The Potential To Expand Your Influence In The Business World And Beyond – Curtis Johnson
- Name: Curtis Johnson
- Undergrad: Hampton University
- Business School: MBA, The Wharton School
- Current Professional Position: Brand Strategy Executive at The Walt Disney Company
Please could you give us a brief overview of your background and career so far, and what your role is now?
My background before business school was in PR and digital strategy. I worked briefly at a PR firm before transitioning to the non-profit sector, where I did in-house communications and eventually became an inaugural leader on our digital engagement team.
While at Wharton, I was interested in brand strategy – I wanted to understand how the biggest and best brands built and sustained customer equity to influence choice. Post-Wharton, I entered a role in brand strategy and insights at Disney – since then, I’ve held various related roles at Disney focused on audience growth, business development and strategic alignment.
How did your experience at business school help you with the next stages of your career?
Wharton was extremely valuable in building my quantitative and analytical acumen. In my role before business school, I was obsessed with figuring out how to use our e-mail, mobile and web data to improve our engagement. I had the passion for data-driven decision making and looked to b-school to build a more analytically rigorous foundation to do so.
To that end, I’m someone who for years used software and methodologies from my Marketing Research class on a daily basis. This, along with a variety of experiences – consulting with local Philly-area businesses, case competitions, business immersion programs in China – built a foundation of theoretical frameworks and practical knowledge needed to drive business strategy.
“You are on a path with the potential to expand your influence in the business world and beyond; while the goals are yours, the impact extends far wider. There are people’s lives that are tied to your dreams. What does that mean to you? What does that require of you? Let that awareness inform your goals and intentions, your time investments, your actions and your circle.”Curtis Johnson
Additionally, the leadership curriculum at Wharton was exceptional. The range of leadership opportunities were vast – from simulating a Marine training at Quantico to coaching first-year students through Wharton’s Leadership Fellows program, my experience has aided my career via situational leadership, people management, team building and coaching.
Can you tell us about your experience as a Black student at business school and subsequent career. What are the challenges you have faced, and how have you overcome them?
One of the perils for underrepresented Black MBA students is the risk that comes with seeing yourself through the lens of others. In the early b-school days, I fell into that trap – my non-traditional background and work experience, my identity or even just being a Philly native (the vast majority of students were transplants) all contributed to a feeling of marginalization. I struggled with feeling a sense of belonging and the notion that I had something to prove. MBA programs aspire to a culture where students easefully explore each others’ experiences and worldviews. It’s beautiful conceptually – in practice, I was expected to enter into the world of my classmates much more than they would traverse into mine.
To deal with this dynamic, I sought community with people who shared similar values and experiences – Wharton’s Black MBA Association, its Leadership Fellows program, the Wharton Warriors Basketball team. Each of these fed parts of my identity and brought me closer to people and experiences that reinforced that.
I also leaned into opportunities to insert a missing or overlooked perspective into the dialogue. In my second year, The Wharton Journal printed a satirical article from a classmate that took not-so-veiled jabs at Philadelphians. To me, it highlighted the racial and socioeconomic disconnect that existed between my b-school peers and the city we inhabited. I wrote a counter-piece in the following week’s Journal – the thesis being that Philly wasn’t some silent background character to whatever main character journey folks wanted to experience. It was a living, breathing city – a blue-collar one where folks wear their heart on their sleeve, spoke their mind freely and lived in truth. It’s a city and a people that deserve our respect.
“Stay connected with people who will remind you who you are and where you come from. Amidst a sea of newness, whether in school or embarking on a career, I think there’s value in being grounded in stable relationships that exist completely independent of your new business endeavors. I met my best friend for dinner every week while at Wharton and I can’t say enough how important that was for my sense of balance and grounding.”Curtis Johnson
All in all, it wasn’t always easy to navigate my own identity within the b-school environment. There were periods and moments of clarity that reinforced my unique value to the Wharton community; those moments kept me going. Ultimately, Wharton was the experience that enabled me to stand in this truth: it was and is my specific experiences, values and identity that not only drive me to success, they make the people I touched and the communities I’m a part of better, too.
What do you think needs to be done to create a more inclusive environment for Black people in business and management education?
One of the best ways schools can be more inclusive of Black people is to actually co-create course curriculum, cases, experiences and more with Black people – students, alumni, faculty, consultants, community leaders and beyond. There’s no shortage of creativity, ingenuity and innovation among Black business communities; schools have to invest the time and capital in building connections with them.
Wharton was a very student-led environment, which provides some level of autonomy – but when representation is low, the impact is limited. I’m encouraged by programs like Wharton CEO (Coalition for Equity and Opportunity) that bring investment and accountability from school administrators to create a more inclusive culture.
What do you think will be an indicator that we are achieving racial equality in business?
It’s a great question and as Meek Mill might say, there are levels to the answer.
A simple answer, at least as it relates to Corporate America, is more people of color as decision-makers at all levels, particularly among the c-suite and board. That’s important and it’s a step in the right direction. That said, if we aren’t also disrupting systems and networks that were built on inequity, then we are changing the faces of leadership without a realistic expectation for sustainable change.
To build a permanent shift in racial equity in business, we need cultural and systemic shifts in the way we conduct business. I think some lagging indicators of progress are increased capital (and access to capital), access to supplier contracts and more ownership overall for people of color. Perhaps a more immediate indicator would be widespread adoption of practices that increase visibility and accountability for equity metrics, along with investment in resources that will ensure sustainable processes.
Can you name an initiative or an individual who is helping to create a more inclusive environment for Black business professionals?
There are so many people doing incredible work to create a more equitable playing field for Black professionals, it’s impossible to limit to one. I’ve long followed Tristan Walker and his journey to develop Walker and Company, a company that has proven the viability of consumer goods brands specifically targeting people of color. On a similar note, Black Women in Venture Capital is an initiative to 10x the number of Black women venture capitalists – essentially the gatekeepers for entrepreneurs to gain access to funding. In diversifying the decision makers for capital, I envision a more diverse pool of founders, as well.
What advice would you have for other Black business school students as they begin their MBA, or pursue the next stages of their careers?
You are on a path with the potential to expand your influence in the business world and beyond; while the goals are yours, the impact extends far wider. There are people’s lives that are tied to your dreams. What does that mean to you? What does that require of you? Let that awareness inform your goals and intentions, your time investments, your actions and your circle.
A more practical piece of advice: journal regularly. The experience flies by and by looking back at key moments and memories you’ve documented, you’ll have a richer pool from which to draw lessons and opportunities for growth.
Lastly, stay connected with people who will remind you who you are and where you come from. Amidst a sea of newness, whether in school or embarking on a career, I think there’s value in being grounded in stable relationships that exist completely independent of your new business endeavors. I met my best friend for dinner every week while at Wharton and I can’t say enough how important that was for my sense of balance and grounding.