When Dr. Wayne Curtis worked on Wall Street in the ’80s, he got used to wearing the finest clothes. “I thought I had all the bells and whistles of a successful executive living in the most urban, successful city in America,” he says. “You couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
He dressed for success, and worked hard to keep it and live it. Over the next two decades, Curtis became an executive at Fannie Mae, the massive government-backed mortgage company. But by 2006 senior leadership was demanding more conformity and Dr. Curtis started looking for the exits. At the same time, he applied and was accepted to Antioch’s PhD in Leadership and Change.
As he began his studies, he quickly realized that he wasn’t exactly the same as other students in the program. “I showed up the first week … and I still had the Rolex, I still had the custom suits, I had on suspenders, I had on a pair of Gucci shoes. I showed up and everybody in that room looked at me and thought I was from another planet.” But he threw himself into this work, examining and challenging his old beliefs about what constituted leadership. “I always thought of myself as a good leader, I always thought of myself as all about change,” he says. “What I learned … was I was nowhere near as good of a leader and hardly understood the type of change that needed to happen, until I went through the program, quite frankly.”
Over the next three years, Curtis left Fannie Mae and started his own consulting company. Now he would come into class with “my bicycle, my hat, my shorts, my flip flops. Somehow I had morphed into something different.” The biggest change wasn’t sartorial, though. It was in how he viewed leadership. As he learned about ideas like “phenomenology” and “servant leadership” and read books like Bad Leadership by Barbara Kellerman, Curtis came to the realization, “It’s not as much about me as I thought for so long. In fact, the less it is about me the better I seem to do.”
He took these realizations directly into his consulting business, Curtis Concepts. His first client was a nonprofit called Wall Street Without Walls, which following the model of Doctors Without Borders aims to bring retired finance executive – “deal junkies” as Curtis thinks of them – to volunteer their skills helping “community development organizations, community development-based banks … in inner cities and areas that traditionally are not served.” This fed a growing passion for bringing financial services to underserved communities.
Today, Curtis fulfills these values through working as board chair of Mentor Capital Network, “a social enterprise accelerator” that has helped small enterprises in over 90 countries to raise more than $1 billion in capital to help solve the world’s toughest problems. He also serves on the board of Cenlar, where he helps guide the decisions of this majority employee-owned bank. He continues to serve as a board member of the Children’s Law Center, which focuses on adoptions. He also has been teaching, first at the University of District Columbia and later at the University of Maryland.
In cultivating clients for paying work, Curtis now looks at the business’s underlying mission. “I want to work with people who are about something other than just making money. I’m not against money,” he explains. “I’m a classic old-time capitalist – however, I just think that we’ve made the notion of doing well and doing good mutually exclusive for too long.”
A Background of Struggle … and Opportunity
Wayne Curtis did not have the typical childhood of a future mover and shaker in the finance industry—an industry that is still overwhelmingly white and from middle- and upper-class origins. This was not Curtis’s story.
As one of six children raised by a single mother in public housing in Dayton, Ohio, Curtis faced the difficult circumstances of being poor and black in the 1950s and ‘60s. His mother struggled with alcoholism, which caused him to run away from home at age fourteen. “By the time everybody figured out what was going on, they said, ‘You can’t be on your own,’” explains Curtis. So he spent the latter half of his teenage years as a ward of the county, living in a group home and being looked after by a 21-year-old caseworker.
“She became my second mom,” says Curtis, who has stayed in touch with her and her family for the intervening 51 years. “She had blonde hair, blue eyes. And she would show up at events where my family wasn’t showing up. Everybody was very polite, but they were always curious.” He was part of the first class of students bussed to integrate a previously all-white high school, and for the first year, it was hard to learn anything. But he started running on the track and field team, where he developed into a talented middle-distance runner.
He caught another lucky break in the spring of 1970 when he went to a college night put on by his high school. One of the schools there was Yale, which had a famous track coach Bob Giegengack, a former Olympic coach. “I said that’s where I wanted to go,” explained Curtis, even though “I knew my grades clearly need some work because the first year of forced bussing we didn’t really learn anything.” Despite his doubts, the next day the Dayton Daily News ran the headline, above the fold, “Runner Runs For Yale.” “They never talked to me, never interviewed me,” says Curtis. They “just took the picture and started the story.” He felt embarrassed because people knew that his grades were “above average but certainly not at the Ivy League level for academics.”
