John Matthews, KLN '19, is already a distinguished MBA and global vice president at the software giant SAP. But rather than resting on those accomplishments, he, age 56, decided to return to Klein College to earn his MS in Communication Management as a vehicle to fuel his startup nonprofit that raises awareness and funds for lung cancer treatment.
Matthews' mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer and passed away in 2011. What surprised him was to learn that the illness, which receives less awareness and research support than similar conditions, is the most deadly cancer in the world. As he cared for his mother, he was also shocked by the stigma around the disease.
"The first question they'd always ask was 'Did mom smoke?'" he said. "As if that makes a difference."
The stigma around lung cancer means that research is underfunded, and Matthews wanted to do something to transform ideas about the condition.
"I talked to a woman who thought she had lung cancer," said Matthews. "She went to her doctor and he said 'no, you can't have lung cancer. You're a runner. You're too healthy."
The woman did have lung cancer, though, and found out two years later—much too late. The fact that misconceptions about the disease stand in the way of people getting the help they need angers Matthews—especially because, in many cases, if lung cancer is caught early, most patients can make a full recovery. "They wouldn't do a test," he said. "Just because the gut feeling from the doctor was that a healthy, nonsmoking person couldn't get lung cancer."
Matthews made it his goal to change the story around the disease. "The first step is getting the word out," he said. "It's an epidemic. It's a global epidemic. It kills 430 people a day in this country."
In 2016, with support from his colleagues at SAP, Matthews undertook a 3,400-mile bike ride from Philadelphia to San Francisco, raising $100,000 for lung cancer. Along the way, he met a number of people who had lost loved ones to the disease.
"We were riding with shirts, and a van with our logo on it," said Matthews. "So many times people would stop us and say that they'd lost someone to lung cancer, and they'd thank us."
Matthews turned his ride into a nonprofit called Ride Hard, Breathe Easy, which raises awareness and funds for lung cancer. He encourages everyone to contribute to Ride Hard, Breathe Easy's goal of collectively riding around the world, roughly 25,000 miles in total. Matthews himself will be riding 1,800 of those miles this fall, and is counting on supporters to make up the difference.
"Literally anybody in the world can participate!" Matthews said. "Forget the money part, we're raising money and awareness. The main thing here is that I'd rather have 24,000 people riding one mile than 240 people riding 100 miles!"
In his new role as the leader of a nonprofit, Matthews found himself bringing together diverse teams of riders, volunteers, employees and donors. In order to build his capacity to communicate with those teams, he enrolled in the communication management masters program at Klein College.
Immediately, his decision began to pay dividends.
"What was really inspiring as I was preparing for the bike ride," said Matthews, "was that I'd be taking classes, and there'd be certain elements of what I was learning that would hit me that really helped."
Matthews said that his classes dug into the idea understanding different communication styles, which was useful calibrating his message to the different regions he traveled through.
"You go across this country, and whether you're in Ohio or Nevada or California with different types of people with different ways of communicating," said Matthews. "And that's important."
According to Tracy Weiss, a Klein professor who directs the program, Matthews valuable business experience and open personality brought a lot to the program as well. "He ended up taking on a mentor role," she said. "He worked with a student who had less supervisory experience on a project, and the relationship really developed organically. We expect to see more of that occurring in the program."
Matthews said he gained as much from younger classmates as they did from him. "I'm learning from a whole different group, which is fascinating."
The program is designed to support working professionals by removing obstacles to admission that may be intimidating to them, such as a GRE score, and offering flexible online courses. Weiss encourages the faculty to build community within their classes with weekly evening meetings and project collaboration.
There is no typical student in the program, but Weiss cites Matthews' success story as an example of the immediate, real world benefits of the communications management degree for those at all stages of professional life. Matthews, who has a long career in his field, and is just starting out in nonprofit management represents both ends of the spectrum.
More information about Ride Hard, Breathe Easy is available at www.ridehardbreatheeasy.com.