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SU2C co-founder Ellen Ziffren talks NE Ohio roots and what has made the nonprofit so successful

August 29, 2018

SU2C co-founder Ellen Ziffren talks NE Ohio roots and what has made the nonprofit so successful

CLEVELAND, Ohio – If you have watched Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game or the World Series in the past several years, you have seen the moment that makes you stop, that raises the hair on your arms.

It’s when a stadium full of fans become quiet in an instant. No commentary, no cheers, no sounds. Just a solemn mass of people holding signs remembering loved ones who have survived cancer, and those who have died.

The placard effort is a result of Stand Up To Cancer, a California-based non-profit organization founded by a small group of women who pooled their networking expertise in the entertainment industry.

Who took an impatient stand against the snail’s pace of bureaucratic holdups in medical research.

Who are committed to fight the fact that 4,700 people a day are diagnosed with cancer.

One of the founding leaders of the group is Ellen Ziffren, a Northeast Ohio native. How the organization operates and how Major League Baseball got involved are testaments to perseverance and examples of smart networking.

Ziffren can eloquently talk about SU2C’s efforts, but she condenses the emotional moments, the placards, the fundraising and the group’s collaborative scientific approach into one simple statement: “We’ve kept people alive.”

Getting started

Nine women founded SU2C; two have been lost to breast cancer. With names like Katie Couric, Sherry Lansing and Lisa Paulsen, the organization’s pipeline to the entertainment industry has fueled millions of dollars to fight cancer through scientific research.

“We are a mighty force,” Ziffren said. “Our skillsets really meld in a perfect way.”

The organization was begun in 2006, with its first biennial telethon held in 2008. This year’s is Friday, Sept. 7.

“All of our lives have been very severely affected,” she said.

Ten years after that inaugural telethon, the group has raised a half billion dollars cumulatively.

“We all had divergent backgrounds. Lisa Paulson of The Entertainment Industry Foundation – both of her parents died of cancer. Katie was still at The Today Show.”

Conversations that were taking place then would form the genesis of what was to become SU2C. About the time Couric was talking to Jeff Zucker of NBC about potential ideas and support, Ziffren said she was mulling ideas with Lansing, who was the first woman to lead a major studio in Hollywood.

“Sherry and I decided we were going to do something about cancer. I had worked with Rob Reiner on early childhood cancer, I had learned how to do these blending causes and entertainment. All of us had the same idea at the same time: How can we harness the power of media and entertainment? What was happening, and still happening, is scientists do not collaborate. They are all competing for the same grant. They all want the intellectual property.

“We were going to attack breaking down the silos between scientists.”

They formed a scientific advisory board, creating a “dream team concept.” Collaboration, Ziffren said, would be a priority.

The inaugural telecast was broadcast on the three major networks. It has expanded to 60.

“We had a great idea and amazing people behind it - and the networks, which were very attractive to potential donors. We had access to all the celebrities you could want.”

Ziffren reads a who’s who of celebrities who have championed the organization’s cause: Patrick Swayze made a public appearance – his first and only one after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Bradley Cooper is co-executive producer, and Gwyneth Paltrow has been involved; both of their fathers died of cancer.

And then came the connection to baseball.

Through Rusty (Robertson) and Sue (Schwartz), our marketing gurus, somehow they got us together with (Chicago White Sox owner) Jerry Reinsdorf. ‘You need to talk to Bud Selig’,” Ziffren said the conversation went.

Selig, a melanoma survivor, listened to the women’s impassioned plea for funding.

“Sherry came out and said ‘That’s why we would like Major League Baseball to be our first $10 million donor.’ ”

Selig was quiet. Minutes passed.

Finally, Ziffren said, his wife looked at him.

″ ‘What are you waiting for Bud?’ He said yes. It took 10 minutes to raise $10 million. At that point we were off and running,” she said.

“Every single time I watch it - I’ve been there for several of them - it kind of takes your breath away,” Ziffren said. “It’s so powerful, when you see every player and umpire and cameraman. Some are holding two or three signs.

“Everyone is one.”

From NEO to California

Ziffren’s route to philanthropic work at the highest level in California comes by way of music in Northeast Ohio.

Born in Ashtabula, she moved to Shaker Heights in second grade, attending Onaway Elementary, Woodbury Junior High and Shaker Heights High School.

She describes her early years as having “kind of a Norman Rockwell feeling to it.”

“I had a wonderful growing up here, I really did. My family was happy, I had great friends. I didn’t think maybe there is someplace else I could live. Until 1964 - it was a game changer for me. The Beatles released their first album. I became a music fanatic. All I wanted to do was buy and listen to records.”

She spent a brief time at the University of Wisconsin but returned and became concert promoter Jules Belkin’s first secretary. The then nascent company was being run out of the family’s clothing business on W. 25th Street, she said.

Ziffren’s first foray into the music business included clients like The Doors, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

“I realized,” she said, “Cleveland was not going to be the place where I was going to pursue my dreams. It was a wonderful place to grow up.”

She moved to San Francisco to work for Columbia Records A&R, then transferred to Los Angeles.

She spent this past weekend in Cleveland, attending a high school reunion and visiting old haunts. And while her roots are in Northeast Ohio, her home has been Southern California, and her heart is in SU2C.

Using a working relationship with the American Association of Cancer Research, Ziffren calls the “bench to bedside” approach critical to the group’s success.

“We wanted to speed up the process,” she said. “So far its worked.”

Sung Poblete was brought in as CEO with a science background. Review sessions with scientists are required and held regularly. A multitude of entertainers contribute time.

“We have built up credibility in the entertainment and scientific community that people know we deliver what we say we’re going to deliver,” Ziffren said.

What is driving Ziffren is her belief that “This is a national health emergency, but it’s not being treated as one. I have not heard one single person in the political arena mention cancer, and it probably affects every single one of their constituents.”

Added Ziffren: “This is not work for me. It’s my passion. Helping people is kind of why I feel we’re all here.”

About SU2C’s efforts

The SU2C telethon is 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7. Ziffren said the placard moments will be shown during the World Series, probably Game 4 or 5 in late October. The 2019 All-Star Game is Tuesday, July 9, in Cleveland.

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