How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Ohio governor's career-making moment

March 12, 2012: 12:25 PM ET

Spending time with college kids makes you think about formative career moments. Having shared this story with one of my favorite 18-year-olds over the weekend, I realize it's worth sharing with you too.

Mark Kvamme Credit: Sequoia Capital

Last week in Columbus, Ohio, I had dinner with Mark Kvamme, renowned as a Silicon Valley guy through and through. A Valley native and longtime partner at Sequoia Capital--and early backer of LinkedIn (LNKD)--Kvamme had a "moment" in 2010, mid-career, when his buddy John Kasich was elected Ohio's governor. Kvamme (pronounced KWAM-ee) decided to change his life, move to Columbus, and overhaul economic development in the Buckeye State.

On Super Tuesday, we were at an event hosted by WELD (Women for Leadership and Economic Development), where I was giving the keynote and Kvamme, 51, was introducing me. On stage, he deftly weaved in news that Kasich has lured 62,000 jobs to Ohio and cut unemployment below the national average. Privately, Kvamme told a story about another "moment"--when his boss, the governor, found his political calling.

In October 1970, Kasich was one month into his freshman year at Ohio State University when he already felt constrained by onerous rules and regulations on campus. Relentlessly phoning the president's secretary until she responded, 18-year-old Kasich secured a meeting with OSU President Novice Fawcett.

Dr. Fawcett happened to be the only head of a major college who had endorsed Richard Nixon in the 1968 Presidential election. And when Kasich met with him, Fawcett had just received an invitation to the White House. Kasich asked Fawcett if he could tag along, as a student ambassador, and meet the President with him. "No," replied Fawcett, which led to Kasich's Plan B: He persuaded the OSU president to carry a letter, about his national concerns, to the President of the U.S.. Kasich closed his letter to Nixon this way: "P.S. If you'd like to discuss this letter further, please don't hesitate to contact me. I'll make myself available. I'm a college student. I've got time. I'll come to you."

Gov. Kasich, at 18, meets President Nixon

Two weeks later, a letter landed in Kasich's OSU mailbox. Nixon wrote, on official White House stationery, that he would like to meet young John. While Kasich's parents, upon hearing this story, thought their son had lost his marbles, a call soon came, on the dormitory phone, from Rosemary Woods, the President's personal secretary.

Kasich's December 1970 meeting in the Oval Office took place the same week as Nixon's famous photo op with Elvis Presley. Kasich got more than a handshake: Told he'd have five minutes, he got 20. This meeting steered Kasich toward a career in government--which ended up being 18 years in Congress and now the governorship.

"Life is all about seizing the moment," Kvamme said Tuesday evening. Indeed. And as Kasich, 59, says in his memoir, Stand for Something: The Battle for America's Soul, "reaching to the very top in order to get to the bottom of things" sometimes is the fastest way to get ahead.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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