Cambridge Judge Business School alumnus and ultramarathon runner, Greg Nance (MPhil in Management 2011) says success as an entrepreneur and as an endurance athlete has a lot in common. Greg, who is Co-founder and Chairman of Moneythink, Founder and CEO of Dyad.com, recently completed the World Marathon Challenge.
As every business school graduate knows, sometimes a single number in the wrong place can make all the difference.
For Greg Nance, it was the lone zero he did not see whilst at the University of Cambridge that changed his life’s path. Deep into an MPhil in Management at Cambridge Judge Business School, American-born Greg thought it would be fun to visit a little more of the UK, so he signed up for a weekend 5k run on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.
Except, it wasn’t a 5k. It was a 50k.
For the former high school and college sprinter who admits “I can really burn some rubber around 400m but I was a very mediocre 5k runner,” the realisation he’d accidentally volunteered to race ten times further than his worst distance was a blow.
Greg decided to take a crack at it anyway. He came tenth and oddly, rather enjoyed himself.
Fast-forward seven years and Greg has just joined one of the most elite clubs in sport; those who have run seven consecutive marathons on seven continents in seven days. Greg did it to support his life’s work – making it easier for students everywhere to access quality education.
The World Marathon Challenge powered by Wentworth, or ‘777’ as it is sometimes known, is the Everest of endurance racing. In fact, Everest, which has been conquered by around 4,000 climbers, looks positively crowded compared to the 145 people who have completed seven marathons back to back. Even space, with its 562 astronauts, looks busy in comparison. In short, running the world in a week is very rare and very hard.
Following his return in February, Greg calmly ticks off the problems he faced:
I was laid low by a stomach bug for most of the week, so there was vomiting, electrolyte deficit, dehydration, blisters, sleep deprivation, sunburn, swelling – you name it. I left absolutely everything on the course while running that race.
Greg and his 40 fellow endurance athletes started the Challenge being dropped on the ice in Antarctica. Wearing goggles to protect them from snow blindness, they set off for the first 45 kilometres in temperatures of minus 15 degrees. Greg, feeling in the form of his life, came seventh. Boarding their dedicated plane immediately afterward, the group flew directly to Cape Town, where the temperature was now plus 35 and Greg was running a fever. Marathon number two was brutal.
The races and the continents kept coming at a relentless pace – night runs in Perth, Australia, followed by Dubai and Madrid. Then another 13.5 hours in the air, with the exhausted athletes agonising between the twin demands of sleep and getting enough calories on board before landing in Santiago, Chile, and then, suddenly, miraculously, the finish line in Miami.
Greg’s Instagram feed has the almost laughably modest title @GregRunsFar but he insists that it is just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other:
Boiled down, an ultramarathon is really the simplest athletic endeavour. It is a quest to keep going. It teaches you the beauty of persistence, of overcoming obstacles, of preparing for the long term and then just tackling set back after set back. And in that respect, there are a lot of similarities to startup land.
In any case, running an office, or in the literal sense of the word, running in the great outdoors is easier once you hit your stride. As Greg puts it, “I’ve learned that those moments at the start line can be the most challenging. Voices of self-doubt creep in and we worry about all the things that can go wrong. But once the starting gun cracks we take our first steps and it’s liberating because we’ve taken the leap. I often see this parallel in my work as a startup CEO. We’re about to ship a new product or feature or campaign and then the self-doubt hits. In those moments I envision the starting gun and we take the leap.”
Not so much Just Do It then, but rather Just Don’t Stop.
When Greg arrived at Cambridge Judge as a Gates Scholar in 2011 he was already a seasoned entrepreneur ready to take it up a notch. In the midst of the economic crash of 2008, he had co-founded the financial literacy and coaching organisation Moneythink from his college dorm room at the University of Chicago. In its first decade, Moneythink has mentored 15,000 low-income students in 30 communities in the United States. Many of these students are the first in their families to go to college and Moneythink wants to make sure they stay the course – teaching them basic saving and budgeting techniques, helping them complete financial applications to make further education affordable and manageable, and coaching them individually through their first year away from home to ensure they access all the resources they need.
So far, coaches and students have exchanged over 200,000 text messages on the unique Moneythink mobile app – troubleshooting issues in real time so that financial pressure never becomes a reason to drop out.
It was whilst studying at Cambridge Judge that Greg received a life-changing call in his room at Fitzwilliam College. Moneythink had been recognised as a White House Champion of Change by then-President Barack Obama, an honour that allowed it to attract further investment and grow to a nationally-recognised non-profit.
Presidential fist bumps aside, Greg knows that higher education is a marathon, not a sprint. His time in Cambridge, he says, was crucial for his next step. “It gave me a global mindset. I met more seasoned leaders who had built enterprises all over the world, and although I’d already built a startup I had zero academic training in business and lacked key fundamentals until Cambridge Judge.”
His MPhil in Management year became the training ground for business number two – the global ed-tech mentorship platform Dyad.com, which so far has helped students earn over $27m in university scholarships.
With an undergraduate major in foreign policy Greg had always been fascinated by the US-China relationship. Whilst at Cambridge Judge, “I realised how little I actually knew of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a family on the ground. China has a huge education market but there is massive inequality. Just like in America, if you’re not from a wealthy family or the right schools you face huge obstacles.”
Predictably, Greg relocated to Shanghai and decided to start turning that around. “We aimed to level the playing field with free content, scholarship advising, and affordable one-on-one coaching,” says Greg.
Ultrarunning is still part of the business plan. Greg, who is out of bed at 04:00 in the morning to train, says “shredding out some miles is my secret weapon. I get three or four hours just to think and reflect. Dyad.com HQ is a buzzing open space but by the time I arrive at my desk at 09:00 I know what I need to do next.”
For Greg, there is a lot of “next.” His ambition for Dyad.com is to become the leading global mentorship platform, helping millions of students reach their education goals with a free library of articles and videos highlighting study tips, application advice, and scholarship resources.
Out of the office he’s busy training to set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for a 53k run between Shanghai’s two airports in May, before having a first crack at a 300k distance race in August by taking on The Bigfoot, a mountain ultrarun through Washington’s Cascade Range.
In both events Greg is once again running to highlight the fact that accessing quality education is still a daunting endurance challenge for too many young people.
It’s all about mindset. You’ve just got to run the mile you’re on.