The first thing that stands out about Nathan Towns, 28, is his humility. “Out of high school, I was ranked 290 out of 800 graduates—like, I was nothing special,” the Cornell University MBA student emphasizes. “It wasn’t like I was, you know, supposed to go to anything, necessarily.”
By “anything,” Towns means college. Though his parents aren’t college graduates, they had always encouraged him to attend—and that’s exactly what he did. After studying accounting at Riverside Community College in California, Towns transferred to the California State Polytechnic University in Pomona and switched over to finance.
During this time, Towns was juggling a burgeoning music career: His group, Airborne Allstarz, uploaded a song to MySpace that got picked up by a Los Angeles radio station. “All of the sudden, we’re in a studio in Hollywood recording pretty much every night for a year, and our record label was under Universal,” Towns recalls. “That was a pretty crazy experience.”
But Towns still wanted a nine-to-five job, so after graduation, he began working at ITT Technical Institute. Once he became the director of finance at 24 years old, he realized that he would need a business degree to keep moving. “It kind of felt like, ‘Now that I’m here, I’m stuck here for five to 10 years before they’d even think about promoting me to the next level’—which is when you’re the director of your own campus,” Towns explains. “You’re not going to have a 27-year-old kid running a school with professors [who were] 40 and 50.”
Through the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, Towns scored a full ride to Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. Business school worked out as planned: Having interned for Bank of America (with Srinivas Rao, coincidentally), Towns will enter the institution’s Consumer Banking Sales Management Leadership Development Program after graduation in late May.
Towns acknowledges that his path to business school was unusual. “After I got to business school, I kind of realized that other people knew what they were going to do right out of undergrad,” he says. “They were in prep programs—they just had a whole different outlook based off of their upbringings and whatnot. So I kind of realized [my mentality] was a little unique. I haven’t met anyone—here, at least—who started off in community college yet.”
Looking back, I kind of don’t even know how I became someone who was somewhat responsible. Between turning 18 and finishing college, I took a complete 360. I got out of the mindset that all I wanted to do is party and have fun and started thinking seriously about my career. People who knew me back then tell me, “We don’t know how you did it. It seems like you were out partying with us until 3 a.m.—but then you fell asleep and woke up at 7:30 and made it to your final.” At the end of the day, I guess I was afraid of failure, even though I didn’t know what failure was really like at the time.
I grew up in Corona, California, about 45 miles from LA. My parents didn’t go to college, but I was fortunate that they were in a position to at least encourage me to go, especially since I was the oldest sibling. Once I finished high school, I decided to enroll in Riverside Community College and see what happened.
Growing up, I was always good at math, but I knew I didn’t want to be a math major. I didn’t even know what you did with that; I figured you’d just become a high school math teacher. So I thought, “I’ll link math with business and that equals accounting—I guess.” That’s how I became an accounting major. It seemed safe.
Still, after two years, I transferred to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly) and took my first finance class. I thought it was so cool: You still had to really know the subject, but the finance people seemed like the risk-takers—it was almost like gambling. In a way, I got addicted. I switched my major and went along that path.
Meanwhile, my music career was taking off. Toward the end of high school, I got into a group called Airborne Allstarz. I was mainly a producer. Almost overnight, one of our songs got a lot of attention on MySpace—around 50,000 plays—and a hip hop station in Los Angeles picked it up. I remember that on my first day at Cal Poly, I was sitting at a table eating pizza when a group of five students came up to me and recognized me from the song. They were like, ‘Oh, we have it on all our MySpace pages’ and all that. It was a really cool time.
There was always the possibility of going into music full-time, at least on the producing side. During my last years of college, I was making enough money from music to quit my part-time job. Ultimately, though, I have a risk-averse personality. I needed that stability of a 9-to-5 job, so I kept going to school, never quit, and started working immediately afterward.
Most people I knew who were graduating from Cal Poly were taking jobs as tellers, servers, bartenders—things like that. I was lucky enough to get a job at ITT Technical Institute with a lot of room for advancement, even if it wasn’t that prestigious. After a number of promotions, I found myself as the director of finance at 24 years old; I was managing people twice my age.