Doing, creating, and sharing for UChicago

Greg Nelson, AB'74, Alumni Club of France president, shares highlights of his relationship with the University.

 Alumni Association: Tell us your UChicago story - how did you end up at the College and what keeps you involved and connected?

I was initially drawn to the University of Chicago because of my interest in math and physics.  Back in the late 60’s, I saw UChicago as being linked to Enrico Fermi, the Manhattan project and physics.  There was also this visual attraction to the campus architecture with its similarities to King’s College at Cambridge and Christ Church College at Oxford.  A bit frivolous, I know, but I was a California teenager looking for something different, something remarkable.

When I got to UChicago, the big surprise was the Common Core.  It kind of woke me up to other dimensions of education.  Before UChicago, I was a West coast geek/jock, a varsity athlete who liked the sciences because they were easy.  After my first year though, and without really realizing it, I had started on a lifelong trip of discovery which is still going quite strongly.

All of this finally brought me to Paris which has basically been my home since 1974.  Paris is uniquely enjoyable and although I’ve studied at other European universities there is something special about a US campus environment that I missed.  Thanks to UChicago’s Center in Paris, its visiting professors and the alumni events, I’m able to enjoy being in Paris and at the same time having easy access to much of what the university stands for and has to offer from both an academic and social perspective.  As president [of the Alumni Club of France], I hope I can further develop these opportunities for all who share in UChicago’s core values.

AA: As an expert on developing and implementing strategies to expand and improve international businesses and worldwide organizations, what is the project you are most proud of or excited about?

My current project with a Dutch start-up is brilliantly fantastic.  The company is focused on improving the quality of primary education which is clearly a great objective.  They have developed an interactive, low-cost, tablet-based system to help accelerate the acquisition of basic abilities in language and math; it improves the consolidation of these skills and increases student motivation while freeing up time for teachers to focus on other areas such as individual coaching.

The teacher remains irreplaceably at the center of the teaching process.  We merely offer an additional tool, but it’s an incredibly effective one that enables a high level of differentiation in the learning process and provides measurable results.  It lets each student work at his own speed and at his own level thereby maximizing his own personal progress and sense of accomplishment.

The founders focused on making this interactive system as cost effective as possible so that a maximum number of schools, both public and private, can implement it and can benefit from its advantages.

After working for corporations such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and other companies in digital media on both sides of the Atlantic, I feel this project is a particularly nice fit.  I’ve worked in many other start-up and turn-around situations, but this one is probably the most enjoyable, challenging and fulfilling to date.  Education, whether it’s at the level of grade school or university is so essential to developing human potential as well as the potential of communities and societies.  Having the possibility of working in this area is extremely satisfying.

AA: You are a multilingual, dual national professional but you started at UChicago as a Physics and Philosophy major. Tell us about your move in to business from science and humanities.

The starting point of studying physics at UChicago was pretty much a no-brainer, but as I said earlier there was the Common Core which I hadn’t anticipated.  It opened up new areas of interest and development that I hadn’t imagined previously.  The ultimate move into business from science and the humanities has been a bit of a voyage, you could even say an Odyssey.

After graduating from UChicago, I wanted to spend some time in Europe – basically I was hoping to catch up on all that I felt I still didn’t know.  It was a very bohemian year and when it came to an end I decided not to return to the US, threw away my return ticket and enrolled at the Sorbonne.  However, I did return briefly to the Midwest and wound up teaching French to undergraduates at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln while working towards an MA in French literature.  Lincoln, Nebraska and the Cornhuskers were interesting, but when I compared the time I spent in Paris with my year in Lincoln I decided to return to Europe.

