An Interview with JDRF Development Manager Victoria Cumbow
Would you believe me if I told you I own a fancy bike that I used to ride around town and race with? Well, hold on to your butts because it's true. And it's how I know today's bitch. I joined a cycling team in 2014 to get ready for a big race. I was on group rides with women who rode at 100mph (rough approximation) and Victoria befriended me and made sure I didn't get left behind. The cycling team didn't last, but the friendship did.
I don't ride my bike that often anymore, but when I do, I ride with Victoria. She reminds me of what I love about exercise - talking! Victoria is fun, kind, and loyal. Do you know all of your neighbors? Victoria does. Do you plan events to raise a million dollars to help cure a disease you've had since you were 11? Victoria does. Do you take it in stride when your 41-year old friend tells you she will not respond to group texts? Victoria does. Meet one of my favorite friends, Victoria Cumbow!
What is your job title and where do you work?
I’m a Development Manager with the Middle Tennessee Chapter of JDRF, (formerly known as Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation). While I manage a few events in our chapter, my main responsibilities include the Blue Jean Ball (a songwriter’s round and fundraising event held in Murfreesboro each fall) and the Promise Gala (a $1.5 million Gala held in Nashville each spring).
When did you first learn about this field of work? How did you know it was what you wanted to do?
That’s a loaded question. I learned about JDRF after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was 11 years old. Back then, it was known as JDF, and my family became involved after my diagnosis. When I was diagnosed, we didn’t know any other families with children who had type 1, but after connecting with JDRF, we met so many others whose lives were like ours. I fell away from JDRF as a college student and young adult. I studied journalism at Auburn and was a newspaper reporter for many years (my actual calling). I was assigned to cover the local JDRF Walk one year, and I reconnected to the organization then. Through my local chapter, I made some friends that participated in the JDRF Ride to Cure Diabetes. It’s a destination bike ride that serves as a tremendous fundraiser. I hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was probably 13 years old, but the year I turned 30, I set out for Death Valley, California, to pedal 100 miles in the desert on my 25-year-old Fuji road bike I’d bought for $50. I literally thought I was going to die in the desert that day, but I managed to find 72 miles in my legs and finished the ride. I’ve been riding ever since, and that’s how I ended up in this role.
After moving back to Nashville, I became the Ride coach for the local JDRF Ride team, which segued into my joining the staff. I’m now in the middle of planning my third million-plus dollar Promise Gala, and I love JDRF with all my heart. It’s a wonderful organization with great leadership, and I’m incredibly proud to be part of this chapter. There are only five of us here, but we produce record-breaking events, and we have a higher efficiency rate than the national average, meaning we contribute 90% of what we raise to JDRF’s mission. I’m incredibly proud of that because I live with this disease day-in and day-out. The more we can contribute to research, the more everyone benefits. It’s personal, and I think that’s where my passion comes from. Some days, I miss journalism terribly. Actually, that’s not true. I miss what journalism used to be; I don’t miss what it has become now. (But that’s a whole other story.)
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve been given?
Pray. My father taught me this lesson in high school when I landed my first job, and it’s been true in every role I’ve ever held. My current career has a tendency to be incredibly hectic and stressful and in those seasons, it is very easy to find yourself emotionally drained. I feel things deeply, and when my stress level is high, I often find myself collapsing alone under a pile of tears. Praying centers me and gives me clarity on making decisions and finding peace. I am calm and rational when my spiritual life is a priority.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned or that helped improve the way you work?
Margin. When I was younger, I was incredibly focused on my career. I worked long hours and put everything I had into my journalism career. It was my calling, and I felt like I was making a difference in my community. When the print publishing industry shifted and I had to transition to a new career, I was lost. Fortunately, I found the sport of cycling around that same time. I fell in love with riding my bike, and it gave me a way to center myself and clear my head. The beauty of cycling is the freedom. You see the world differently and with a fresh perspective. You can’t talk on the phone or answer emails when you’re riding a bike through the country. You’re forced to be alone with your thoughts, and while that can be scary at first, it becomes a freeing experience and an exercise in self-care. If I don’t plan margin in my personal life, my work life suffers. My current role makes it easy to fall back into that habit of working 13-hour days. I’m very lucky that I found a need for margin before I found this job. I have to have boundaries and take care of my mental well-being before I can be successful in anything else.
What would you do with 2 more hours a day?
