Meet the ultra-marathon runner and entrepreneur making higher education accessible

Greg Nance discusses why running a startup is so much harder than running an ultramarathon

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe
From Washington, US to Shanghai, Greg Nance wants to help young people get clarity on their future, help them take big steps in that direction and be a resource to inform and inspire...

I’m from an amazing place called Banbridge Island, Washington, six miles off the coast of Seattle, and it’s an island the size of Manhattan. There were more trees than people and the result of that is you learnt a lot about nature. I grew up walking, hiking, running, climbing with my big sister and my brother.

I went to school at the University of Chicago and while there, my eyes were totally opened because for the first time in my life, I saw real poverty and I saw the real challenges that many people in this world face day today. I began an NGO with four of my friends in my sophomore year in college [to help students get financial aid for their education].

For the first time I realised that I was meant to be an entrepreneur that solves problems for people, especially young people, helping them get the kind of education that will open up doors of opportunities for them.

From Chicago, I then moved to England. I did a one-year Master’s programme at Cambridge with the help of the Gate’s Foundation. While at Cambridge I started making videos and articles [about how to apply for American universities] and they got pretty popular on a website called Renren, which was before WeChat was even a thing. (That’s how old I am!)

Photograph: Yang Xiaozhe

[It wasn’t until] August 2009 during a fellowship programme in international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing did I see a bunch of business opportunities first hand.

I decided to move to Shanghai, having never been, never even seeing it [because] Beijing back in that day was quite polluted. While training there for my first marathon, I got a little sick. Then I heard from a friend who had visited Shanghai that the air was much cleaner and it was actually a more international-friendly city, and I decided Shanghai might be the right fit for me.

The plan and goal was to have a big adventure. I brought two suitcases with me, one backpack with my business stuff and one rucksack with my mountaineering gear. I thought this business will fail probably before Christmas, and I’ll just go climb [the mountains in] Tibet and take the next flight back home to Seattle. It was only a few months in when I realised this business might succeed.

[The philosophy behind my startup Dyad is] that students all over the world should be able to apply to university and earn scholarships even if they don’t come from money. We think the missing piece in that is mentorship. With the right mentorship, you can guide your path, step by step all the way to accomplish what your dream is.

Running a start-up is [definitely] harder than running an ultra-marathon because there’s no finish line. As soon as you hit one milestone, it’s really on to the next. I don’t think in our stage of start-up we can do that in the same way. It’s been a massive learning opportunity to figure out how do I keep my battery charged to continue to lead a start-up day after day, week after week, month after month for nearly seven years now.

I go for a run whenever I feel stressed out and it always makes me feel better. On a given weekend, you’re very likely to find me lost in the city while running or cycling. When I get tired and hungry, I like going to a hole in the wall, a restaurant with no brand name that I’ve never heard of, one that just smells good. Ideally, it has an older chef there and I’ll just go eat noodles and rice and try to talk a little bit with the chef.

As told to Yu Zhiming

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