The next day, the editor of Dayton Daily News, Larry Newman – whom Curtis had met while interviewing for a scholarship the year before—called him up and said, “Why didn’t you tell me you were interested in Yale?” Curtis explained that with his grades, going to Yale was “a far, big, huge stretch.” But Newman said “Don’t worry about it. If you’re willing to take a PG year at a prep school, one year, I think you’ll be a shoo-in.”
The next fall, not long after his seventeenth birthday, Curtis showed up on the campus of Hotchkiss, the prestigious Connecticut boarding school, for an extra year of study. He studied as hard as he could, often pulling all-nighters with the aid of No-Doz, the caffeine supplement. “They sort of gave me shakes after two or three days,” says Curtis. But all his studying worked: that spring he was accepted by almost the whole Ivy League.
He visited every school except Harvard—and it turned out that he hated each of them. Yale was “in a ghetto, in New Haven in 1971. I said, ‘Look, I just got out of the projects and ghetto, I’m not going back there’ … the tension between the school and community was unsettling.” So he chose to roll the dice with the school he hadn’t visited. “I basically went to Harvard sight-unseen.”
It worked out. Four years later he found himself in an MBA program at Columbia. He dropped out of the program but landed on his feet, finding work on Wall Street and also in the office of New York City Mayor Ed Koch, setting up the Urban Park Rangers, a program that just celebrated its 30th anniversary. He eventually moved to Philadelphia and worked various political and corporate jobs before starting with Fannie Mae, which offered more security as he began to raise a family.
Sixteen years later, he started the Antioch PhD in Leadership and Change, quit the job with Fannie Mae, and started his consulting firm, Curtis Concepts.
The New Knowledge-Economy
Today, Curtis is at work promoting a book he co-wrote, Working Methods For Knowledge Management – Knowledge Economies And Knowledge Work, which draws on his decades of business experience to explore the questions, “Who controls knowledge? Who defines what it is?” As Curtis brainstormed with his co-authors, “The more we talked the more we realized that we went from industrial to manufacturing, to servicing, to – quite frankly, you think about – it’s all about knowledge and information.” The problem is that the coming knowledge economy is not accessible to all people around the world but is instead concentrated in the hands of those whose economies are already highly developed.
And even in a country like the United States, access is unequally distributed. Curtis says that the imperative to adapt to the knowledge economy is on stark display during the Covid-19 pandemic. As schools have shifted to online instruction, “they found how many students even in some of the well-to-do universities, didn’t have their own laptops or access to the internet.” Says Curtis, “Everyone that has [access to technology] kind of presumes, ‘Why doesn’t everyone have it?’” Because of his background and his abiding interest in underserved communities, Curtis is better situated than many people to see how the transition to a knowledge economy is perpetuating pre-existing gaps.
Curtis is enthusiastic to bring this book to influential readers, who he hopes will use it to guide decisions. Because his co-authors are all “hardcore academics,” it has fallen to Curtis to use his marketing expertise to try to promote the book. He thinks that it is key that people understand how important it is to “(1) give people access [to the knowledge economy], (2) give them the skills to interpret what it means, and then (3) apply it so that it’s a useful skill. Because if you don’t have those three things, how will you be employed in the future?”
Working Toward Change
Now that he has finished one book, Curtis is anxious to write the next. It will be “a collection of stories about the people who raised me while my mother was unable to.” He is also continuing to work in his various volunteer and paid duties.
With so much in flux during the Covid-19 pandemic and now the cycle of violence against people of color who live in poverty and those who want to give voice to this systematic struggle, Curtis says that it has laid bare the inequalities of the current system while also creating a possibility for real reforms. “We’ve done a much worse job than I think anyone really imagined. We knew there were disparities. We knew there were inequities. But when you see it in real-time and real life, it’s pretty devastating.” Still, Curtis says that “I’m really hoping that the big and the small and the government and even some of the politicians … see it as a real opportunity to expand the pie and the participation in this thing we call the capitalist economy.”
Between his background, his business experience, his study of leadership, and his ideas about the knowledge economy, Wayne Curtis seems well-positioned to help make this change happen.