Cancer survivor and recent Trulaske grad Nicole Cummings, BS BA ’20, makes the most out of every opportunity.
by Kelsey Allen
Nicole Cummings was all set to go to University of Kansas. Her mom had even stocked up on blue and red decorations. But then Cummings found out she was accepted into the Trulaske College of Business’ Cornell Leadership Program.
“Business was the family language at the dinner table,” says Cummings, who grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, and whose father founded one of the larger high-frequency equity trading firms in the U.S. “We were always talking about what the stock market was doing and how you operate a business. When it came to my career, I was a pretty open book, though. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do besides the fact that I wanted to do something in the world of business and pursue a degree in finance and real estate.”
Established in 2006, the Cornell Leadership Program (CLP) provides students with opportunities to engage with business thought leaders at companies like Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble, participate in leadership seminars, and receive mentorship from Trulaske faculty and staff.
“It takes students beyond the classroom,” Cummings says. “Being part of CLP would allow me to meet with different executives, do case studies, learn about different aspects of the industry and figure out what I found most appealing. As soon as I heard that I made it into that program, I switched to Mizzou, and it was the best decision I ever made.”
Twist of Fate
At Mizzou, Cummings took advantage of the many ways to get involved. She joined a sorority, was appointed to a panel that creates recommendations for the allocation of student fees, won a Huhtamaki sales competition and studied abroad with the business school in Alicante, Spain. “I was living my best life,” she says.
In fall 2018, the junior finance major was selected to go on the Tigers on Wall Street trip, which sends CLP students to the Big Apple to job shadow alumni and network. In preparation, the business students attend a six-week boot camp of sorts. “Every Friday, we would spend half the day cramming about different concepts, learning about the hedge fund industry and private equity, gaining a deeper insight into current events and Mizzou alumni who work in the industry in New York,” she says. “It was the best class I took at Mizzou but never paid for.”
A week before the trip, Cummings was at Ellis Library cramming for a statistics exam, working on internship applications and researching prospective companies at the Trulaske College of Business Career Fair. But she was tired, and even a quadruple-shot Starbucks couldn’t energize her. “I wasn’t making any progress, so I decided to call it a night,” she recalls. As she was getting ready for bed, she noticed a large lump on her neck. Her mom convinced her to go to the emergency room, and that’s where Cummings discovered that she wasn’t just busy-college-student tired. She had a 2-by-3-centimeter tumor on her chest that was stealing her body’s nutrients and making her feel extreme fatigue — and she wouldn't be going to New York.
“It was devastating,” Cummings says. “I think I was more upset about not going on the Tigers on Wall Street trip than I was being sick.” One of the first people Cummings called was her mentor, Mary Beth Marrs, BS IE ’87, MBA ’95, PhD ’99, who directs the Cornell Leadership Program and coordinates the trip to Wall Street. “She comforted me and told me I’d go on the trip next year, which meant a lot. She gave me a positive outlook from the beginning. Whatever is going on, we’re going to figure it out, and there’s going to be a future. There’s something to look forward to. She gave me that gift.”
Two weeks and a pulmonary test, a cardiogram, port placement, a bone marrow biopsy and a PET scan later, doctors at the University of Kansas Cancer Center offered a diagnosis: Cummings had stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cancer had spread to her bones, chest, left hip and back.
Cummings never identified as a cancer patient. Instead, she viewed her diagnosis as a problem to solve.
“It might be the finance major in me, but I very much took it step by step,” Cummings recalls. “What’s the best course of action? Do I have the right people on my team? I spent hours and hours online understanding the basics of biology. What is the lymphatic system? I joke now that I have a minor in oncology because I learned so much. It was really up to me. I wanted to make sure I was not only understanding what was going on but then also that I was prepared to ask the right questions and think critically about the problem that was at hand. That’s how I really dealt with it — by being an active part of the solution.”
She met with nutritional therapists; started a plant-based, gluten- and sugar-free diet; and surrounded herself with positive people and positive energy. During one of her first chemotherapy treatments, Cummings noticed she was different from many of the other people in the room. “I was super positive,” she says. “It was always the mentality, ‘I get to go to chemo. I don’t have to go to chemo; I get to go to chemo.’ It’s a privilege to have access to this medicine. I noticed that everyone around me didn't necessarily share that positive mindset.”
While sipping water out of an aqua YETI® tumbler given to her by a family friend, she had an idea: It’s important to stay hydrated during chemo treatments because water helps flush toxins out of the body and reduces side effects. “Water is a huge component of the chemotherapy process,” Cummings says. “You have to drink tons and tons — I mean tons — of it. That YETI® cup really became an integral part of my journey and one of the gifts I used the most. But more than anything, it was a constant reminder to smile and that I wasn’t alone on my journey.”
Cummings wondered if she could share the gift of a positive mindset to others receiving chemotherapy. From the chemo chair, she created CUREageous Cups. “I came up with the idea that at people’s first treatments, when they’re nervous and on edge and there’s all this negative energy surrounding them because they don’t know how they're going to react, there’s a little surprise box waiting for them. In it lies a YETI® cup to hopefully encourage people to view the glass as half full instead of half empty on their journey.”
Calling on skills she learned in business courses at Mizzou, she drafted a business plan, got it approved by the cancer center and reached out to contacts in her network to connect with the CEO of YETI®, with whom she worked to secure discounted pricing. “Mizzou taught me the skills that were necessary,” Cummings says. “It wasn’t the first time I was in front of a CEO, so I wasn’t as nervous. I knew not to take no for an answer.”
Since launching in November 2018, CUREageous Cups has given over 3,000 tumblers to new cancer patients to spark their positivity as they undergo treatment at University of Kansas Cancer Center.
And since Cummings’ fourth chemo treatment, though she completed 12 in total, she’s been in remission.
Another Tiger on Wall Street
Cummings returned to Columbia in fall 2019, and that semester, she made her long-awaited trip to New York through Tigers on Wall Street. Students met with Mizzou alumni at Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Apollo, CD&R and Blackstone, among other prominent firms.
At Blackstone, Cummings connected with Thomas Pologruto, chief data architect and chief technology officer of liquid markets and data science. She was later offered the opportunity to be a summer analyst on his team, and after graduating in December, she joined Blackstone full time as an analyst within the hedge fund solutions group on the Business Financial Evaluation team, where she’ll be performing operational due diligence on hedge fund managers.
“Tigers on Wall Street was a one-of-a-kind experience that really set me up for my future successes and the career that I have today,” Cummings says. “CLP really allows you to make unique connections and get exposed to things you might not even think of as opportunities. It was a program that set me apart and contributed to my wonderful Mizzou experience. To be one of the first graduates to work at Blackstone from Mizzou — not only have I achieved my goals and more, but I’m so lucky to be where I am today.”