Kelley Griesmer ’93 Takes on Cancer as COO of Pelotonia
Kelley Griesmer ’93 is drenched in lime green, from her shirt to her wristwatch to her messenger bag. A stack of posters are tucked under one elbow, as she cradles a smartphone and large caffeinated tea in her hand.
Two radios are clipped to her skirt, and another snakes over her left shoulder. Incredibly, she finds a free hand to tug at the latter.“I understand water bottles are on their way here with one of the trucks, but do we have any cups in the meantime?” she asks. “There’s been a small corps of volunteers here since 8 a.m., and they’re getting kind of thirsty.”
Before she has an answer, Griesmer starts walking across the fields at Chemical Abstracts Service toward a small check-in tent for volunteers of the wildly popular grassroots bicycle tour and fundraiser, Pelotonia.
“We’re working on it!” she says, her perpetual smile growing broader, as a measure of reassurance.
Still holding her tea and posters, Griesmer turns and walks briskly toward another field, where dozens of volunteers are lugging tables and folding chairs to a large tent. In seven hours, more than 10,000 people will converge upon here for dinner.
Griesmer addresses three or four other questions from staff, vendors and sponsors as she walks. Her radio squawks as she nears the dining tent. Someone found cups.
“Guys! Hey, there’s water over there and cups now, too!” she calls out. “Take a break and get some water, please. You are doing great! Thank you!”
Griesmer’s day at work has changed considerably in the last three years.
Before Griesmer became chief operating officer of Pelotonia, she was a partner at Jones Day, representing clients in complex commercial litigation. She handled Chapter 11 adversary proceedings, took on class action claims, defended breach of contract actions, and successfully argued before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, securing a multimillion-dollar judgment on behalf of one client.
“When I had the opportunity to work at Jones Day, I knew it would be an amazing experience to be involved in the large litigation they do and learn from the extraordinary lawyers there,” she said. “I thrived a little bit more than I thought I would.”
The work was complicated and intellectually challenging. Among her colleagues were many friends dating back to their days as students at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. When six of them made partner at the same time, Griesmer said, “It was an all in the family thing.”
Yet, she had a nagging feeling that, in the long run, she would not be completely fulfilled by what she was doing. Griesmer began to watch closer the people working at the nonprofit organizations where she was a board member.
Around that time, Tom Lennox was diagnosed with colon cancer. While his treatment was successful, it was an awakening for his family, including his sister-in-law Elizabeth “Liza” Kessler ’93, and friends like Griesmer.
“He’s just a very alive person, and it was a pretty big hit to watch him go through that,” Griesmer said. “It solidified my thinking that I needed to do something else.”
After Lennox and Mike Caligiuri, director of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, rode bicycles 163 miles across Cape Cod in support of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, they were determined to create a similar event in Columbus with one goal: to end cancer.
Lennox resigned from his vice president of corporate communications post at Abercrombie & Fitch to devote his energies entirely to founding Pelotonia. He needed someone to head up operations and turned to Griesmer.
“It was hard and easy for me to leave Jones Day,” she recalled. “I had a lot of great friends there, and I had a successful practice there. But I knew I was going to get more out of this, and that’s been 150 percent true.”
Griesmer’s legal experience was critical for Pelotonia as it took shape. Lennox and Jessica Kinman, director of publicity and communications, were tasked with big-picture, creative work. Griesmer methodically attacked the nitty-gritty details in contracts with vendors and venues, forging relationships with multiple public safety organizations, solidifying trademarks, making arrangements with insurance providers, and more.
“A law degree is a valuable thing to have. I know how to take large, complex situations and chip away strategically to get to the place where we want to be,” she said. “We look at Pelotonia as big business, and we’re in the business of saving lives.”
Pelotonia is big, especially when considering the nonprofit organization is only in its third year of existence.
In August, it attracted approximately 5,000 riders, who thus far have raised more than $9 million for cancer research at the The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute. Participants raised $13.1 million in 2011.
Because corporate partners cover the expenses – such as Chemical Abstracts Service allowing free use of its 50-plus acres for Pelotonia activities gratis – every penny raised by riders goes directly to cancer research. They have raised more than $25.5 million since the first Pelotonia in 2009.
But those figures aren’t being discussed on a cloudless Friday afternoon, just hours before riders arrive to receive their jerseys, explore the exposition tents, and listen to live music designed to amplify the excitement prior to a two-day, weekend ride.
Griesmer is fine-tuning details with insurance providers to caterers. She occasionally bumps into other lawyers she has recruited to help for the weekend, such as April Bott ’96 and Kim Rhoads ’93. Attorneys, Griesmer said, are problem-solvers and good organizers. They do not require a lot of hand-holding, which is paramount today, as Griesmer is pulled in different directions.
Looking at her watch, Griesmer surveys the acres of activity around her. Directional flags are going up, and the mountain of folding chairs and tables disappeared long ago thanks to those volunteers. “Good,” she says with a deep breath. “If it’s this quiet, we’re good.”
For all that Pelotonia has accomplished in such a short time, Griesmer is reticent to say the organization is successful.
“We’re going up against a big thing,” she said. “Until you don’t have to hear stories about the next person going in for treatment, you don’t feel that you’ve succeeded. It’s not that we’re pessimistic. It will take a lot of dollars to cure this disease, and it’s going to be cured.”
For this reason, Griesmer flicks her aviator sunglasses down on the bridge of her nose and sets off on another 200-yard walk to make sure a delivery of bicycles from the New York City offices of The Limited Brands, Inc. is going smoothly.
For this reason, Griesmer has worked until 11 p.m. every night for the last three weeks, seeing little of the two people who have supported her most, husband Gregory Gorospe ’93 and their 9-year-old son, Keiran.
For this reason, she left her well-appointed office at Jones Day.
“It comes down to being brave,” she said of making the leap from a traditional practice to the nonprofit sector. “By most people’s measurements, I was going to be successful, but I knew I wasn’t ultimately going to be happy. I believe that you have to know yourself well enough to be honest with yourself, and I’ve never regretted it.”