How does a little girl go from sleeping on a couch in a crack house to coaching CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, holding four degrees and being respected as a Ph.D. expert in her field?
“It’s crazy where I am now,” said Dr. Kiki Anderson Ramsey ’02. “But to do work that makes a difference and makes people seen and heard is the greatest accomplishment.”
As a child, Ramsey felt neither seen nor heard. Growing up in the projects of Greenville, South Carolina, surrounded by depravation and drugs, Ramsey watched her mother’s life be siphoned away by addiction and abuse. She clung to two things: her little sister’s safety and the belief of her teachers.
“When I was younger, I was just dealing with my mother’s addiction and trying to be a child as much as possible,” she said. “I clung to teachers at school. That’s where my love of learning came from. At school, there were people I could trust—people who believed in me. I wanted my mom to be that person, but she wasn’t. I was motivated to do it because I wanted to escape what was going on in my house. I witnessed a lot that children should never have to bear witness to or experience at a young age.”
With a sister five years younger, most of Ramsey’s actions were meant to protect her sister. She recalls feeling like a mother her whole life. But finding out she was pregnant at 16 threatened to derail her life before it even had a chance to get started.
“I was determined not to have a child—there was no way in hell I was bringing a child into this life,” Ramsey said, reflecting on her feelings at the time. “Having a child would make my life a thousand times harder than it already was because I was already acting like the adult, working, going to school, taking care of my sister, and I didn’t want to entertain it.”
When money and timing took away Ramsey’s other options, she resorted to acting like she wasn’t even pregnant, trying out for the high school basketball team and entering herself in an upcoming beauty pageant, she recalled. One day her mom shook her and told her to stop. She recognized this was not the life her daughter, who went by Kisha at the time, wanted, and she expressed that she was also living a life she had never intended. But also, she said, ‘This is where we find ourselves. We are in this together, and you have to accept that you’re having a baby.’
“After grieving, something clicked in me,” Ramsey remembers. “I needed to make this child’s life better than mine. That was the switch from Kisha to Kiki and becoming the person I am today, because I latched onto the fact that if this has to happen, then my child will not struggle like I’ve struggled in my life. From that point on, I decided to buckle down in school—I was not going to be a statistic.”
The start of something new
Ramsey went on to graduate with her original high school cohort, moved into her own apartment and was introduced to the idea of college by her self-appointed godmother, Brenda Guy Lane ’79. Today, Lane is a member of the Berea College Board of Trustees, but in the late 1990s, the alumna was organizing trips for high school students to visit Berea College in conjunction with the Greater Urban League of Greenville, now called the Urban League of the Upstate. The organization’s mission is to advance equity by empowering the Black community and underserved individuals throughout the region.
Ramsey was not originally on board with hopping on a bus for a five-hour trip to visit a place in “Nowhere, Kentucky.” She had hardly traveled out of the state and was unsure of what she’d find. However, after Lane’s insistence and help finding a sitter for Ramsey’s son, Tomazye, then a little over a year old, Ramsey boarded a bus for Berea College’s Woodson Weekend experience.
“I vividly remember driving onto Berea’s campus and thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is where I want to raise my child—this is it!” Ramsey said. “I was sold once the bus pulled in and I saw how beautiful Berea was. Coming from the projects and living in places that weren’t so nice, I didn’t realize this could be my life, and I wanted that.
“The fact that they were going to allow me to bring my son was icing on the cake,” she continued. “For me, that was the only college I knew of that would give me a job, a place to stay with my son and a quality education tuition-free. I thought, ‘Am I dreaming?’”
Ramsey worked hard to qualify for Berea College, taking a year to get her grades up to par at a local community college before she applied and was accepted. In 1998, she and Tomazye moved to Berea and began the process of making her dreams come true. She lived first in Frost Cottage with other single moms, relishing the days and evenings cooking together and watching their kids play together. She then moved to family housing in a fully furnished apartment.
Despite issues back home in Greenville, Ramsey thrived at Berea. She wavered between majoring in business and majoring in psychology, which she believed would help her better understand why her mom and people like her chose to do what they did, she said. At the time, she knew a career in psychology would require a doctoral degree, and she couldn’t see that far into the future to consider six additional years of school. So, she chose child and family studies and discovered the idea of social work. Before graduating, Ramsey had already been accepted into a Master in Social Work program at the University of Georgia.
Once in Georgia, Ramsey met her now-husband of 20 years, Dr. Jamil Ramsey, who not only became an instant father for Tomazye, but also the biggest supporter of unlocking her potential. Through internships at the Department of Juvenile Justice and in women’s abuse shelters, Ramsey was confronted over and over with images of her mother, and she allowed herself to get close to these women and understand their stories. After positions with the Shepherd Poverty Alliance in Washington, D.C., and with Johns Hopkins working with mothers and babies in a program for the Center for Addiction and Pregnancy, she discovered her purpose to help women through a bigger calling, she said.
“I had a voice to speak, and I thought people would listen to me,” Ramsey said. “So, I quit in April 2009 to create Kiki Ramsey International.”
The transition was bumpy, since most speakers come from long and amazing careers, her husband said. “But this business was meant to pour into the life of women,” Ramsey said. “It was then that I found my voice and my calling.”
A few months later, after years of doing what Ramsey refers to as “forgiveness work,” she was on a phone call with her mother when her mother said, “Kisha, I’m sorry if I ruined your life.” Knowing the power of words, Ramsey told her mom she hadn’t ruined her life but instead made her the woman she was. She reminded her that she had two beautiful daughters, a grandson who adored her and that, despite all she’d gone through, she had worked steadily her whole life. Her mother, completely taken aback, asked Ramsey to say those same nice things at her funeral one day. Ramsey quickly changed the subject. The next day, her mother passed away.
Ramsey went full steam into her new business. “The company is dedicated in her honor because I am always working with her in mind,” Ramsey said. “She is always with me. Some women need to hear that they are empowered, that they are good enough and that they can do it. That’s where my women’s empowerment focus comes from. She didn’t want to be addicted, but drugs are so powerful, they are hard to beat.
“So that was a defining moment—to know my purpose in life was to help women transform their lives,” she continued.
Today, Ramsey’s business has expanded significantly. She earned an additional master’s degree in positive psychology coaching and finally tackled the Ph.D. in psychology that had seemed unattainable during her undergraduate days at Berea. In 2020, she joined with five other friends in the field of positive psychology coaching and formed the Positive Psychology Coaching and Diversity Institute. As the company’s CEO, Ramsey leads a group of 30 coaches who work with women, especially women of color, who sit in high positions in companies and organizations such as Target, PBS, WEX and Reach Out and Read.
“It’s been the most exhilarating thing that I’ve ever done,” Ramsey said of the life and company she has built. “But I get to dictate my own life, I get to be in rooms with amazing people who sit in high places, and I get to coach CEOs.”
Ramsey’s nearly multi-million-dollar company has led her to a place she never imagined she’d be, she said, but she is still excited about what the future holds for her. With plans to drop another book in the coming year and to take her podcast, “The Dr. Kiki Ramsey Show,” to a new level, Ramsey is leaning into her life’s work: motivating women to transform their life and career. Just as she has done with hers.