Back in Paris, I looked around for something a bit more “techy” which would lead to better career options than trying to teach French in France, so I enrolled in a French institute of technology that specialized in electronics.  Just to calibrate you, we’re now in the late 70’s. Apple had recently incorporated and the hot thing on the market was INTEL’s 8086 microprocessor.  Towards the end of my studies I had to complete an internship in order to qualify for my diploma so I worked with Hewlett-Packard (France) on a project in their medical instrumentation division.  After graduating, I heard about an opening at HP’s European marketing department in Germany with their Optoelectronics Division.  I made the move, tried to learn as much German as I could and after a couple years as a marketing engineer, felt the time was right for an MBA.  I applied to a business school south of Paris in Fontainebleau, was admitted and finished the MBA program just before our first daughter was born.

I returned to California to begin working in venture capital with Sequoia Partners in Menlo Park.  A couple years later, our second daughter was born and for a number of personal and life style reasons we decided to return to France, settle down and raise the family in Paris.  I moved into consulting then management, worked on a number of assignments across EMEA and the rest is just life continuing to happen.  Quite honestly, had I not done my undergraduate degree at UChicago, I would probably have never left the West coast.

AA: What of your experience at University of Chicago influenced you to move in to international business or equipped you will skills to be successful in the international sphere?

 The breadth of exposure at UChicago and the University’s interdisciplinary approach brought me into contact with a lot of new areas, both intellectually as well as culturally.  It ultimately led me to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East where I’ve spent most of my professional life and therefore to what you call the “international sphere”.  I know a lot of executives who consider themselves to be international businessmen, but they rarely speak another language or spend significant time outside the US leading, developing and negotiating with people from different cultures.  I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work locally with many partners around the globe and althoughU Chicago was not the final step in my personal development, it did provide me with an outstanding foundation for moving forward.

We see repeatedly that business is interconnected, interdependent and international.  From a career point of view, sales, marketing and general management are outstanding areas to exercise all kinds of interdisciplinary skills.  The undergraduate experience at UChicago along with a solid appreciation of cultural differences and historic influences can take you a long way down an international path if it’s what you chose.  Now, can education equip you with “skills to be successful in an international sphere” or does it only further the development of pre-existing abilities, I don’t know.  We all have a lot of potential at birth and our early environment influences the initial development of these skills.  A lot of this is beyond our conscious control and both luck and circumstances play a significant role in life.

For me, success is a very subjective thing, or at least I feel it should be.  After a certain point in life, you should probably start reconsidering what culture and society define as success and begin looking inside to see what you want to succeed at … and whether or not it’s worth the effort.  Then go for it and don’t worry.  The only thing worse than failing is not trying.  And when you think about it, as long as you get back up and keep going forward, stumbling or losing your way from time to time really isn’t all that bad.  I think that some of that I picked up at UChicago.

AA: You have been in business development for over 20 years. How have you seen the advances in technology influence your work and international business at large?

Technology will certainly continue to advance.  There is unquestionably a huge difference today when you compare what we now have with the slide rulers and telex machines of the past, but at the same time a lot depends on how you use it.  There’s this great newspaper clipping I have on my wall.  Two women are busily beating carpets that are hanging in front of them.  The one is beating her carpet with a classic wicker carpet beater the way it’s been done for centuries, the other has a modern vacuum cleaner but she too is also beating her carpet in just the same way as her neighbor.

Today, you can manipulate data faster, get information quicker, communicate more broadly and more rapidly at a ridiculously low cost, but we may be arriving at a point of diminishing returns for the individual user.  I’m sure that there are increasing advantages in large and small scale production for companies in FMCG as well as in small-volume custom design, but a lot of my work, the real value-added part of it, is with people:  explaining, listening, communicating, influencing, persuading, convincing, leading.
To the extent that I can creatively and effectively use the on-going advances in technology I’ll continue to leverage what’s out there.  But at times, I stand back and feel amazed at how fast this has all gone.  I wrote my first program on a terminal in our high school that was connected to a mainframe at UCLA and it was all with punch cards.  That was in 1970 just before going to UChicago.  Television was mostly black & white, and if you were travelling and couldn’t find a pay phone you were completely off the grid.  I also remember being amused at the thought that I could satisfy my undergraduate language requirement with FORTRAN.
For the better part of the 40+ years since, there has been a lot of evolution in technology, computing and communication.  A lot of the changes seemed natural and the transitions were very smooth, but then again I was working mostly with high tech companies and start-ups.  Up until around 2000 change was pretty linear and comparatively speaking the slope seemed rather flat.   But in the past few years it feels as if the change here in Europe has gone exponential, mostly because of low cost, high speed broadband internet, smart phones and tablet computing.  There are significant social changes happening here within families, in the area of education, and in the workplace.  My feeling is that it’s just the beginning and that in some areas, this change could be as significant as movable type, the Renaissance and the Reformation.  It won’t necessarily be the technology itself as much as how it is used and for sure, this generation and those to come will not be beating their carpets with iPads.

