A 'rockin' MBA Straddles Two Worlds

Written by Beth Saulnier
Dec 2002

It may be a freezing December night in Lower Manhattan, but inside the Knitting Factory it's positively sweltering. The crowd is jammed shoulder to shoulder in front of the Tribeca nightclub's main stage, the air heavy with sweat, beer, cigarette smoke, and other substances considerably less legal. Onstage, Reid Genauer is playing guitar and singing, eyes shut tight in concentration; the audience, several hundred strong, is screaming back at him.

Reid Genauer's days are devoted to classes in strategy and marketing, but he calls performing 'sheer bliss.' "Reid!" a trio of college-age guys yells. "Reeeeeeed!"

A thirty-something in jeans and a sweater turns to them, a mischievous smile on his face. "You know," he says, "Reid's in business school. He's probably going to be an investment banker or something."

The three gape at him for a second, then turn back to the stage. "Investment banking!" they shout. "Investment baaaaanking!"

It's just another odd moment in the life of a guy who straddles two disparate worlds. By day, Genauer is a second-year MBA student at Cornell; by night, he's something resembling a rock star.

For the six years between undergrad and business school, Genauer was a member of Strangefolk, a band popular enough to draw crowds of 5,000 to shows in their hometown of Burlington, Vermont. With Genauer as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter, Strangefolk recorded three CDs, signed with a major label, and was on the road as many as 200 days a year, playing premier clubs across the country-- from the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to the Avalon in Boston. "It's a drug," Genauer says of performing. "It feels exhilarating, like the rush a warrior would get from battle. I think that's a lot of the addiction for musicians, this moment of sheer bliss. It's surrounded by a lot of jaded, disgusting things, but you're willing to go through them in hopes of capturing that one little jewel again."

Genauer's yen for music goes way back; he recalls pretending to be a Beatle as a third-grader, writing a song to the melody of the theme from Chariots of Fire. He co-founded Strangefolk (the word comes from a J.R.R. Tolkien novel) in 1993 with classmates from the University of Vermont, where he majored in natural resources; he cites the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Paul Simon, and Willie Nelson among their influences. The band--bass, drums, and two guitars--played what Genauer describes as "melodic rock--lots of three-part vocal harmonies and songs that had story lines, definitely guitar-driven."

After graduating in 1994, Genauer gave himself five years to chase the dream. He hadn't come from a particularly Bohemian family; his father is a banker, his mother an interior decorator. "We took any gig we could get," he says of the band's early days. "We'd drive eight hours to play in front of twenty people for fifty bucks."

Strangefolk built on its Burlington popularity, finding new fans as they traveled from gig to gig with three roadies and two vans. The band released two self-produced CDs and, as Genauer's five years were running out, signed a record deal with Mammoth, a Disney-owned label. Their producer, Nile Rogers, had worked with the likes of Madonna, David Bowie, and Mick Jagger, and the band thought it was finally going to hit the big time. It didn't happen. "We took way too much time and spent way too much money," Genauer says of the record, "and that's when things really started to fall apart."

In the month leading up to the album's release, Disney disbanded the label because it wasn't profitable. After spending six years in pursuit of rock stardom, Genauer decided it was time to stop. "It's the hardest decision I've ever made," he says. "I felt like I was betraying my destiny. I understand the expression 'tear your heart out' after doing that. It still sort of haunts me." Not only did Genauer feel like he was letting down his fans and bandmates, quitting wreaked havoc on his identity. "I was 'Reid from Strangefolk,'" he says. "It was the lens through which I saw my life. Upon leaving the band, my bearings were just gone."

Genauer had to figure out what to do with his life-- and he realized that, for him, one of the most gratifying things about Strangefolk had been the business end. So he applied to Cornell, and his final weeks with the band overlapped with his first in the Johnson School. "So here I am in Vermont, playing to 5,000 people," he recalls, "and studying financial accounting in the damn hotel room. It was a bizarre sensation."

At Cornell, where he has concentrated on marketing, his professors describe him with distinctly non-rock-star words like "thoughtful," "soft-spoken," and "pleasant." "He's a terrific guy," says strategy professor Jan Suwinski. "One of the challenges as a businessman is to see the world a little differently from your competition, and I think those musical genes might stand him in good stead there."

But Genauer was on campus only a matter of months before he began performing again. It started with three songs during an open mike at the ABC Café on Stewart Avenue. Then he booked a solo gig there, and it sold out. He's since added a backup band and toured the Northeast during weekends and vacations; he'll release a CD this summer. Occasionally, his two worlds merge: at the Spring 2001 MBA Follies in Statler Auditorium, Genauer sent up an infamous marketing case study with a ditty called "One Day Lens." "Fame is sort of like love--its definition is very relative," Genauer says. "It's debatable whether I was ever famous. For my college friends, it was exciting to see me go from playing the basement of a fraternity to a theater with lights and a big sound system. But I had played 140 gigs a year to get there."

Genauer is sitting in the living room of his house near Sapsucker Woods, his chocolate Lab sleeping at his feet. It's the beginning of spring semester, and Genauer's future is up in the air again. Though he worked for Timberland last summer, he doesn't have a job offer yet--and his solo act seems to be taking off. At the very least, he says, he hopes to keep a foot in both worlds. "It's funny," he says, contemplating his pre-MBA life. "I'd say the most pleasure I got out of what I did was just great cocktail party conversation. I'd go to a wedding with my wife, who was then my girlfriend, and all her cousins would want to meet the infamous boyfriend who was leading the devious life. I got a lot of mileage out of that."

Cornell Alumni