Nine13sports was founded in Indianapolis, IN as a health & fitness focused nonprofit over the course of 2012 by former national champion cyclist Tom Hanley. As Tom traveled as a competitive athlete he saw that most of the kids at the velodromes and BMX tracks were from middle to upper class families who had the means to provide their children with the equipment and pay the fees to take part in the programming offered.
He noticed that there weren’t as many opportunities for disadvantaged youth to engage with the bicycle and while he was the product of the environment where the bicycle was used as a tool to increase performance, Tom felt it could be used to impact youth of all backgrounds if it were placed within a program that allowed for equitable access and was relevant throughout the entire year – not just during the traditional warmer weather riding months.
The original vision and business plan were centered around this goal. In order to make an impact on the youth of Indianapolis by bringing the joy of bicycling to kids of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities it made sense to create an organization that was mobile based and could bring the experience to where the kids were already gathered – and 10 months out of the year that location is their school.
In spite of the fact that Tom had no background in education and no experience in the nonprofit industry, he took stationary trainer stands that interface with an interactive software, added durable bicycles that could accommodate kids of all sizes and launched beta programming in 3 schools that first year.
The fear of failure is omnipresent anytime something new and different is attempted and the early program activations were defined by many different questions: “Will this work?” “Will the kids like it?” “Most of the kids will be able to pedal a bike, right?”
Growing up in a household that valued entrepreneurship, being willing to fail wasn’t overly concerning to Tom. In fact launching something that wasn’t completely perfect was an exciting part of the journey. Feedback came quickly in many forms: from the kids, from the teachers and from others in the cycling community.
A few specific moments stand out from that first year – the time a teacher pulled Tom aside to point out the student that refused to get off the bike because he was having so much fun was the same student who typically tried to skip PE class. Or the moment at a school where the special needs students who were integrated into regular classes were able to fully participate in an activity alongside their classmates for the first time.
These early engagements were proof that the vision of being able to create a space where kids of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities could be positively impacted by the bicycle was completely attainable. And the Nine13sports mantra was born:
“The Bicycle is the Ultimate Equalizer”
As word started spreading throughout the community of physical education teachers over the next few years there was significant growth in the demand for the Kids Riding Bikes program – especially since it was provided to schools at no charge. As Tom attempted to grow the funding necessary to meet this demand he focused on traditional philanthropic grants that were difficult to secure during this time because the economy was recovering from a recession. Rejections rolled in claiming the organization was still too young, too small and too different.
Luckily he was familiar with a different model of funding from his time as an elite cyclist – if there was a way to create value for corporations, there could be a path for them to provide financial support through their marketing and community engagement efforts. Retooling the funding approach and focusing on the local Indianapolis corporate community turned out to be not only what kept the organization afloat at the time, but has become a critical part of the impact we make in the city.
Little by little the momentum continued to build. Media exposure led to new inquiries from the corporate community that led to mutually beneficial relationships. Scaling our reach into more schools each year allowed us to garner the interest of key foundations who were willing to award us grants to support our efforts.
Activating our bicycle simulator in public facing event settings like a Health & Fitness Expo introduced us to our first partner from the healthcare industry and their investment not only took us into new school districts but also put us in a position to hire our first employee.
Our eyes were also opened to how we could leverage our equipment in other settings to the benefit of our funding partners. To this day we are sought out by both event planners as well as corporate partners because our bicycle simulator is a highly visible and brandable way of having a presence tied to health & wellness that kids of all ages can enjoy.
“We would eventually come to realize that without intentionally setting out to do so, we had become a positive disruptor wherever we went.”
We disrupted the school environment as educators began using the Kids Riding Bikes program as an experiential activity that captures the attention of the students and provides a “sticky” learning environment where educational messaging is more effectively retained.
Our partnership approach grounded in the belief that we can help the corporate community attain goals related to branding, marketing, and community engagement disrupted their view of what a relationship with a nonprofit could look like. For most of these partners we operate as a supplemental marketing agency creating impact through social media as well as custom video content we produce in house that fully leverages the stories our programs generate on a daily basis.
Along the way there have been bumps in the road. Whether it was the time our Kids Riding Bikes trailer was broken into and equipment was stolen or the many funding opportunities that didn’t come to fruition, there have been times when it has been a struggle. However, through it all, the Indianapolis community has stepped up to support us and by the time we were 5 years old we felt as though we were close to spinning out our highest gear as we pedaled downhill into the future.
Over the span of 6 months during 2017 our staff doubled in size from 4 to 8 team members. Our fleet of vehicles grew from a single transport van to three vans filled with the equipment that would now allow us to provide Kids Riding Bikes programming to 3 schools in a single day. We also grew our summer programming into a variety of community centers where kids spend time when they are not in school. This extended our reach to even more central Indiana youth than ever before and by the end of the calendar year we had served over 15,000 central Indiana youth with this flagship program.
Our event presence grew to over 30 activations a year and became more polished as we invested in a new and highly visible tent. This extended our reach to even more central Indiana youth than ever before and by the end of the calendar year we had served over 15,000 kids with this flagship program.
While this growth was exciting and validated the value of our work in the community, we started fielding requests from teachers and supporters about how we might be able to use the bicycle in other ways. “What about the kids you get excited about the bicycle but don’t have a bike at home?” “Have you ever thought about teaching math or science lessons using the bike?”
Up to this point we had stayed laser focused on executing one program extremely well, but we couldn’t ignore ignore the possibilities of new programming that could also utilize the bicycle to connect with youth.
While we were founded as a health & fitness focused nonprofit, in 2018 we began a shift towards becoming an education nonprofit that utilizes the bicycle as our tool for teaching a variety of subjects to kids throughout their entire K-12 educational journey. Over the course of the next few years three additional programs were developed and are currently in various phases of implementation.
The first of these programs to launch in the fall of 2018 was Kids Building Bikes which puts tools into the hands of kids and teaches them mechanical aptitude and an array of other employability skills. After 16 hours of hands-on class time where a variety of STEM concepts are introduced by our instructors, students who complete the program graduate with a brand new bicycle, helmet, and lock.
While this program provides a platform to introduce STEM lessons, there realistically isn’t time to fully explore these ideas and we quickly realized another program needed to be created. We are currently working with an advisory group of educators from a number of school districts across central Indiana to develop ways we can take the bicycle or just bicycle components into the classroom and work alongside teachers to deliver engaging lessons aligned with state standards.
The last program we have rolled out is our ExploreIndy Ride program that is designed to provide family friendly opportunities to explore the city on two wheels. Through our acquisition of ActiveIndy Tours in early 2019 we now also offer these rides to visitors and local residents but also to corporate groups looking for unique teambuilding outings that create stronger connections to the unique places and spaces in our city.
“We believe the bicycle is an extremely underleveraged educational tool and are excited to continue empowering the youth we serve through the power of the bicycle.”