Photo by Chris Casella

Livestrong & Prosper

Doug Ulman attended the inaugural Pelotonia ride six years ago, along with his colleague and friend Lance Armstrong, who spoke at the opening ceremony. Ulman didn’t participate; he just watched. He continued to observe during the subsequent years as Pelotonia CEO Tom Lennox polished the event into the jewel of grassroots, participatory fundraising.

He’s no stranger to cancer—he was diagnosed three times before he was 21. He founded the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults to help other patients his age gain support, and he beat the disease. His work came to the attention of Armstrong, who called upon Ulman to be the fourth employee at the Lance Armstrong Foundation. For the next 12 years, as Armstrong became the face of the fight against cancer, Ulman helped transform a small organization into a global fundraising behemoth.

But in October 2012, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released its infamous report detailing systemic cheating within the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, aimed in particular at Armstrong. His public image crumbled and he was asked to leave his own nonprofit, which suffered plummeting financial support and changed its name to the Livestrong Foundation. The next two years were extremely stressful for Ulman, now CEO, far more intense than he could have imagined. He survived that, too, and after Lennox parted ways with Pelotonia earlier this year, Ulman was lured here by Ohio State’s shiny new James Cancer Hospital and the collaborative, engaged community in Columbus.

Walking away from Livestrong was like leaving family—“a way of life” he said, then echoed the phrase moments later when talking about the significance of Pelotonia. He’s here full-time now after weeks of bouncing between Austin and Columbus, his office window offering a view of the Arena District, granite winter skies doing nothing to darken his perpetually bright mood.

One of the original advantages of Livestrong was Lance Armstrong—having him associated with the charity gave you a figurehead to build the brand around. And Pelotonia lacks that, especially outside of Columbus. Do you see that as an obstacle?
I don’t. … I see it as an opportunity for Pelotonia to be a platform for anyone—whether they’re a visible individual or whether they’re not. If we can build a platform for anybody who’s interested in cancer research, who’s interested in being a part of this movement, whether they’re famous or not, I think that’s who we want to engage.

Armstrong founded Livestrong and Tom Lennox lead Pelotonia from the start. Both men had very personal reasons attached to the cause. Is it difficult to take somebody else’s passion project and grow it into something more?
I don’t see it as difficult. Obviously I come to this with a very personal background…what Tom and the team here created and grew over six years is the talk of the country. I mean, everybody’s talking about it, and so I feel great admiration and respect for Tom and feel like they’re big shoes to fill, for sure. I also think if Pelotonia ever becomes about me, we’re in trouble. That’s where I get back to this idea of [it being] a democratic movement, and yes there are leaders in different aspects of it, but it’s gotta stand on its own. And in 10 years if we want Pelotonia to be raising hundreds of millions of dollars and have national exposure, then it’s not gonna be about me or about any one of us here. It’s gonna be about the cause and the brand and the movement.

You mentioned your own battle with cancer, does that provide personal motivation for this kind of work? Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why it doesn’t feel like work. You know, we used to have a saying at Livestrong—and I’m sure we’ll have it here—is that the survivor or the patient is always first. And so you’ve got 150 emails but then the phone rings and it’s somebody who’s newly diagnosed, or somebody who’s in the hospital…and you drop everything. And I think it’s easier to do that when you know what it’s like to be that person on the other end of the phone. It just never feels like a job or a chore—it’s a lifelong commitment and it makes it really easy to be passionate about it.

How does your experience with Livestrong translate to your role here at Pelotonia? Pelotonia is not a bike ride. Pelotonia is a grassroots movement, or a social movement. And I think the brand is a brand that signifies so much more than just an event. It can be a way of life. It can be a grassroots community. It can be an access point for people who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And I think in a lot of ways, the Pelotonia brand is similar to Livestrong in that way. You see people wearing Pelotonia T-shirts or a sweatshirt, and there’s a sense of pride that they’re a part of this movement or this community.

Pelotonia has pretty good market penetration here. How do you grow the base of riders and volunteers when there’s already widespread awareness and participation?
I think it’s hard. I think we hear from people all the time who tell us that every year they get asked by 12 people who are doing Pelotonia to donate. And they sort of divide up their money and they give each person $20…there’s an event in Massachusetts that this was modeled after, called the Pan-Mass Challenge, and it’s been going for 40 years. And this year they raised, I think, $40 million, and they have less participants than Pelotonia does, but they’ve been doing it for so long that people have become really, really great fundraisers. It’s a skill, you know—it’s like sales or anything else. You develop the skill. And one of the challenges or opportunities for us is if we can grow the Pelotonia brand nationally it will make it easier for people to raise money. So if you’re a participant and you email your family and friends in Florida, I want those people in Florida to know what Pelotonia is before they get that email and say, “Wait a minute, I’ve heard of that. That’s right, that’s that movement to end cancer.”

You’ve mentioned the expansion of the brand into a national presence. I’m envisioning something along the lines of Race for the Cure—multiple events in multiple cities.
Honestly, I’m not sure that every community has the characteristics that Columbus has, and the generosity of the funding partners, and the relationship to the cancer center, the hospital, the university. The dynamics that exist here seem to be very unique in that collaboration, and so I think we need to be cautious about how expansion would happen, because the worst thing that could happen is expanding in a way that damages the brand. And that’s why we’ve talked a lot internally about things like the virtual ride. How do we enhance that so that tens of thousands of people across the country can participate in a virtual ride where the brand is preserved and the authenticity and credibility is preserved? Easier said than done. [laughs]

We are getting much better at treating cancer, but it still doesn’t feel like there’s this cure right around the corner. With all the millions of dollars that go into cancer research centers and charities each year, do you worry about that fatiguing the public? I think that in many ways the public over decades now has been misled in some form, so that the expectation in the public is there’s gonna be this day when we cure cancer. And so I think the definition of “cure” is very tricky. Because ultimately cancer is hundreds of different diseases that we just combine under this umbrella called “cancer.” And so for some people a cure might be a new therapy. For other people a cure might be a vaccine that prevents them from ever getting it. For somebody else a cure might be surgery. So it’s so different, and one of the exciting things about Pelotonia is the funding that we are able to generate for the James, a lot it is going towards these things like these Idea Grants, which are $100,000 grants to young scientists who have what some would say are outlandish ideas. And they would never, ever otherwise get funded.

But the other thing is the James, as a result of Pelotonia, has already had one new therapy approved for leukemia. And so if you have that type of leukemia, that may be your cure. But I think the public has been conditioned over years to think that there’s gonna be this one silver bullet, and obviously that’s not gonna happen. But I think the value that we’re providing to the James and that this Pelotonia community has created is unbelievable in two ways: one, it’s actually already positively impacting and saving lives; and two, whatever happens at the James will be translated across the country and around the world. So that new leukemia therapy, I’m sure in 2015 will be available at centers all across the country and the world. And so even though it started here, it can actually change the world. 

Pelotonia has now raised more than $82 million for cancer research. Registration is now open for the 2015 event, which will take place August 7-9. For more, visit pelotonia.org.

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