At Knox, we’re always pushed to be more creative. However, we may ask ourselves why. For one alumnus, he took his creativity to the maximum and became an entrepreneur. He started some of the first ever cellular companies despite graduating with a degree in creative writing.
Carl Nordgren’73 visited Knox during the week of Oct. 10 for seminars he gave on business through the Professionals in Residence Program in the business department. He was joined by his daughter, Krista Anne Nordgren’12. After being inducted into the Hall of Fame last homecoming for his efforts on the soccer team and as an assistant coach, Nordgren has given back significantly to the Knox community.
Nordgren came to Knox as a student with the intention to play football and become a creative writer. At the time, he was recruited to play football but the coach that recruited him didn’t like his “hippie vibe” and asked him to cut his lengthy hair and beard. To this, Nordgren decided he was more than content not playing football, as he knew his limitations as a footballer. Instead, he decided to join the then-club soccer team.
“At that point in time, soccer was still a club sport which meant they played in the spring. So after going through my first winter here, I thought I’d go out for soccer,” Nordgren said. “And I discovered two things: I discovered I love the hell out of Jorge Prats, the coach. He was just an awesome man. And I really love the game and I love the guys who were playing it, so I thought well, okay, this is the sport I’m gonna pick up.”
According to Nordgren, there were so few club games being played in the area that the team would play at the University of Wisconsin’s campus and at the YMCA in Peoria just to get enough games. Once soccer became a varsity sport, the team filled their schedule with conference games and was much busier.
“I put a whole lot more effort into my soccer than I did into my classroom. I didn’t have that incredible balancing act [student athletes have now],” Nordgren said. “I did the [minimum], and because the Vietnam War was going on and because professors didn’t want to flunk anybody out because you’d lose your student deferment and have to go to the war, doing your [minimum] I think was defined lower than it is now.”
During Nordgren’s senior year, the team elected him captain and also won the Southern Division in the conference. After graduating, Nordgren married a fellow student who still had a year left, so he stayed in town. This gave him an opportunity to be the assistant coach for soccer.
“That was the year, in fact, they wound up winning the conference championship,” Nordgren said. “And I think there is something about that journey … that caused Knox to embrace all of that journey of that team.”
Nordgren was inducted into the Hall of Fame at last year’s Homecoming for his contributions as assistant coach during that season.
During his Knox years, Nordgren was also greatly influenced by Professor of Creative Writing Robin Metz.
“Creative writing certainly has a whole lot to do with my creative view of things and Robin Metz, outside of our creative writing relationship, as a friend has had a significant impact on my creative growth,” Nordgren said.
Nordgren believes that creative growth originally started when he was a fishing guide during his high school and college years up in Canada, and was able to work alongside the Ojibwe Indian tribe.
Being on the boat with older men every weekend and guiding them for awhile, Nordgren got a lot of advice. The advice, he said, made him never want to go into business. They would talk about their business ventures and make him promise he would never go through that. He laughed it off and decided not to pursue that path. But, it’s the path that made him so successful.
After Knox, Nordgren spent about four years avoiding a business career and doing blue collar jobs.
But despite the advice of the fishermen, Nordgren did succeed in business. In the late 1970s, he decided to get his first “real job.” He explained that back then, entrepreneurship wasn’t “as hot” as it is now.
“People that went to work for start-ups were often [doing so] because nobody else would hire them and that was my case. I couldn’t get a job with anybody I wanted to get a job with,” Nordgren said. “Then I saw this start-up publishing company in Chicago, this textbook publishing company, and they said, ‘Sure we’ll bring you on in,’ and I discovered I loved it.”
Nordgren then progressed within the company and was able to make some hiring decisions. He explained how proud he was when an idea he had for a program resulted in the need to hire a new employee at the company.
“I’m a romantic, and so I could really romanticize that. I thought oh, I’ve done something that allows someone to be a step closer to their ambition for their life, right?” he said.
It was at that time when Nordgren realized he could really incorporate his skills in creativity and take them into entrepreneurship. He then worked for a few more start-ups in the Chicagoland area until he moved to North Carolina, where he was able to create some of the first cellular phone companies.
“All your readers are going to be so young that they don’t know cellular started as a local market business, it wasn’t a national business,” Nordgren said. “The FCC licensed two cellular companies in every market, one license went to the existing telephone company, that made sense, right, that they should be able to get into cellular as long with the others, and the other license was the FCC’s specific intent to bring competition into what had been a monopoly business. And so that’s the side we played on.”
Nordgren ended up with companies in 23 markets before they closed down. Nordgren found his passion for business and started a couple more companies in the area, and built a name for himself doing some more of the fun and interesting things in the market.
His very first entrepreneurial endeavor, however, he credits to Knox’s soccer program.
“In the early days, we really had to self fund ourselves and that was an entrepreneurial gig. In some ways I think that was the first entrepreneurial experience I had, helping move that organization into what it became,” Nordgren said.
After making a name for himself in the business world, Duke University approached Nordgren and asked him to teach a class, which he declined at first. He did not want Duke to look at his transcript because of the grades he received in college.
“I said, ‘Well you’re going to see my college transcript and it’s so bad, that you’re going to change your mind, and I want to save myself the embarrassment.’ And they said, ‘no, no, we won’t ask for your transcript, we won’t make any qualitative judgement, we just want to make sure you graduated from college,’” Nordgren said.
And this began his 14-year career as a professor at Duke University. Nordgren also taught for one term at Knox but moved on to Duke quickly after. His first and second classes were both about starting a company. Nordgren noticed that very few students were showing up, and the ones that were didn’t have any interest in entrepreneurship itself. They wanted to become more creative and entrepreneurial, they didn’t want to start companies. This led Nordgren to change the pace of the business department at Duke, and teach a class that would actually be something of interest to the students. He decided to focus on teaching students how to be more creative and entrepreneurial as people.
Nordgren never thought he would teach, and let the saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach,” stick in the back of his mind for awhile. Then he realized he loved it more than anything else he’d ever done and it caused him to have a very optimistic future.
“Man, am I glad I finally said yes, because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had Ñ to be with your generation of creatively minded people who I just believe in big time,” Nordgren said. “I think you guys are going to save us, I’m really looking forward to you guys taking over. And that was the reward I got from teaching, was to learn that there is a really great reason to be optimistic about our future and it’s called you guys.”
Nordgren also described that there are no better people to work with than student athletes. In the classroom and outside, he believes student athletes are so hard-working and organized, he would want them as a part of his life, classroom and business.
“My classes both here and at Duke seem to be attractive to athletes, I always have a high proportion in my classes. And what I see here at Knox, and what I saw at Duke, how student athletes have two full time jobs, it just amazes me, it just blows me away,” Nordgren said.
Nordgren has played with the idea of starting a business with just student athletes being recruited to work. He would recruit students from division three and division one that may have not been successful enough to go on to professional careers but had that experience collegiately.
“I got all the best recruits you could possible imagine right here, they’re former student athletes,” Nordgren said. “If you indeed have to be a student, and you are participating the way that you guys have to train and travel, and that just blows me away the way you folks can do that.”