GREY CITY

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March 8, 2011

Nance works the body

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Greg Nance always says hi. Walk with him for a minute or two—across the quad, through Henry Crown, down a hallway—and he’ll wave at a half-dozen people, calling each of them by name and asking how they are. He’ll ask about some activity he knows they’re involved in, or when they’ll be up for grabbing coffee or a beer. It’s almost impossible to tell whether he’s talking to one of his best friends or someone he met a couple days ago at a Student Government (SG) event.

Whatever he has on his plate, SG President Nance says he always tries to make time for meeting with people who are looking for his advice or want his help. One of his close friends, third-year Shashin Chokshi, says Nance doesn’t discriminate in writing his daily to-do lists: Just as he writes down action items for expanding Rising Phoenix Debate, his nonprofit which teaches debate in high schools, he’ll add a reminder to hang out with a friend. If something doesn’t get checked off his list, he adds it to the list the next day, and the next, until it gets done.

Nance keeps four notebooks: one for daily goals, one for journaling, one for SG, and one for entrepreneurial and professional activities. He reads me a Winston Churchill quote he wrote at the front of one of the notebooks: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” As he reads these half-memorized, inspirational quotes, his eyes light up, and he looks at me, hoping I’ll be as inspired by them as he is.

Chokshi, with whom Nance founded Moneythink, a nonprofit that teaches financial literacy and entrepreneurship to high school students, says Nance doesn’t differentiate between making connections and making friends. “He’s always semi-professional—in a good way—even if you’re talking to him just in a friendship context.” But like many of his friends and his family, Chokshi describes Nance as “genuine” and “down to earth.” “It’s always a pitch in many ways, but really genuine as well... It’s always like, ‘Oh I’m really passionate about this, you should be too,’” Chokshi says. “He’ll pitch you equally on hanging out and having beers with you.”

On one typical day two Mondays ago, Nance wakes up at 7:30 a.m., sends e-mails for Moneythink and SG (he says he sends 50-100 e-mails a day), reviews readings for a take-home test in a Russian politics class he has in a couple days, runs at the gym for two hours, has lunch with former undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees Daniel Kimmerling (A.B. ’10) to discuss his plans for Cambridge, reads some of Managing Change, plays the computer game Galcon for 15 minutes, goes to his B.A. colloquium (Nance is writing on China’s naval development and America’s response), grabs dinner with another Moneythink leader and his girlfriend, goes to a hospital to share his goal-setting methods with kids who have sickle-cell anemia, and researches his B.A. on Twitter (his new favorite information source).

Nance concludes the day with a 10 p.m. workout at Henry Crown and has agreed to take me along. The sixteen-mile run that morning was his big workout for the day and he’s just returning for a bit of conditioning. We do some ab work, then some warm-up laps around the track, and he generously keeps pace with me until we sprint the final stretch, at which point he breaks away and cheers me on once he finishes. Then he teaches me how to shadowbox. Afterwards, he stops by Bartlett for some late-night dining before heading home to his room at Delta Upsilon (DU), where he lives in the bedroom once occupied by novelist and U of C dropout Kurt Vonnegut (A.M. ’71).

Six feet tall and 152 pounds, with wavy brown hair that’s always a bit disheveled, Nance, who usually wears slightly wrinkled khakis, boat shoes with socks, and a wrinkled polo or t-shirt, still looks a lot like the class clown, runner, and nerdy debate kid he was in high school. It’s hard to believe Nance is any good at boxing, but as a welterweight at the Chicago Boxing Club on South 35th Street and East Halsted Avenue, Nance says big guys often don’t realize he’s got the quick reflexes and determination to rapidly turn the tables in his favor. “They’re so angry, they get really distracted from the purpose. I sit back, I play defense, and when they’re totally exhausted, I go to work like it’s my day job.” Nance, who has exercise-induced asthma and is often much smaller than his competitors, says much of his athletic success is about “mental sharpening.”

Nance started boxing when he was nine or ten, as part of his parents’ plan to channel Nance and his brother’s constant fighting into something more productive. He also runs marathons. His first was the Chicago Marathon in October 2009, and he ran the Cleveland Marathon last May, coming in at 3:06.46—74th on the men’s side. Nance is currently training for the Southern Indiana Classic Marathon by running 20 to 25 miles a week, and he’s hoping his cross-training—boxing, aqua-jogging, stationary biking, and core work—will improve his time further.

But most students know Nance not for his athletic accomplishments, but because he’s SG president, or maybe for the awards he’s won. Nance boasts a résumé that makes businesses and admissions panels drool: president of SG, founder of Moneythink, Merrill Lynch intern, Teach for America admit, winner of both the Gates-Cambridge and the Truman scholarships. He tutors chess and is developing two startups besides Moneythink: Rising Phoenix Debate and Chicago Got Game, a summer basketball camp he founded.

