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Who’s Who at NU: Nathan Katz and Alex Onsager

Northwestern Student Holdings is truly a full-time job. Neither co-chair is involved with much of anything else. “NSH is pretty consuming…there’s a reason why it’s the only thing I do,” Nathan half jokes when I ask him what he does outside of school. “My regular life has become such a small share of life,” Alex wryly adds.

No regrets. “I was really excited about NSH because I had seen all the advertisements on campus, and I thought it was really cool how students were running businesses,” reminisces Alex, describing what had drawn him in the first place as a freshman. In high school, he kickstarted a landscaping business, which powered him with the entrepreneurial bent that he channeled into multiple activities in college; the list acroynomically reads ASG, NSH, ISBE. Eventually he found NSH to “to be really unique among all the other groups on campus” and, motivated by the responsibility that the prior NSH chairs gave him, slowly worked his way up to co-chair.

Nathan came to Northwestern with a much more uncertain approach to his blossoming college career. Hailing from a large public high school in Lexington, he arrived in Chitown “positive” he would study economics and the saxophone. But October 2009, his freshman fall quarter, Nathan was less sure. “I was all over the place,” he tells me, “but I had a business streak… so I was purposely seeking out a business group.” Like Alex, Nathan had started a business in high school – selling chewing gum. “I bought in bulk and had two plans: you could get a pack for 40 cents and an individual for 10 cents. I was making good money,” he describes, and then laughs when Alex asks if he was allowed. “I was not! I was shut down. I had just spent my profits on more gum and I got shut down.”

From that moment he had a sense of lesson number one: don’t be afraid to take risks. “You have to have comfort in taking risks, in sitting at that table, making a decision,” Nathan says with gravity. Both co-chairs practice what they preach: their first collective effort, Wildcat Express, a campus-wide “restaurant to your door” catering company, was effectively shut down the summer before their junior year. “We worked on making it work for two whole years,” Alex tells me, “but that business doesn’t exist anymore.” Still, neither speaks of their failed venture with regret. “It was primarily a decision about where our time was best spent… but we wanted to put our efforts into other cool things,” Nathan describes.

Lesson number two: cliché, but find your passion, as early as possible. According to the co-chairs, most people who join NSH are of a similar breed in that they exemplify “creativity, are very willing to work hard, have some past experience doing a job, sport, or even music with a very high level of passion and persistence.” However, “what NSH has taught me is to be very serious about a small amount of things and put your time into that and one or two things,” Nathan advises.

For these two seniors, such a sentiment is obviously reflected in their passion for NSH. At the moment both are looking strategically for new leaders within their ranks. Alex describes his surprise at NSH’s burgeoning growth rate: “When Nathan and I joined three years ago, you could roll up what NSH was doing and close it down in a few days,” he remarks, “it’s clear now that NSH is a permanent organization.”

Any parting words and advice? “You can talk about whether it’s a good idea… or just do it,” Alex advises. Nathan nods. “Be economically minded. Assess your risks.”

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