Find stillness. My favorite time of the day is the early morning. I will often get up an hour or two before my day needs to begin just to have the opportunity to be still. It’s the only time in the day when the rest of the world is quiet. No one’s on email yet or clamoring for your attention. No one needs me, and I’m not running from appointment to appointment. The world is still dark and quiet, and it’s my favorite space in the entire day. Sometimes I pray and read my Bible. Sometimes I just sit on the couch with my dog because I really like being in my house. When I’m in my busy season at work, those quiet mornings become sparse, and if I had two more hours a day, I’d add them to the mornings.
What is your greatest success, or something you’re most proud of related to what you do?
Our efficiency rate. My chapter of JDRF is able to contribute 90% of what we raise to JDRF’s mission of curing, treating and preventing type 1 diabetes. That’s huge, and it’s well above the national average for non-profits. I work hard to ensure that percentage stays high because contributing to research is why I do what I do.
How do you decompress at the end of the work day?
I often go straight from work to another commitment. When I’m finally home for the evening, my favorite space is on my porch or in my hammock with my dog, a glass of wine and Emmylou on the record player. Tennessee weather allows me to soak in nights like this most of the year.
What’s a fear that keeps you up at night?
Making people feel small. I’m a relational person, and I love meeting new people and spending time in social settings. At the end of the day, my head is always spinning as I think back on everything that happened that day. The moments that bother me the most are when I think I’ve let someone down or when I think someone felt marginalized by me. Everyone has value, and because I work in the donor-centric field of development, I want everyone I encounter to feel valued and worthy regardless of where they come from, what they do or their ability to give. I’m sure I fail constantly at this, but it’s something I think about frequently. We live in a world with loud voices and they are coming from every side. It’s easy to become a wallflower. My hope is when I’m around people, they know they matter, are important and that they feel loved and appreciated.
What is one thing everyone gets wrong about what you do?
I’m more than an event planner. My role allows me to wear many hats. I’m a fundraiser and a relationship builder. I manage logistics, décor and all the pieces that go into events, sure, but the most fun part of my job is the relationship piece. We have an incredible board of directors for our chapter, and they are such a huge piece of our success. Those relationships, along with those of our donors, families and constituents, are the best part of what I get to do every day! You can’t plan a $1.6 million gala alone, and I love the people I get to do this job with throughout the year!
What does self care look like in your life?
My self care is prayer and being outdoors. My spiritual life is what centers me, and my reset button is being outside. In fact, when this piece is published, I’ll be hundreds of miles away backpacking and camping in the desert! Outside is my favorite place to be, especially with friends, and it’s where I find energy, peace and stillness.
What helps when you’re stuck? Do you have a motto or quote that inspires/motivates you?
Prayer. That seems simple, but it makes a difference. There’s a piece of scripture in Philippians about having a peace that surpasses all understanding, and it’s on the heels of another verse about not being anxious, but rather praying in those moments. For me, it’s that. I can go from zero-to-sixty real quick, but a few minutes spent in prayer will re-align me and give me a peace and clarity that nothing else can.
Are there any women who helped pave the way for your success?
My mother and my grandmothers. I come from a long line of women who seemingly did it all. They worked full-time jobs, along with balancing marriages and children. Knowing what I know now as a 35-year-old woman, I see the sacrifices they made and the lessons they taught me. I didn’t plan on growing up to be single in my mid-30s, but that’s where my life has ventured, and I am so grateful for women who showed me how to do that. Feminist wasn’t a common term when my grandmothers were growing up, but they absolutely were. I think the greatest of these is my mother. As a child with a chronic illness, we had to manage life differently. My mother showed me how to live life to the fullest regardless of what roadblocks I faced. Her example and the way she and my dad raised me, allowed me to be independent and a dreamer. My outlook on life is because of them and their refusal to let me wallow or feel sorry for myself. There has never been a time in my life when I mentioned an idea or a dream that my mother didn’t encourage me to do.
Lastly, and most important, what is your favorite TV show and what is your favorite snack?
I don’t really watch TV shows, and I have cable mostly for sports (and formerly for news before our current administration took over. I can’t much stomach the news any longer.) But my guilty pleasure is a cheesy rom-coms. It’s terrible, really. I know it, but I keep doing it. I’m a hopeless romantic, and I think that’s why I watch. I can’t believe I’m sharing this publicly, but it’s true. My name is Victoria, and I have terrible taste in movies.
My favorite snack (assuming you’re not including wine as a snack) are hot buffalo flavored pretzels. They are addictive, and you’ve been warned. Don’t look at the nutritional facts though; no one needs that kind of negativity in their life. I only buy them on road trips because if they’re in my house, I have no self-discipline. They’re my self-indulgent travel treat.
All photos courtesy of Victoria Cumbow