Off to Oxford
By: Curtis Linton
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Let me state firmly, I flatly disagree with the fear of middle age. My assessment of these mid-life years? The best yet. This time is messy and complex; overran with obligation; all consuming at home with the kids; challenging yet fulfilling after many years of marriage; and the most exciting phase of my career with creativity, ambition, and the wisdom necessary to actually do the work. Despite this, I have experienced a growing and amorphous need to learn, connect, stretch, challenge, and feel young once again—not in age but in something new and categorically different.

And this is why I am in Oxford, England today. I am about to begin a two-year course of study at Oxford University. My rational mind asks, “Why, oh why, would I do this?” But my soulful side says, “I need this!” When I was young, want drove my actions. But now it is need—the need to push myself into discomfort so as to learn and grow, so as to engage as richly in my life’s second half as the first.

This journey to Oxford began roughly a decade ago. At the time, I was producing a program for School Improvement Network titled Equity 101. For this project, we searched out highly equitable learning environments where students from many races and backgrounds were all succeeding at high levels. Rather than focusing on schools that used a particular and consistent methodology to accomplish this, we featured a variety of schools whom had developed their own programs that statistically succeeded with all students. Devoid of an expert to guide us through what we were filming, we focused at each school on what the the principal and teachers were actually doing everyday. This was an inspiring program to produce—highly diverse school environments with innovative and engaged educators who saw diversity as a strength. Challenging norms and privilege were core reasons why these schools worked.

What we discovered were strong similarities in the leadership approaches of these various schools. They all had a strong commitment to educational equity, the belief in providing all students with the personalized support they each need to reach and exceed a common standard. The principals were truly equitable leaders exhibiting common traits amongst them that kept their organizations aggressively focused on accomplishing their visions.

About this same time, I heard a radio segment on NPR describing the opening of the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurism at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. I became highly intrigued by the concept of social entrepreneurism—using entrepreneurial principles in non-profit, NGO, and purpose driven social justice organizations. These included modern leadership skills such as crafting a vision, client-centered product and service development, good marketing, and a focus on continuous improvement through innovation. In fact, the literature on social entrepreneurism was even more descriptive than the educational literature in illustrating what these school principals were doing to lead successful organizations. I was sold, and have followed this movement ever since.

This past New Year’s, we spent a week in London staying with my wife’s nephew. One day when we had nothing planned, I took the train out to Oxford in hopes of visiting the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurism. As class was not in session and the Center was closed for the holidays, I met with a recruiting director from the business school. Not only did she show me the Center for Social Entrepreneurism, but she sold me on Oxford’s MBA!

She began by asking if I would like to learn more about their program. “Of course,” I said. She shared that the school loses a few points in the rankings because their average graduate salary is lower because they don’t have as many alums working in the highly compensated field of finance. I was OK with that as I was just going through a rather difficult time with the investors in my company. She then went on to say that the school had three main focuses—entrepreneurism, globalism, and social entrepreneurism. I was blown away—those are my own interests! I love building and running an innovative organization that is focused on social good, and I had big hopes to do this on the global stage. I was quite pleased to find a school that was focused on those very things!

But I had never, ever been interested in getting an MBA! If I was ever going to get another advanced degree, it was going to be a PhD in Education. Nonetheless, she stated that I would be a wonderful member of their Executive MBA (EMBA) program, and invited me to apply.

So out of curiosity (and a little ambition—it is Oxford, after all), I dug in. Their EMBA program took place in 16 week-long modules spread over 21 months. Most of those weeks are in Oxford, plus a week in India, a week in China, and electives in Silicon Valley and South Africa. So not only was the program focused on my interests, but it took place across the world! And then I learned that the cohort of 65 students was intensely international. Only about 10 percent of the students are from the UK, another 15% from Europe, 15% from the US, and the rest from every corner of the world.

Furthermore, I learned about the Oxford learning tradition. Each classroom is set up in a stadium style horseshoe. The learning is not just through lecture, but primarily through case- study, debate, collaborative knowledge building, and team projects. Even more, students are encouraged to challenge each other and the instructors. The goal is better knowledge arrived at through collaboration and consensus—just my preferred style of learning!

Reflecting on this opportunity to learn with such a diverse cohort, I had to confront my own privilege. For the past 15 years, I have been a highly educated white male business owner in the US. Historically, this is the top of the heap! I had become accustomed to the status that comes along with my privileged demographic—sub-consciously expecting that wherever I went, I would be honored and respected. But in this international cohort, none of that was guaranteed. To succeed, I would have to humbly accept that my experience and knowledge were simply different from my would-be cohorts rather than better. I had to acknowledge upfront that I would be challenged to learn in this open debating environment from people with entirely different yet valid perspectives.

What an opportunity! It was not until I was going through the application process that I discovered how much I needed—not want, but need—this opportunity to learn, be challenged, stretch, and grow to be my better self, the self I always thought I would become. So I applied, which required a lot of introspection, crafting of what I was aiming to achieve, and reaching out to colleagues for deeply meaningful letters of recommendations. The application process became a journey unto itself of re-centering my ambition on a focused process of growth and learning towards a better good.

When Oxford asked why I wanted to go through this program, my response was that education needs to be exposed to the research of social entrepreneurism. Surprisingly, few in North American education have learned about this concept. It is powerful in that it can provide school leaders with the tools they need to not only turn around low-performing schools, but build highly engaged modern-day learning environments where every student equitably receives the support they need. In particular, this impacts diverse students who show up to school with every dream I ever had, even though they might not be the norm like I was, nor have been born to the same privilege I once took for granted. This especially applies to my own kids, Dominic and Maya—two black children navigating a very white world.

I made it through each round of review, and was finally invited to interview in Oxford. When I arrived the night before, I was walking through town at just about midnight in search of a kabob shop for a late meal. I called my wife Melody and while describing the town, became quite emotional. For whatever reason, I knew that I was supposed to be in Oxford at that moment. My future might not be totally clear, but this is the path I need to follow as a first step in the second half of my life.

The need for this education I am about to receive is real. I have just gone through a tough sale of School Improvement Network, the company I co-owned with my brothers. It was a bittersweet end due to our losing focus, missing the mark with our clients, and a devolving relationship with our investors, especially after years of crazy growth and succee. So much experienced, and now so much to learn! There is too much good work to do on this earth. My hope is that through this Oxford program, I can be of future benefit to educational leaders and others in supporting them to likewise become highly successful social entrepreneurs.

It’s an awesome journey, and I am humbled and lucky to take it. And with that, I must share gratitude—thanks to my wife Melody for soulfully supporting me on another adventure, for my kids Dominic and Maya allowing me to travel far away as a student like them, to my mother and father for teaching me how to not only dream but learn what is needed to make that dream a reality, and to my siblings for many amazing years of working together towards a common good. So much already experienced and learned…and this is only the beginning.

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