This is the second post in my series on Chinese studying abroad and the entrepreneurs serving them. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Greg Nance, serial entrepreneur and CEO of ChaseFuture. ChaseFuture offers services like mentoring and essay proofreading for Chinese students aspiring to attend top schools in the US or UK.
This is the first of two parts of my interview with Greg, where he talks about how he ended up in China, his first startup Moneythink, and the lessons he learned from Moneythink that are helping him with ChaseFuture.
Q: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you end up in China?
There are a couple of big defining features that help explain how I am here in China working on a startup. The first is I come from a very supportive family. [My] mom and dad are both public servants. My mom works for the state of Washington supervising nursing homes to make sure they’re giving good care. My dad was a long time public defender, and now a criminal defense attorney — [he makes] sure that people who can’t afford good legal representation still get it per their constitutional rights. They were both very encouraging; always supportive of me and what I wanted to do. They would always be there encouraging, but not putting pressure on me. So that really guided me throughout my early life, when I embarked upon higher education, and the big move to China.
I come from a really cool community. It’s a little island off Seattle. A very small town where the high school is the epicenter of the town. Growing up I was both an athlete and a debater. It was a really enriching culture to grow up in because you had these awesome teachers that really cared about you — not only as a student but as a young person trying to form [yourself]. It was fun, you would do well in your athletics and a debate and people in the town would see you in the local Safeway. Or you would be out running on the trail and you would run into a neighbor and they would be rooting you on for your next match. So that was really fun and a lot of those relationships have stayed with me.
A defining experience and one that most directly relates to how I’m here [in China] today is I took a Chinese politics class as an undergrad at the University of Chicago taught by a man named Dali Yang, a preeminent figure in Chinese studies. He recommended me for a fellowship taught by Tsinghua University and Harvard on international relations as they related to China and the US. I spent three weeks in Beijing on this program, and it really opened my eyes to China, and to the rich international relations/security issues and business opportunities. At that point I was a very young entrepreneur: I had just started my first company, a non-profit, and really saw the opportunity for that non-profit to make an impact in China through financial literacy, but also through social enterprises and for-profit companies. [That] brought me back for the ChaseFuture project.
Q: Tell us a bit more about your first startup, Moneythink
As a freshman at the University of Chicago I was on the track team and was an officer in the investment club. I would go to track practice, where I would run through some pretty blighted neighborhoods around the University of Chicago — I would see Check Cashing shops and Cash Loan on Car Title places. I’d see students my age that were brown-paper-bagging 40s of malt liquor. I would think about those things as I ran, [shaking] my head and [thinking]: “I’m fortunate.” Then I would put on my suit and tie and go to the investment club meeting where I was a recently elected officer. I was the external relations director and a newly elected member of the investment committee, overseeing $120,000 of the U Chicago endowment: a decent amount of responsibility for a 19-year-old, and one that was really pause for reflection because an hour ago I was looking at kids my age who had dropped out of high school and were now boozing. I realized that the root of that was the supportive community, my great family, the dad that taught me about stocks when I was young because I was curious, and this phenomenal university I was lucky enough to be admitted to with some financial aid.
That kind of crystalized in my mind and I realized being external relations director gave me a great platform to do something about financial illiteracy in the community. I decided to recruit a couple of friends through the club and from my dorm room we started meeting and talking through some of these issues. We decided to create a pop-culture infused curriculum that could relate to the students that were primarily black and of hispanic decent. We decided to send peers, people just a year or two or three older [than the students], to go in and serve as mentors to teach this material. And we figured that combination could be an affective way of bridging that gap that really centered on knowledge and illiteracy. And if we could just write cool information, cool examples, then we could make a small difference and change behavior.
Q: What effect did Moneythink have on the local community around University of Chicago? How did it expand to different universities?
It was September 2008 when the idea came together. The team started in October 2008, and by January 2009 we had convinced a teacher to [let us] come into the classroom. None of us had a certification and I had very little teaching experience, I had just worked as a debate instructor — but that’s hardly preparation to go talk to 20 or 30 high schoolers that are initially very suspicious of you. However, the pop-culture curriculum and examples as well as the similarity in age began making big inroads very quickly. Within three months of us starting — that was our pilot, this 10 week program — students had created saving plans, they had created budgets, they had created goals for their semester.
One particular student wanted to save so he could help his family keep the heat on. They literally didn’t have enough money to keep the heat on all the time so his Mom had developed whooping-cough. Really touching stuff. He was going to go work for his uncle splitting wood to sell for them to be able to keep the heat on and that really struck me, [I realized:] “Wow, we can really make a difference with this.”
