have been so successful. I know her life is what it was because God makes no mistakes but I also, in my heart of hearts, think she could have been so many things. She was so good at doing so many things.”
Ramsey’s mother battled addiction throughout her childhood causing Ramsey and her sister to become easy targets for other children. She dealt with bullying but, to meet Dr. Ramsey, is to know that a bully is slight work for her. What took more time and effort was her relationship with her mother.
Through the years of her mother’s addiction, Ramsey pushed through the difficult times. She did not have the luxury of wallowing in the hardships. She had to find moments of joy. She had to create safe spaces. She had to advocate for herself, her mother and others.
“Because of her drug addiction and my personality, that clashed a whole lot. I’m going to challenge you to do better to be better. That’s just who I am. My team will tell you that. So, I challenged her a lot and she was the mom. I remember her saying, ‘I’m the mama. You’re not the mama’”, said Ramsey.
There were more disagreements that brought that statement back to their relationship dynamic over the years but Ramsey was dedicated to making sure her mother was well, role reversal or not. She had not considered the impact that was having on her. Ramsey unintentionally held a grudge, a pain, or perhaps an empty space, that was based in the fear of lack because she grew up with so little. As an adult, she bought luxury items as soon as the money was available. She also developed a fear of failure. That pushed her to reach the top of any endeavor. A Bachelor’s degree was not enough and a Master’s degree was just okay. Ramsey had to earn her Ph.D. Being a licensed coach was not enough, Ramsey earned her Master Coach certification. She was not satisfied or safe in her eyes until she reached the top, until she’d earned the very best.
Before we end this part of our interview, Ramsey confides that she was able to make peace with her mother before she passed in 2009 of pancreatic cancer.
“As I was going on the journey of becoming Kiki Ramsey, one of the things that I came across was forgiveness. I realized I needed to start forgiving my mom for all the actions that she took part in in my life and also forgive myself for the parts I played in creating the life that I have right now”, said Ramsey. “For me, I was able to reconcile my feelings of how I was raised. I realized it was so that I could become who God needed me to be. [My mother] was a very very intregal part of that. I dedicate the work that I do to my mom.”
Photos courtesy of Dr. Kiki Ramsey
Dr. Ramsey began living positive psychology long before she knew her approach had a name. The fruits of her mindset placed her on a path to present her research on positive psychology coaching and women in leadership at the 17th Annual Yale Bouchet Conference on Diversity and Graduate Education in April 2021 (left), speak to C-suite executives from around the country (middle) and be a contributing writer in the April 2021 issue of Women's Health (right).
In the process of stepping fully into her purpose of helping others and using the vehicles of speaking, writing and coaching through her personal and professional efforts; the serial entrepreneur discovered the concept of positive psychology. She had been practicing it for years without knowing.
“I truly believe, it’s what you do with your experiences that really matter. I found positive psychology because I was already living this way. This put a name to what I was already experiencing and what I was trying to share with the world”, said Ramsey.
Positive psychology is a term coined in 1998 by Martin Seligman, the former president of the American Psychology Association. According to Psychology Today, it is a branch of psychology that focuses on the character strengths and behaviors that allow people to build a life of meaning and purpose.
After learning about the field, Ramsey pivoted and fully immersed herself in developing a coaching program that uses positive psychology to uproot fears and use individual’s character and strengths to their benefit and the benefit of those around them.
This works particularly well with her clients who experience a range of fears from fear of failure and judgement to loneliness, loss of power and imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is widely recognized and documented in women who are in highly visible or leadership roles. However, imposter syndrome is not gender specific. It is loosely defined as an intense self-doubt in personal ability and the thought that the people around you will soon see that you do not know what you are doing.
“I teach people to use what they already have inside of them but we have to identify that at first. Then, I teach them how to use it in tough situations in their lives”, explained Ramsey. “Learning how to channel it in the appropriate ways, learning how to use your strengths beneficially is how I help my clients.”
Ramsey uses a catalog of concepts including the VIA Character Strength Assessment along with years of professional experience to guide clients to their strongest selves.
“I think we focus so much on the problem. Where does the action come in? Where does the actual action come in so you can get from Point A to where you want to be?”, asked Ramsey.
She promotes the active participation of clients in their lives, helping them to dismiss the victim mentality that may be easy to adopt and learn skills that build their resilience, gain self-confidence and practice courageous living.
“All courage is is recognizing that there’s danger and deciding to move forward anyway because the danger is going to be there. You’re going to be scared and fear is going to be there”, explained Ramsey.
“Courage is being able to next step.”