AA: You are very active with the UChicago Alumni Association in France and with UChicago Paris Center.  Could you talk a little bit about why you volunteer your time and the value you see for alums and current students?

I guess I volunteer because I like working with the people at the Center and feel that it’s a good use for part of my discretionary time.  It’s an opportunity to do, to create and to share in a great environment.  In addition to participating in the on-going lectures and presentations, which are usually very interesting, I’ve been able to take the lead in coordinating events at the Center that bring together alumni from other universities as well.  I feel this has interesting potential.

Too often, alumni who are active in alumni clubs usually only participate in events from their own university.  Since discretionary time is limited for all of us, why not actively develop targeted events with a common interest that can attract alumni from multiple schools.  Since there is usually a wine-and-cheese tasting wrap-up to events at the Center, the possibilities for sharing ideas and networking between alumni associations is there as an added bonus to those who were attracted to the event topic in the first place.

With the help from the alumni clubs of other UChicago divisions here in France, I hope that we will be able to develop this even further.  Learning and discovery only slows down when you let it.

AA: What was your favorite class at the University of Chicago, and why?

During the last quarter of my last year as an undergraduate, there was this class on Aesthetics.  I can’t recall many of the details, it’s been a while, but I do remember that it was stimulating and got me thinking in new directions.  The professor, the topics and the discussions seemed all so very alive and relevant.  But I wonder now, did this class stand out in my memory because of the course content or had the previous years at UChicago finally transformed me to the extent that I was beginning to see new connections and possibilities where I hadn’t seen them before?

Perhaps I had simply started learning to enjoy moving out of my comfort zone and opening up to the possibly of discovering something new or previously unnoticed.

AA: As an alumnus of the University of Chicago, what would you like for future students to know and appreciate, or to carry on?

Cultural values and moral virtues are worth the effort.  If you’ve not been fortunate enough to have grown up in a family environment that helped to develop and consolidate these, you’re lucky to have UChicago as an educational option.  The classics, whether they were written by dead, white European males or not, are worth reading and discussing.  What they offer is beyond being right or wrong, they can be a key to your evolution as a human being.

It’s also useful to try to imagine the limitations that existed in past centuries and the different context that people lived in.  Their environment shaped their thoughts and their ability to open up to and to imagine new possibilities.  Many of them thought they were living in pretty advanced times, but they had their blind spots.  When you consider all that technology, science and industry provides us today, think about what future generations will consider to have been our greatest limitations – as individuals, as parents, as citizens.

As something of an afterthought to this question, it is also perhaps worthwhile being mindful of the difference between a perception, a truth and an opinion as you go through life.

AA: Do you have any quick networking tips you could share?

I guess first of all, start developing your network before you need it.  A network is a community, but it’s a special one.  Whether it’s tight-knit and local or very extended and international, it’s a community in which you have an active role in creating.  Think about what you can offer that community as well as what you would like to get back from it.   Focus on quality not quantity (what are you really going to do with 1,000 or 10,000 friends?).  Next, find a way to reach out and connect at least once a year with all the members of your network, or at least with those you want to keep active.  Finally, think long term.