Pelotonia's new CEO is an activist and survivor with big ideas for growing central Ohio's premier fundraiser for cancer research.
Doug Ulman is irrepressible - which is a wonderful quality to have in a cancer survivor who views his mission as helping to eradicate cancer.
When Pelotonia begins its annual cycling weekend on Aug. 7, the day will also mark the 19th anniversary of an emergency room visit that led to a sarcoma diagnosis for Ulman half his life ago. His cancer experience helped turn him into a cancer activist - first as head of his own nonprofit, the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults - then as an executive and ultimately CEO of the LIVESTRONG Foundation in Austin, before being recruited to lead Pelotonia in Columbus.
In his first year as president and CEO of Pelotonia, Ulman bursts with enthusiasm for making the cycling fundraiser for OSU's James Cancer Hospital even more prosperous.
"I believe that we collectively can achieve tremendous things. I guess I learned from my parents that adversity is not an excuse to settle for something less than you think is possible, and that's the way I approach life," Ulman says.
Ulman talked with Columbus CEO about his vision for the organization, which this year will top the $100 million mark in funds raised since its establishment in 2008 to support the James' cancer research. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
In December, you will have been president and CEO of Pelotonia for a year. What has surprised you the most about your experiences so far in Columbus?
I've been pleasantly surprised by the nature of the community's engagement. That was something that people told me prior to moving here. And I think I believed it to a certain extent, but now having been through it for several months, I've never witnessed anything like it.
What I've seen and experienced here from the corporate standpoint is unparalleled - to see committed leaders of massive Fortune 500 companies stand up and talk personally about why this matters, and then encourage their colleagues to participate in some way and set the expectation that the community is counting on them to participate - is powerful.
I set my expectations low just to be safe, and I've been so inspired by what I've seen and humbled by it.
What makes Columbus different from other cities?
My hypothesis is there is a culture of collaboration and a culture of really investing in the community and not just Pelotonia.
I had a friend from Austin visiting, and we went to the Rolling Stones concert, which was awesome. I introduced him to a couple of people who were there, and they were all executives of big companies, and they were all together as friends. As we were leaving the show he said to me, 'I think that's really unique.' That these CEOs of massive companies - they want to be around each other, they're friends with each other and they collaborate on all sorts of things.Every year Pelotonia raises more money than the year before, but how else do you measure the success of your work?
Historically the focus has been on the dollars, and that's a means to the end, but that's not the end. The end is new therapies, new research, improved quality of life for patients and ultimately saving the lives of patients. That's not as easy to measure and as easy to communicate as the dollars, so we need to measure both. I want us to be in the future at a point where anyone who donates or volunteers or rides truly understands the impact of what they're enabling or accomplishing.
We're testing some merchandise opportunities; we're actually working with CCAD on a big partnership to have their students and professors help us. We'll see the fruits of that in 2016.
The other thing we're focusing on this year is a strategy for what is currently called virtual riders - I'm not sure that is the best description of it - but a strategy for how can more people participate in Pelotonia that aren't here in Columbus, and so we're working with the team at Resource/Ammirati on a strategy for engaging.
As an example, L Brands has 90,000 employees. How can their employees around the world really feel that they're a part of Pelotonia? With their (Resource/Ammirati's) expertise in technology and building out platforms, how could you build something that in some ways simulates the experience you would get if you were here? Because right now, the virtual experience is more transactional.
Last year the ride raised over $21 million. What do you expect from this year's ride?
We've never had a public goal, as far as I know, but growing the fundraising by 10 percent would be a starting place, so $23 million?
One of the other things we're working on this year is expanding (the) check-presentation event because we want it to be more inclusive. I think it's going to be at the (Schottenstein Center). It will be a celebration. We won't just announce the money raised, we'll also announce some of what it's funding. That's an example of where instead of just talking about how much we raised, we'll say 'and here's the research it's funding as a result.' Every time we have that opportunity, we need to be talking about the impact. And we're going to have all the researchers there.
