Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
Describe yourself in 15 words or less: Ever curious, I believe progress only matters when it expands access and opportunity for all.
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
Family Members: My wife Melody and I are proud parents of two remarkably fascinating children, Dominic aged 13 and Maya aged 9.
Fun fact about yourself: For my Master’s thesis at USC, I made the first-ever student IMAX film, The Princess & the Pea—a larger than life short film set in the American West and told in rhyme.
Undergraduate School and Degree:
Brigham Young University (BYU), BA Humanities
University of Southern California (USC), MFA Film and Television Production
Where are you currently working? Curious School, CEO & Founder
Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: My wife and I run the Domino Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting transracial adoption families with education and social activities. Transracial adoption is defined as parents of one race adopting children of another race, most commonly white parents adopting children of colour. Our events are centered on norming the experience of these diverse families and empowering them to succeed within the mostly white communities they live in. As part of this, we advocate widely for eliminating racism and inequities through a deeper understanding of privilege and prejudice. We were recently featured in the award-winning documentary on transracial adoption, Black White & Us.
Beyond this, I am the author and co-author of three best-selling and award-winning books on race and equity in education; I love to paint large-scale abstract oil paintings, and I am a popular home chef with a series of recipes and food media called Curious Table.
Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Without question, the best part of my EMBA program was our Entrepreneurial Project. We did it on a product of my startup company, Curious Learnings. It was an exceptional team and it was wondrous to see them collectively redefine the messaging, clarify the offering, and refine the business plan of the curriculum and technology edtech offering. The promise of exceptional diversity offered by our School was manifest in this group, with members from multiple countries, different industries, and unique perspectives coming together to present a viable vision of my company going forward.
What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? For nearly 20 years, I have focused my professional work on achieving educational equity for diverse students everywhere. Equity in education occurs when schools provide each and every student with the resources and support they need to succeed academically, regardless of the student’s background, reflective and relevant to the student’s culture, and fully supportive of the disadvantages the student may face. We do this by developing resources, curriculum, professional development, and technologies that personalise learning and facilitate better engagement between teacher and student. As part of this, I developed the Equity Framework over a decade ago. This approach to school improvement persists and it is deeply meaningful to randomly meet a passionate educator who shares how they continue to use the Equity Framework to change the outcomes and trajectories of diverse students. Financial rewards are great and even necessary, but impact – real impact that makes life better for others – is the best achievement I could ever hope for.
Who was your favorite MBA professor? During our first week of the EMBA, Professor Kurt April from South Africa spent an evening with us and fundamentally changed the trajectory of our entire programme. He defined for us authenticity in leadership and helped us see why purpose matters so much in our work. Here was a man who had lived on the frontline of the fight against apartheid and went on to advise leaders and companies internationally on how to achieve authentic purpose within their endeavours. Almost two years later, our learning continues to be influenced by his passionate advocacy for authenticating ourselves within the work we do.
What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? Our module in Palo Alto, CA, on Entrepreneurial Finance turned out to be unexpectedly deep and reflective for me. It was taught by Professor Tim Jenkinson and Allen Morgan, an experienced early stage investor. Throughout the week, we learned about angel, seed, and early stage VC investments in a formal way that I had never experienced before. Prior to beginning my EMBA, I was forced to sell my shares in the company I had helped build for 15 years – the bulk of my professional experience. It was a tough and harrowing experience to see a company and team I dearly loved packaged and sold off on the cheap to a much larger and much less mission-driven competitor. At the time of my company’s sale, I struggled to understand the seemingly callous decisions and the power wielded by our investors. Not until sitting with Jenkinson and Morgan did I come to fully understand how our investors’ exit played out. It brought definition and clarity to the experience I lived through. Going forward, it helps me clarify how I will take on investment and the type of partners I will work with in my new business. This was just the education I was hoping to receive: a clear explanation as to how the business world works, and guidance to make the best choices within my new entrepreneurial endeavour.
Why did you choose this executive MBA program?
As part of my work in education, I had filmed interviews with dozens of highly proficient school principals and headmasters. Roughly a decade ago, I heard on NPR about the opening of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Saïd Business School. I had never heard of social entrepreneurship but was highly intrigued and came to discover that this emerging academic field better described the characteristics of these remarkable leaders than even the educational research.
When my family was on holiday in the UK, I decided to visit the Skoll Centre. I also ended up meeting an EMBA recruiter for the business school. We had a good discussion and the whole school greatly impressed me. She asked me if I wanted to hear more about the Oxford EMBA programme. As she described it as being 16 weeks in total spread over 21 months, 12 of those weeks being spent in the fascinating city of Oxford, plus a week in India, China, South Africa and Silicon Valley. She also shared that it would be a diverse group of mid-career professionals from all over the world, many of them with families like mine. Moreover, she explained the programme’s focus on entrepreneurism, globalism, and social entrepreneurism. I was sold; I just knew that I was supposed to study for an Oxford EMBA at this mid-point of my life.