Another student saved up so his little sister could get reading glasses because he knew that she had to sit in the front of the classroom in her fifth grade class [and she] couldn’t actually see the chalkboard — it was really setting her back. He explained that was what he was saving up for. Those things were really touching and inspired our early team.
As we shared our story a few folks took notice and wrote articles — we were called American Investment Fellows at the time, before we changed our name to Moneythink — they wrote: “Hey, this Moneythink group is doing some cool things, check them out.” Other investment club leaders at Washington University of St. Louis and University of Florida saw this. They reached out to me and said things like: “Hey Greg, we read about the AIF/Moneythink project, we’re interested in learning more because we’d like to do a community service project.”
During the Spring of 2009 we equipped 10 youth leaders at those campuses with the tools for them to make a difference in St. Louis and Gainesville, Florida. And it was just amazing seeing the community that we started building and we realized, “Hey, we could really build a movement out of this, it doesn’t just have to be on the south side of Chicago — the impact could be much greater.” And we resolved to do so. We scaled back other commitments. And it very quickly outgrew it’s britches in the U Chicago investment club. We started an independent corporation, a non-profit in Illinois. It took about a year for the IRS to recognize us, but eventually the bureaucracy came around and we were able to just charge ahead.
Q: How many people worked with you on Moneythink initially?
Initially it was one crazy guy with a Powerpoint. But very quickly I met my buddy Ted Gonder, who is now a best friend; we talk a few times a week even though he’s in Chicago. He’s a recent U Chicago grad and is now the Executive Director of the organization. It was him and three other buddies: a track buddy of mine named Morgan, Shashin, and then a guy named David Chen who is from Guangzhou, China, which is another spark for my Chinese interest. The five of us, through both investment club and track, got together and very quickly said, “We’re very serious about making a difference here.” Because we realized how much fun it was and really how easy it was for us to go to the neighborhood school, give an hour of our time, and inspire people to make a difference. In turn, they inspired us to magnify the impact.
Q: What lessons did you take from Moneythink that have helped you in your current startup, ChaseFuture?
It’s something I’ve thought about and have realized how blessed I am to have such an opportunity at such a young age. Most fundamentally, realize the importance of the team. Ted and I were both “pie in the sky” guys. We realized we were making a difference [and thought], “This could be a national organization, let’s do it.” That’s fine and well, I think a team is well suited to have people who dream big. But an operations person is crucial. Shashin played that role to the T. He’s an operations guy and did a very good job at that.
For the ChaseFuture startup I met a guy named Shao Han who is our operations guy. He’s phenomenal at it. I’m more of the guy that dreams and Han does. Our partnership works really well because we realize each other’s strengths and we play off them — we leverage them, we build off it. I definitely learned that through Moneythink, just how important it is.
The second thing I learned is the importance of momentum. Ted was able to reach out to a mentor of his, a guy named Sam Beard, who had advised the last seven US Presidents to create programs for the White House. Sam took an interest in Moneythink and the work we were doing. Then in the Spring of 2009, as we had just signed on our second and third chapters, Sam said, “I want to put my name on this, I want to help you grow it.” Very quickly, it went from us being five guys trying to make a difference, to a couple of chapters [and] media outlets interested in what we’re doing. Momentum is essential and I’ve taken that lesson to heart.
So I reached out to some of my VIP mentors and tried to get them to put their name, and ideally dollars, behind [the ChaseFuture] project, to really show that they are stakeholders. That has been really fruitful. [In early November] Tidal McCoy put his name on the project. He’s the former Secretary of the US Air Force who has amazing insights into business, bureaucracy, and international organization building. Ed Rensi, who is the former CEO of McDonald’s, is going to put his name on the project. I’m trying to convince both those guys to put some money behind it as well to really show that they’re dedicated. Those were two very important early lessons for us.
The other is the importance of beginning to, as Sam Beard calls it, “put it in a can.” So automate where you can. I know this sounds very simple but as far as putting basic templates together, basic Powerpoints, so you can scale your efforts. Early on, before I was an entrepreneur, I would send updates of what I was doing to family members, friends, other folks and I would type out a lengthy email to each and go rewrite it. I know this sounds crazy, but putting things together so you can broadcast it effectively to more people [is important]. Whether that’s building a team in India and Russia, which we’re aiming to do now, or letting grandma and your aunt know how you’ve been.
I look forward to reading your thoughts on the first part of my interview with Greg Nance. Sign up for email updates below so you don’t miss the second part of this interview where Greg talks about identifying and addressing needs in China, and offers advice for other entrepreneurs. (Update: link to the second part of my interview with Greg.)