One of the unique things about Pelotonia is that the researchers have to ride, and they have to raise money. They actually track it at Ohio State. You can't receive funding if you don't participate, and that is one of the most unique things I've ever seen. It's not us - the survivor community - raising money and sending it to a research lab. It's activists and scientists doing it together. This theme we've been developing that we're faster together, it's not one or the other, it's sort of 'we've got to do this in tandem' - that's a really unique thing that I've not seen any other organization do.
What is your typical day?
I typically get up at five and I run or cycle or do something, and that usually includes some work component. I ride a lot with Chris Olsen, one of the founders of Drive Capital. So Drive Capital now has a peloton for the first time because nobody wants to go exercise with me and not have committed to participate, which is great.
The days are all different; a combination of internal meetings and a lot of external community and corporate peloton kickoff events, so speaking to a lot of groups and being part of their energy-building and registration campaigns. It's part of the DNA of Pelotonia. I've learned the nature of the recruitment of the participants is very grassroots. I think of Pelotonia as being owned by the community. It's a social movement that they're the leaders of; we're just stewards, just part of the team.
Pelotonia riders must raise a minimum of $1,200 - and more for the longer rides. Is that a barrier to attracting riders?
We hear from people all the time that it is a barrier. And I think fundraising in general can be daunting and overwhelming for people that have never done it. That said, I believe everyone can do it. Everyone has the capacity to do it. Doesn't mean it's easy. It's not. It can be overwhelming for people at first, but we have hundreds of examples of people who thought that way who signed up and who've all been successful. We actually need to highlight those stories to show people what is possible.
People are so generous and we always say you are not asking for yourself. You're asking for something you believe in. We've had high school kids who've raised two-three-four thousand dollars. It is totally possible and doable, but the psychological barrier is definitely there.
How much of Pelotonia is the bicycle ride and how much is the mission?
Just as the money raised is a means to actually achieving our goal, the ride is a platform to achieve the goal. I think of cycling as a very democratic activity. Everyone can participate in a bike ride. But the bike ride is a platform to something way more important, which is ending the suffering and death that cancer brings, and so it's a unique platform.
Pelotonia from a brand and community standpoint has the potential to be much larger. It started as a bike ride and quickly became something so much more. I'm not sure you (would)get the level of engagement if it was a walk or a run. The ride is definitely unique. There's definitely a bigger barrier to entry, but it's really an experience. It's a bigger experience than you might get elsewhere.
One of the great successes of Pelotonia thus far has been this sort of maniacal focus on the event here. It could be easy to become distracted with other things, but they've done a great job saying we're going to produce something that has such a great experience that people hopefully won't fathom skipping next year. That's been from day one - this idea that everybody who participates tells one more person, 'hey, you've got to do this.' That focus has served the organization really well.
You have more than a million followers on Twitter. What's important about that?
Twitter launched in Austin in 2008 at South by Southwest. Until Twitter was launched, I had never had a Facebook page. Never.
A colleague came in my office and said, 'You should download this thing called Twitter.' And I still didn't get it. He said, 'This could be really good. It's a way to communicate.' So over time I've just developed this belief that Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and whatever else, these are tools that provide us a platform to communicate in real time and be totally transparent with people who have self-selected to receive the information. And it's free!
I remember when I started a nonprofit out of my dorm room getting volunteers together to staple newsletters to send out, and that's not that long ago. Now we have these tools. What started as a suggestion by a colleague has become a fabric. To me they're not a tactic, they're a strategy. It should be part of our strategy, and I think we're going to build an even more robust social media platform here.
Anything else people should know?
I just always want to emphasize how grateful we are, that people in this community care enough about cancer research, care enough about the James and care enough to spend hours and hours of time, volunteering, fundraising, riding - whatever their participation level is. It is so appreciated by not just our team here but people at the James and people well beyond central Ohio who will be the beneficiaries of their efforts.
And that's what we can never lose focus on, that there are people whose lives are being changed every day because someone woke up and said, 'I'm going to ride,' or 'I'm going to volunteer' or 'I'm going to donate.' That's the ultimate measure of success.
Mary Yost is the editor.