“Watch for the Oxford Golden Moments,” we were advised by the dean of Oxford’s Said Business School, Peter Tufano. “They exist,” he reiterated, and arrive at particularly special moments when one realizes they are part of the remarkably unique Oxford community. Would this happen to me, I asked myself, sitting there on the first morning of my two-year Executive MBA (EMBA) journey to this fabled University? Already humbled and intimidated by my cohort, overwhelmed by the prospect of traveling here for one week every six weeks, and further in debt with student loans, I hoped dearly at that moment that the Oxford Golden Moment might be felt at least once, maybe twice during what was likely to be a profound learning experience.
The promise of Oxford is three-fold: history, intellectualism, and diversity. This is why I signed up for this opportunity. But would history over shadow the present intellectual journey I was sincerely pursuing? And how would its promised diversity really manifest—just in the countries of our passports or actually in our thinking? The history is obvious, but I had not embarked on a tourist expedition. The goal here was rich, deep, and intensely challenging learning.
Amazingly, these all came together the moment I officially arrived. Our opening dinner was in the Hall of Greek & Roman Sculpture in the Ashmolean, the world’s first University museum. Staring at a 2,000 plus year-old sculpture at the first of nightly formal meals, I started to meet my cohort—the promised scholars from every corner of the world. To my right was a Lebanese management consultant now working in Switzerland for Novartis. To my left was a man from India now living in Bangkok who manages 330 luxury hotels from throughout the world. Ok—starting to get interesting. Further around the table was an Asian-American woman supporting IB schools worldwide, a Portuguese woman who works in finance…and the lists goes on. Never in my life had I so quickly met so many highly accomplished people from so many different backgrounds and from so many industries: gold mining, pharmaceuticals, technology, renewables, marketing, government ministries, consulting, investment, education, non-profits, and numerous others. I knew why I had come to Oxford, but surely the others were already successful enough to not need this education, right?
Wrong. Person after person when asked why they chose to do this Oxford EMBA responded with similar sentiments to my own: the need to learn. Especially the need to learn at a deep level mid-life and mid-career. And why Oxford? Yet again the same: history, intellectualism, and diversity. Sitting within that hall of antiquities, I was deeply humbled—I had traveled half-way around the world to find a group of peers I could connect, learn, and journey with down the path of pushing my mind and soul to reframe expectations and opportunities. Lucky, so lucky, I felt at that moment.
And then the learning began. My choice of Oxford was premised on its focus of entrepreneurism, globalism, and social entrepreneurism along with its promise of looking at leadership and business through a lens of authenticity and diversity. The entire first week was exactly this: the examination of authentic leadership through a lens of diversity. Whether the lecture was on personality, purpose, or working in a rapidly changing world, the emphasis was on discussion, debate, and full engagement of all 63 of my cohorts. Rather than just getting into the groove of the learning, we were pulled again and again into rigorous discussion facilitated by world-class academics. But these conversations carried throughout breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And just to make sure that we didn’t become too complacent, most nights continued with a pub crawl through the old streets of Oxford. Life rarely offers the opportunity to be engaged from 8 am to midnight day in and day out. But this Oxford EMBA was promising just that.
Why, one might ask, could our engagement maintain such a fevered pitch? This can be defined between the extremes of two of our lecturers—Kurt April and James Taylor. Kurt April is a product of apartheid South Africa. Growing up mixed race and subjected to intense oppression and abuse, he used his unique story as an entrée into authenticity and purposeful leadership. Authentic purpose is found within his personal journey from hate-filled guerilla training in his youth to leading a center for social leadership focused on facilitating connection across difference in today’s modern workplace. Profound. Deep. Mind- and heart-shifting in its emotional and intellectual impact. Truly, I am a better person for the couple of hours I was able to listen to Kurt and his insight. The solution is found within the journey of conflict—as we first survive and then come to thrive, we build for ourselves and those around us a better, more authentic, more purposeful life. Yes, this is what I strive for, and here I find it within Oxford’s halls.
Nevertheless, this sits in topical contrast but equal rigor to the exploration of statistics and analysis provided by James Taylor. British to the core and deeply in love with the language of mathematics, James Taylor had a significant task in front of him: move a middle-aged cohort from a fear of math to a loving embrace. Magically, he did this. Bit by challenging bit, he helped us understand not only the power of statistics, but how to use these calculations in our analysis of correlating data and statistical impact. It wasn’t just the math, but it was the application of this practice towards better more analyzed outcomes. I had to admit that I had always held analysis at arm’s length, not quite trusting myself to calculate truly what the impact of certain efforts might be. But by the end of an exhausting day of intensive mathematics, a new world opened itself up to me: the deliberate use of statistics to prove hypotheses I have so long promoted. The impact of this on my immediate work became obvious: I now am obligated to use the science of economics and analysis to shine a better more focused light on why some schools work for all kids and others do not. And all of this was experienced in just the first week of this sixteen week program!
But that Oxford Golden Moment, where might it be found? On Thursday night, we had to don formal Oxford academic garb—sub fusc as it is called: a mortar board, traditional vest, dark suit, and white bow tie for the men, black ribbon for the women. They ushered us into the seventeenth century Convocation House where, in Latin, they matriculated us as Oxford scholars—true Oxonians—in a room where they have done this for hundreds of years and with thousands of scholars. Sitting there for the few moments this ceremony lasts, I deeply reflected on the power of this opportunity: sharing in a legacy that stretches hundreds of years with the best scholars and intellects this world has known. Following this, they led us into the Divinity School, a high gothic chamber that dates to the fifteenth century. Sitting down to a formal dinner in full sub fusc, I was opposite a large window that looks out onto the famous Radcliffe Lantern—a round domed building in the center of Oxford. The sun was just setting and casting a golden hue on this architecturally significant structure. Looking around at my cohorts from every corner of the globe, representing every race, and imbued with authentic diversity of experience and opinion, I realized I was sitting in my very own Oxford Golden Moment. Magical—memorable—in every way!
Later that evening after our nightly pub crawl, I was walking back to St. Hugh’s College with my “roomies”—Elena and Rolando, two good friends I have been lucky to find. Reflecting on the evening, on our learning, sharing with each other, it brought me back to an experience early in my life that has shaped me ever since. When I was eighteen and barely out of high school, a friend and I backpacked through Europe for a short period of time. No one in my family had ever traveled to Europe from the deep Rocky Mountain valleys of Utah where I grew up. I might as well have traveled to the ends of the Earth! As this was before teenagers had cell phones and credit cards, I backpacked with only $700 cash on me. That money quickly started to go the moment we landed in London! Just hoping to survive, we found ourselves hitchhiking, eating a baguette a day, staying in train stations, or sleeping on an overnight train to yet another country, 16 in all. Through this experience, I realized two things: 1. Even though I may have been raised to see myself and my heritage as particularly unique, backpacking through Europe I was truly nobody—I was humbled unlike anything I had ever experienced; and 2. I discovered within myself a will to survive, no matter how hard or lacking resources the situation might be—I was fully empowered to thrive despite hardship. Humbled and empowered—a great thing to experience at a young age!
But here I was once again, deeply humbled to be counted amongst such a powerful cohort; but yet empowered to learn, challenge, grow, and thrive in one of the most remarkable places on earth! I felt authentic. I was connected with diversity. I learned and I learned and I learned! How lucky was I? At the end of only one week, I now realize that the Oxford Golden Moment is a state of being: embracing the rich power of the mind and the authenticity of the soul to make my contribution here on earth. Memorable in every way. Humbled. Empowered. And only fifteen more challenging weeks to go! Truly thankful.
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