Sunday Sitdown: Ben Bornstein matches cancer victims to ‘angels’
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Ben Bornstein is marking one year as the first CEO of Imerman Angels, a free, service based in downtown Chicago that matches people with cancer and caregivers with cancer survivors. Bornstein, 46, a former hedge-fund adviser with a Harvard law and business pedigree, is a three-time cancer survivor. He spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Sandra Guy. An edited transcript follows.
Question: You’ve got ambitious goals.
Answer: We have 10 years of experience connecting cancer fighters, caregivers and survivors. We never want people with cancer or their caregivers to feel they wished they had known about us and missed a chance to get support from someone who’s been through what they’re experiencing.
Imerman Angels’ founders — Jonny Imerman and John May — are visionaries. My role is to manage our growth to help as many people as possible. When Jonny and I talked in late 2015, I was on eight or nine philanthropic boards. I told Jonny I’d be willing to take a big pay cut to work for this charity.
In the next three years, the goal is to get on a trajectory toward 10,000 matches, from 2,500 a year now, and double the yearly budget to $3 million.
We don’t waste dollars. We have only 11 full-time employees at the Chicago headquarters.
We have over 7,000 “mentor angels.” They can mentor multiple people.
We also have 30 ambassadors — uber-volunteers who spend time in hospitals with cancer patients. We’re in 60 countries.
Q: You grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. Your dad was an English literary professor, and your mom was an art historian who took the family on tours of cathedrals throughout Europe. Amid what sounds like an idyllic childhood, your first cancer came when you were 14.
A: I was a baseball guy. It was, looking back, fortuitous that I got hit by a pitch in the right groin area. The pitch hit a tumor that turned out to be non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The University of Michigan Cancer Center is one of the nation’s leading cancer centers. I was within walking distance to getting my treatment. I went back to school. I had 18 months of chemo, including spinal taps, which get chemo into your spine and brain. It was a pretty rough go. My hair was falling out. It wasn’t hip to be bald back then. It was the big-hair 1980s. I had a wig. While I had wonderful doctors and social workers, they weren’t a peer to a 14-year-old boy.
Q: You employ workers in Chicago to take calls and help match cancer survivors, people with cancer and caregivers. Why?
A: We could use an algorithm. But we wanted the human input. We can hear what a person really wants and modify the match to their needs. With parents’ permission, we can match minors. We actively match parents as caregivers of kids.
Q: Your second bout with cancer forced you to learn how to talk again.
A: I went to my dentist in May 1999 for a teeth-cleaning. I was 28. The dentist said, “There is a little skin flap on your tongue, almost to your throat.” I went to a specialist, and it was aggressive tongue cancer. The surgery involved leaving the tip of the tongue, carving out a half-moon and patching skin over it. Rehab was like going to the gym: You train your tongue how to eat and speak. When people say I have an accent, I reply, “It’s a cancer accent.”
The third cancer was in December 2014. My dermatologist noticed a spot on my ear. It was basal-cell carcinoma, and he shaved off the cancer cells.
Q: You ran your own investment firm, Prospero Capital Management, for 24 years and founded Med Vault, which uses biometric scanning to look up a patient’s allergies and electronic records. What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
A: Entrepreneurs often fail at people management. They are devastated when they don’t have short-term success. Another pitfall is they try to do everything themselves. Entrepreneurs also need to be able to accept and tolerate failure.
The upside: Entrepreneurs have the chutzpah, energy and confidence to try things, take risks.
Q: Talk about your marketing.
A: We had Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford do a promo. They were filming a “Blade Runner” sequel, and Gosling’s brother-in-law had just died of cancer. We did a raffle. The winner got to have lunch with Ford and spend time on the set.
We have some initiatives with churches and venues in the black community. We have brochures in multiple languages. We’re looking to bring more women and people of color onto our board.