‘I grew up broke, not poor,’ says successful businessman, Alumni Hall of Fame inductee Nate Miles
Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Eli Lilly and Company Nate Miles (B.A., 1982) may not have had a lot of money growing up, being born in a Navy Homes Federal Housing Project in Pasco, Washington, but his upbringing has made him who he is today.
“Some people ask me, ‘You grew up poor; how did you get to where you are today?’ and I tell them I never grew up poor,” Miles said. “My family had a good work ethic, good family values, and a lot of love in our household – we just didn’t have any money. I think it would be more appropriate to say that I grew up broke because in my opinion there is a very big difference between growing up poor and growing up broke.”
Miles expressed appreciation for being raised with strong faith and having two parents present in his childhood – little did he know that those two aspects of his life would bring him to college, not his athletic ability after experiencing an injury in his junior year of high school.
Miles’ mother was a part-time bus driver and part-time domestic. One week she was called back to a house she had just cleaned, with Nate in tow. The homeowner explained that she had heard Nate’s mother praying about finding a way to send Nate to college. After discussing it with her husband, she told Nate and his mom that she would pay for the first year of his tuition.
“It was one of those blessings in my life,” Miles said. “They made a kid’s dream come true that day. I got someone to believe in me and they did that for me.”
Deciding to major in Communication at the UW, Miles distinctly remembers Professor Fendall Yerxa’s class where he learned about the power of storytelling – twice.
“I didn’t do so great in the class the first time, but I liked it so much that I took it again,” he said. “Professor Yerxa brought history to life and I learned that storytelling can capture people’s imagination and hearts, which is what communication is all about.”
Miles ended up specializing in advertising, which has lent well to his career. He said his professor, Lawrence Bowen, could tell you about Madison Avenue in a way that would make you want to go there.
“He would talk about the power of being able to change people’s minds, buying habits, attitudes, taste, wants and desires,” Miles said. “It has been something that has been very useful to me as I’ve gone on in my career whether it’s a debate about political views or my own personal views. You have to know what it is that causes people to buy – in some cases buying your ideas or suggestions versus a product.”
Miles’ first job out of college was working production at KOMO with the likes of Kathi Goertzen and Connie Thompson, learning from the very best of the industry. Using skills he had learned at The Daily, Miles later began working in sales for The Seattle Medium, the largest African American owned and operated newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, and he started to discover a new fervor.
“They were very community involved so that’s where I started to delve into my passion for working in the community,” Miles said. “I had watched my parents be involved in NAACP voter registration drives and my dad got in trouble for some of his NAACP activities. Working in the African American community rekindled that activist spirit in me.”
At his next job at KIRO, after going through their management training program, Miles got into a philosophical debate with one of the higher-ups at the station, who said he was impressed with Miles’ political prowess. He stated that Miles’ opinionated and boisterous attitude would lend well to a career in politics.
“As it turned out, it was some of the best advice I was ever given because I was politically inclined and didn’t just take an answer that was given to me,” Miles said.
Miles was hired by former Husky football star and Washington Senate Majority Caucus Chair George Fleming. They bonded as fellow UW alumni and athletes, and during his service in the state government Miles helped structure groundbreaking economic development initiatives that aided in revitalizing Seattle’s Central Area Core Business District.
“I decided that in front-of-the-scenes politics was not where I wanted to be at the time, and instead I wanted to be behind-the-scenes helping get those people elected,” Miles said. “I wanted to work on the issues that were near and dear to my heart instead of every issue that got brought up.”
Miles has worked in government affairs and in and around politics since then. He said calling his mom on a ride in the corporate jet with Eli Lilly and Company’s CEO was a sort of ‘I’ve arrived’ moment in his career. Also at the top of the list is being called upon by then-President Bill Clinton as a prominent business leader to assess the impact of trade legislation.
“In one sector it could be exactly what they needed to impose tariffs on their competition coming in, but in another sector it could have been a bad thing because it restricted their ability to do business in foreign countries – all from the same piece of legislation,” Miles said.
Miles also mentioned cashing his first stock option as a stand-out moment – something he had always heard people talk about, but had never done himself. His somewhat meager beginning is what laid the groundwork for his philanthropic ambitions.
“There were several Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners that were brought to us by the Salvation Army,” Miles said. “When people give you something and you realize they didn’t have to do it for you, you’re put in a position to do what God wants you to do – give back to others.”
Miles has served on numerous volunteer boards and worked with many nonprofit organizations. A few that he holds close to his heart are the Salvation Army, the Seattle Urban League, the Boys and Girls Club of King County, and serving on the NAACP Special Contributions Fund Board of Directors.
“Whether you see the smiles on those kids’ faces or not, we all see the shade from trees we never planted and drink from wells we never dug,” he said, referencing Scripture from the book of Deuteronomy. “It’s our responsibility to dig other wells and plant other trees because there will be generations coming after us that need water and shade as well.”
As an elected UW Foundation Board trustee representing the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, Miles is helping the next generation of UW students of color.
“It’s, again, the desire to give back to the system that I got so much out of,” he said. “My family and I have started an endowment that will help more kids get into the UW.”
In addition to his own three children, Miles is a father figure to many kids in the community. Last June the American Diabetes Association named him “Father of the Year.” In the tribute video, his son Noah said, “Nobody’s perfect, but he’s pretty dang close to it.”
While finding as much time to spend with his kids as he can, Miles said, “To tell you the truth, I really love what I do.
“It might be work to some people, but it’s really a lot of fun because I like helping people and solving their problems. Whether it is here in Seattle or inner-city Cleveland, it all comes back for the good of us and at the end of the day, I’m happy to do it.”
Nate Miles is a 2014 inductee to the UW Communication Alumni Hall of Fame. For more information about the event, click here.