What did you enjoy most about business school in general? My cohort, without question! The professors have been excellent, the facilities are world-class, and the travel has been thrilling. However, it is the relationships, the mutual support, and the collective learning that has been the most fulfilling. With about 50 of us from roughly 30 countries, this has been the most diverse group I have ever worked with. I have worked for many years across the US within many “diverse” communities, but my cohort represents such a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and lived experiences that I have been pushed to concede that as Americans we are but a big player on a large and dynamic world stage.
What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work?
Our first international module was in Mumbai, India. On the first day, I was signed up to visit Tata Consulting Services (TCS), a global IT services company that I had never heard of prior. Arriving at their sprawling modern campus in a park-like setting, it was quite different from the Mumbai outside their gates. We were greeted by Ananth Krishnan, the CTO of this $20 billion annual company with nearly 400,000 employees. At one point, as he described what TCS does, he mentioned an education platform they had developed called iON that had primarily been deployed in India. I later found a moment in the tour to share some ideas with him about the education market. As we struck up a conversation, he gave me his card and told me to write up my ideas, promising he would share them with the iON team. This was the beginning of a new partnership between my small startup, Curious School, and their global TCS operation to take the iON educational platform to primary and secondary schools throughout the US and multiple other countries. The lesson learned was that it never hurts to connect with someone and share an idea, no matter how seemingly unmatched the relationship might be. It is only because of Oxford that I now have a trusted global partner that shares my vision on how technology can enhance student learning.
Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family, and education? The premise of this question presumes that I have succeeded at juggling work, family and education! This has been tough to say the least. The real credit, however, goes to my wife. For almost two years I have simply traveled and worked away, whereas she has generously kept our house and family going, even while she has started her own interior design business. What has been wonderful to witness is my kids watching me go to school, do homework, and ultimately graduate. Hopefully this sets the example for them to have a marvelous and ambitious academic future of their own.
What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program?
Go with a purpose, an “authentic purpose” as defined by Professor Kurt April. This purpose does not need a pre-determined defined outcome such as a specific promotion or new job. But it needs to be deeply centered within your own needs. It may be about re-inventing one’s self or the courage to start a new business or even just a true love of learning and companionship. However, this purpose needs to be about you and why you would embark on such an all-consuming endeavour mid-career and mid-life.
What was your biggest regret in business school?
Regret is a strong word and doesn’t fully apply to my experience because I truly value the whole experience. If there is anything that could have had a better outcome, it is that I wish I was better with numbers now than I was before. Math has never been a strength of mine, and the EMBA has not changed that. I might have passed accounting and finance, but I am not much better at actually doing math. However, I have a much greater understanding of the concepts of numbers used in business and feel much better now about my ability to understand what is being calculated but I will always look for help doing the actual calculations.
Which MBA classmate do you most admire? All of them. Seriously. This isn’t wimping out of choosing – it would be a patent injustice to select just one. As I go forward with my new business Curious School, I owe such a debt of gratitude to members of my cohort that I have learned from; given me advice; connected me with invaluable contacts in education in the countries from which they come; invested—yes, literally invested in my business; asked how it is going and been excited with my updates; engaged me in rigorous discussion around politics and culture; included me in pub crawls and other worthy distractions; and who have challenged me to stay authentic with myself. How can I honour just one? Truly, I honour them all.
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I knew I needed to go to business school when I was forced to sell my company due to losing market dominance, making a handful of strategic errors, getting beat up by our investors, and ultimately losing the battle to save the company. Real life experience required a real education, and I am lucky to get to fight this battle one more time.”
What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My goal is to build a company that serves over one-million global educators and the students they teach with the resources, support, and technology they need to succeed. As much as innovation is needed to do this, wise implementation and smart execution will be the keys to this success.
In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you?
Curtis is authentic in who he is and what he does—he is a trusted and supportive peer who believes passionately in working for our collective good.
What are the top two items on your bucket list?
1. Circumnavigate the globe on the ground and by sea
2. See a painting of mine hung in an art museum as part of a permanent collection
What made Curtis such an invaluable addition to the class of 2019?
“Curtis embodies the collaborative spirit we value so highly at Oxford. While at Oxford, he has used the opportunity of his entrepreneurship project to build a new venture, dedicated to helping educators create better learning environments for children from diverse backgrounds. He has galvanized support from his fellow students and turned his project into realistic plans whilst flying to Oxford every six weeks from the United States, working through the many assessments which make up the Oxford Executive MBA. His passion for helping children reach their educational potential is obvious to all of us at the School.”