Commanding your own legacy: Christian Duncan, MBA ’10, delivers symposium keynote

By: Ashley Win
Christian Duncan, MBA ’10, Johnson Means Business and Diversity Symposium

Years ago, Christian Duncan, MBA ’10, told his very traditional father he was going to quit his job, go to a well-known MBA school, get paid to attend, and double his salary by the time he had finished his degree program. Though his father laughed and retorted with, “You’re crazy,” Duncan knew this was one of the few times he was going to have to forgo his father’s advice and follow his own aspirations.

“The whole concept of quitting something versus getting a degree while you worked at it was very foreign to him,” Duncan recalled as he spoke to attendees during the 2017 Diversity Symposium and Johnson Means Business admissions event. In Duncan’s keynote address, he warmed the hearts of prospective MBA candidates and members of the Johnson community with entertaining, sentimental anecdotes of his upbringing and journey that led him to Sage Hall.

On Thursday, October 26, Johnson Means Business (JMB) welcomed prospective MBAs from diverse and LGBTQ communities to campus for two days to explore Cornell, network, and engage with current students and alumni. In tandem with JMB, the annual Diversity Symposium began with Duncan’s talk on Friday. Duncan returned to his alma mater to celebrate the very day he found out he had received an interview for Johnson 10 years ago. He is now a senior manager at Accenture.

Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Duncan was no stranger to the counterculture of Haight-Ashbury and the juxtapositions that filled the neighborhood. His mother worked a fulltime job to put him in an elite half French, half English school that was steps away from the projects. Duncan’s his experience within, what he calls, the “dichotomy of prestige and realism,” drove him to leave his hometown behind for the exciting prospects of a larger city.

Duncan attended UCLA as an electrical engineering major after high school. However, his undergraduate career was paused when he was pulled out of school and put into psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation to combat his drug issues. During Duncan’s year-long break, he found his purpose in his local community outreach organization and his fraternity brothers who encouraged him to finish his undergraduate degree and pursue an MBA.

Steven Martinez, MBA ’18, co-chair of Johnson Means Business, moderates a conversation with keynote speaker Christian Duncan, MBA ’10.

When asked what fueled his passion to continue attending school, Duncan replied with: “When you’re in a business environment . . . I think being human, being open and honest is important, and it’s hard to sometimes delineate business from real life because they all intertwine.” Having fallen to one of the lowest points in his life, Duncan was hopeful and knew he had so many more achievements to look forward to.

When he graduated from UCLA, Duncan realized how hard it was to find help. He recalls that the only people who would offer him advice and help were those who looked like him or came from similar backgrounds. This is why he searched for an MBA program that would provide him with the diversity he seeked—he ended up at Johnson with the simple intention of meeting new and different people.

“I had an alum tell me once that big things happen in a little place called Ithaca,” said Duncan.

Duncan had to break away from what was traditional and expected in both his family and educational life. Being the first in his family to attend an Ivy League institution and earn an MBA, Duncan attained more than what was expected of him, and he renewed his own legacy as a successful MBA graduate with a diverse network of friends and colleagues.

“When I think about legacy and what it means, it is about leaving things behind and not just following what your ancestors and predecessors have done. Your legacy is not just a link to your family.”