Besa Heroes: A Q&A with Pelotonia CEO Doug Ulman
Besa is an army of change agents, difference makers and superheroes who, one act of impactful kindness at a time, are lifting this city. In our Besa Heroes series, we highlight partners in good. Here, we talk with Doug Ulman—Brown graduate, LIVESTRONG alum, Columbus transplant (via Maryland and Austin), cancer survivor, husband, father, and CEO of Pelotonia.
Doug's Video: https://vimeo.com/225025750
Q: Why do you do what you do?
A: I really love trying to achieve things that other people think are impossible. And I think the only way to do that is to mobilize lots of people. So I think that’s what gives me energy and purpose.
Q: Pelotonia has one goal. What is it?
A: For us, the goal is to eradicate the suffering and death that cancer causes.
Q: Pelotonia—a cycling experience that this year is August 4-6—has raised more than $135 million for cancer research in nine years. How is it moving the needle toward your goal?
A: It’s a long-term proposition. And I think that’s often times the challenge: How do you measure the immediate impact? For us, that’s measured in a couple different ways. One is new breakthroughs that we’re able to find and quickly deliver to patients. Another is, can we see and help the next generation of cancer researchers? Can we give them money to ignite them to want to continue on this career path? We know getting that validation—getting that first grant, that first investment—can lead to people doing incredible things.
Q: What is your biggest asset?
A: The biggest is probably this confluence of partners—this unbelievable institution in The James with corporate partners and a community that cares.
Q: This year, you expect more than 8,000 riders—the most ever. Why do you think Pelotonia resonates with people like it does?
A: My predecessors here deserve an enormous amount of credit for building a culturally relevant brand in how we communicate, how we do merchandise and how we provide an over-the-top experience for our riders. It’s why they’re drawn to something positive in the midst of tough circumstances.
Q: What has been most surprising along the way?
A: The combination of Midwest humility with a desire to do incredible things is really special. And the accessibility to leadership in this town is a surprise. You can call any day and get a response. They’re vested in the growth and success of this city. There’s a pride here.
Q: Where is Pelotonia in 10 years?
A: In 10 years, we will have built a platform whereby people all over the world will be able to participate year-round and become a true part of our community, and that will result in thousands and thousands of lives being saved.
Q: What kind of platform do you envision?
A: A tech platform where, when people are riding a bike to work or with their kids or at a spin class, they will be able to hit start and stop and raise money for cancer research. The impact is what’s going to motivate people. If we can get a million people raising $50 a year… [he smiles]
Q: Switching gears for a moment, you’re a big Besa supporter. Why?
A: They’re making volunteering easy and relevant. Volunteering historically has been seen as transactional or not as significant. They’re bringing an energy that makes it exciting. Humans are so willing to do great things, but if it’s not easy, they’re not going to do it.
Q: How does their work inspire you?
A: I’m just such a believer that any problem can get solved when you bring people together. The beauty of bringing people together to help others—that’s what life’s about, and they’re doing it every day. They’re providing an opportunity to enhance someone’s life—not just the nonprofit or beneficiary, but also the volunteer.
Q: Columbus prides itself on being a vibrant, compassionate city. How have you witnessed that?
A: There’s a deep history here of giving. I think that’s significant. I feel like there’s also this unwritten, unstated expectation that we’re all in this together, and we all have to be involved in something. In a lot of cities I think companies pick one thing, whereas here, they find a way to support multiple things that they care about, and I think that’s unique. When my wife and I were moving here, we were in a meeting, and we were asked what we cared about in the world. We responded, and then the conversation was about, “We will help you get connected to organizations addressing those issues when you move here, because we expect you to be involved.” We left that meeting totally excited about that. It was just an interesting window into the ethos here.
Q: What do you love about Columbus at large?
A: I love the accessibility. The people. And I feel like the next decade here—the city is just booming. It’s fun to live in a place that’s so vibrant. We’ve had over 50 visitors since we’ve been here, and people are just blown away.
Q: Favorite organizations beyond your own?
A: There are so many! We’re big fans of COSI, because of our kids’ ages. We also spend a ton of time and are involved at the Franklin Park Conservatory.
Q: Favorite restaurant?
A: As a family, I’ll say Northstar. I also love The Sycamore.
Q: Ultimate Saturday?
A: Long workout—ride or run. Brunch or pancakes with the family. Something outdoors—maybe going to the pool with the kids. And then dinner with friends.
Q: We’ll end by coming full circle to Pelotonia. It’s a month away. What is noteworthy about this year’s race?
A: It’s the biggest ever, which is great. What we’re focused on this year is a concept called surprise and delight. We really want people to have moments and experiences throughout the weekend that are new and different. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it will be really cool.
Besa is a Columbus nonprofit dedicated to supporting those who need it most by connecting people and businesses with local charities, from food pantries to homeless shelters. Besa offers a volunteer portal where Columbus residents can easily find and register for volunteer opportunities citywide; it hosts drives for various nonprofits; and it helps corporate partners manage and enhance their philanthropic efforts. Learn more at www.givebesa.org.