Despite a passion for “weird factoids” and an impressive knowledge of dinosaurs, Nance says his aspirations when he was younger were mostly in sports, and later debate. Playing baseball, soccer, basketball, and football as a kid and cross country, track, tennis, and baseball in high school, Nance was a competitor who wanted to win at sports and not much else. A middle child, he was flanked by an older sister who excelled in athletics and a brother just 14 months younger than him who Nance describes as “whip-smart.” Nance didn’t learn how to read until he was six. He lisped, was pigeon-toed and small.

“I learned determination very young, because in order to be adequate at stuff, I would have to try much harder,” he says. “I remember not being that fast, but when lunchtime started I would grab an apple, eat it, and run around the track all recess.” The highlight of his elementary athletic career came during a first-grade football game: He was the quarterback and there were two minutes left during recess. The teams were tied, and a bigger kid was rushing him. He signalled a teammate to run right; Nance faked a pass to him, headed left and made, as he remembers it, a “mad waddle for the end zone.”

Nance grew up on Bainbridge Island, an island outside Seattle with one of the highest qualities of living in the U.S., and Nance’s parents often told him how lucky he was to receive a great public education—his predominantly white, wealthy hometown imposes a five percent levy on itself to support the schools. But he was held back in math in eighth grade, often brought home Cs and Ds on his math tests, and Nance says the value of academics didn’t click until he got to college. Still, his family says it was always clear that he was ambitious. “From the time he was a little kid, he’s been a guy that’s been driven to do something. I think when he was very young—this is not uncommon, particularly in boys—he wanted to do it in sports, he wanted to make it in baseball,” says his father, Mike. But Nance wasn’t big enough, and for a long time was the twelfth player on his pee wee team. “He never blossomed into the standout star I knew he wanted to be,” Mike says. Nance continued to play sports in high school, excelling in track, in which his 4x400 relay team lost the state championship by 4/10 of a second, but also funneled his energies into student government and debate.

As freshman class vice president, one of Nance’s responsibilities was to help write and perform a homecoming skit. He spent hours writing and rehearsing the skit with a group, but an older student government representative pulled the plug on the microphone. The entire student body booed Nance and the other performers, and Nance figured he had to make up for it somehow. That night, at the homecoming game, Nance, wearing a ski mask and a Speedo, streaked across the football field.

By senior year, Greg had a 3.18 GPA (he would graduate 185th out of about 385 students) but had racked up a number of major debate trophies. He had acceptance letters from the University of Washington, which gave him a large scholarship; West Point; and the University of Chicago. He visited West Point and, inspired by his grandfathers, strongly considered attending. His father’s father fought in World War II and was one of the first Marines to land on Iwo Jima, while his mother’s father was a naval SeaBee who saw action throughout the Pacific theater.

But after visiting the U of C and staying with an acquaintance who was a brother at DU, Nance was confident he wanted to attend. His father had made enough money to pay for a private school education largely through investing in stocks, but knew it would be a challenge for the family and didn’t want it to go to waste on a young man who had yet to put any effort into his schoolwork. “For a week I had to sit and say, ‘Oh my god, can I do this?’” Nance recalls. “I’m coming off this really lackluster high school career where I achieved a good amount in athletics and debate, but academically I was nothing at all. So I made a commitment, I promised my dad, I’m going to do my best, I’m going to give it my all, I’m going to put in the work, and that difference—attitude is everything.”

Nance has done well at the U of C, majoring in political science with an international relations focus. He became an active member of Blue Chips and was elected external relations officer of the RSO spring of his first year. He ran track fall and winter quarters of his first year, played rugby in the spring and fall, and started rowing winter of his second year. As a first year, Nance was elected to College Council (CC). Nance says being part of CC was mostly a negative experience. He said the organization had a culture of complacency and accomplished little. Afterward he swore off SG, planning to do more through other channels.

Nance also started to explore Chicago and recognize the disparities around him. Struck by the stark inequality and segregation, he felt compelled to do something about it. Hoping to put his own skills to use, he founded Moneythink, recruiting brothers from DU and other Blue Chips members to the organization. As Moneythink grew—the organization now claims nine chapters across the country—Nance realized successful mentors could help the program expand. Despite his promise to himself to swear off SG, Nance decided to run for undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees, which he saw as an opportunity to connect with powerful businesses-people who could potentially become his mentors. Through a host of networking efforts, Moneythink’s advisory board now includes Sam Beard, who created and chaired programs developed under each of the last seven presidents of the United States, and Steven Biedermann, investment portfolio manager for the Chicago Public Schools.

In order to keep up with his schoolwork and extracurriculars and party hard, Nance had sacrificed sleep, averaging four to four-and-a-half hours a night. He drank and smoked marijuana regularly, and as a fraternity brother, Nance says, alcohol and drugs were readily available. “I would go out and I would slam 40 beers a weekend. Every weekend, my first and second years,” he says. (A DU spokesman said it has a zero tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol.)

In April 2009, a woman on the sidewalk gave Nance a pamphlet advertising Cornerstone Baptist Church, currently located on East 55th Street and South University Avenue at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Curious, he attended the Easter service, where he met Pastor Courtney Lewis. Nance was familiar with evangelical Christianity—his grandmother used to give him candy for memorizing Bible passages—but he only considered himself a Sunday Christian, one who doesn’t think about religion except at church. While his parents had brought the family to various church services growing up, today his siblings don’t consider themselves Christian. Nance remembers May 10, 2009 clearly, a “sunny Saturday” a month after he had taken the Cornerstone flyer: It was the day he says he was saved. “Pastor Lewis came to DU and showed me the route to salvation, and we sat down with John in Romans,” he says. “That was the day I was like, I’m turning things around.”

Nance goes to church at Cornerstone Baptist regularly and is in a Wednesday night Bible study group where Lewis interprets a passage from the Bible and quizzes the students on facts from last week’s passage. Nance sticks out among the half-dozen students, most of whom are older than he and all of whom are black. The night I sit in, the group is reading the Pauline Epistles, and Lewis preaches on how, despite people hoping to convince Paul not to go to Jerusalem, where they knew he would be persecuted, Paul is driven by the word of God to go and spread the Word. Paul preaches as he travels, both to converts and gentiles, and Lewis encourages the attendees to do the same: to feed the faiths of the converted as well as those who are not yet saved. In modern terms, he says, we would call it follow-up work.

Nance says he has chosen Jesus and his Apostles, some of the most influential, successful leaders of all time, as his greatest mentors and he’s taking notes on their expansion techniques. Nance says his new-found devotion changed how he saw his successes. “I didn’t deserve the amazing gift I received and it truly put things in perspective,” he later writes in an e-mail.

Lewis, the pastor, cautions Nance and his other congregants about the evils of worldly temptations. Still, Nance doesn’t abstain completely: As SG president he’s instituted pub crawls for students 21-and-up, and while he’s cut back significantly on his own drinking, he says, “I definitely find myself doing those too frequently for my pastor...if we had an honest conversation on the subject I wouldn’t be proud.”

Now Nance is what he calls an “infant Christian,” one who is slowly changing his ways to become more like Jesus. He was already working hard at school, in sports, and for Moneythink, but he says God gave him the strength to stay humble, make time for his faith, sort out his priorities, and dial back his partying. While his goals have changed—Nance says he used to want to be a hedge fund manager, and now he wants to reduce inequality and help bring justice to the world—his avenues of accomplishment have stayed the same. Nance believes that now his successes are for God’s glory, rather than his own.

Chokshi says Nance doesn’t talk about his faith much, but he’ll sometimes find his friend speaking about Moneythink in grand Biblical metaphors, as though he’s picked up Lewis’ rhetorical techniques and applied them to Moneythink. “You can’t be uncomfortable talking about your plan or your vision because that’s what leaders are supposed to do,” Nance tells me, recalling his interview for the Truman scholarship, when he was grilled by a panel that asked him what he wanted to do.

As undergraduate liaison, Nance took on more responsibilities under the presidency of Jarrod Wolf (A.B. ’10). He managed SG’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and worked on more initiatives. He took on projects with second-year Frank Alarcon, and with third-year David Chen and second-year Patrick Ip, who later joined his executive slate. Although he hadn’t planned on running for SG president, Nance reconsidered after working with Chen and Ip, in whom he saw the potential for strong leadership. His family and Moneythink mentors encouraged him to run, pointing out that while he had a leadership role at Moneythink, he hadn’t yet learned to work within a long-standing bureaucratic institution with a culture of its own.

Next year, Nance is headed to Cambridge, where he’ll pursue a degree in management. He also plans to continue running Moneythink from abroad, join the boxing team at Cambridge, which has a centuries-long tradition of matches attended by packed stadiums, and spend more time exploring his spirituality. After that, he plans to be a teacher for Teach for America (he’s deferred his acceptance) as well as run Moneythink. Beyond then, Nance isn’t sure. Sometimes, he mentions becoming a superintendent or exploring more entrepreneurial projects; other times, he’s excited about joining the Marines, or even getting into politics.

“I want to be a leader in some capacity, I’m not sure if it will be in education, in business, as an entrepreneur, or in government,” Nance says. “As I’ve looked around, the best practices in each are similar... I want to do one of those things in my life, I’m not sure which.”

Nance is a man who thinks in terms of opportunity costs, and fraught with the certainty that whatever he does, he’ll be missing out on something else, he’s hedging his bets. No matter what, he figures, the management degree will serve him well. “People are always like ‘I don’t know what I wanna do, I don’t know what I wanna do,’ I don’t necessarily know either, but I think you can know the next footsteps for yourself.”

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