For Curtis Wallette, there was no silver spoon background that helped him win an internationally renowned business competition called the Capsim Challenge held this spring in Chicago.
Following what he described as growing up with a “rough” early childhood before he was adopted when he was 3, he lived in various places from Lame Deer, Montana to Oklahoma and wherever his father’s Indian Health Service job took the family.
After high school, Wallette headed “out west” with all of his belongings in a backpack and lived in major cities, from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego to Las Vegas, as well as in New Mexico.
“I was just drifting basically,” he said. “I worked a lot of good jobs and operated businesses for people, but if I got tired of someplace, I’d just go. ‘I want to see what L.A. looks like,’ and I was off.”
He eventually came back to Montana, and after the birth of his daughter he went back to school. “The light switch turned on, and I didn’t want to struggle and work all of these jobs with a glass ceiling without a degree,” he said.
Starting off as an unconventional 29-year-old freshman at Montana State University Billings, Wallette initially had doubts on whether he was college material. A 4.0 GPA after his first semester erased those doubts. “You’ve got to be intelligent, but it’s mostly about putting in all the hard work,” he said.
A Northern Cheyenne tribal member, Wallette became involved with the American Indian Business Leaders while at MSU Billings, and was part of the College of Business’s American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) team that won first place at the 2009 AIBL contest in Phoenix.
After graduating from MSU Billings with a double major in marketing and management, he attended the University of Montana School of Business Administration where he’s due to graduate in 2014. Recalling the experience of reveling in the spirit of that competition, he entered this year’s Capsim Challenge that pits students “against each other in a biannual competition to crown the world’s best at running a multimillion-dollar simulated company.”
While competing against 1,750 students from 280 universities representing over 20 countries from Australia, India, China to the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, just to make it to the finals was an honor in itself. Wallette, however, wasn’t merely content to just be a part of the experience. “I didn’t just want to make it, I wanted to win,” he said.
In describing what the competition was like, Wallette said, “It’s like a game of chess but with a thousand pieces.”
There were eight rounds in two weeks representing eight years of running a theoretical $100 million company in decline, and Wallette took a long-term strategic strategy after gaining an early points lead. “I exposed the weaknesses of my competitors and took advantage of my own strengths,” he said. “What I did was focus on the big picture.”
While there were a lot of complexities that consisted of “hundreds of decisions per round,” part of Wallette’s strategy was he’d borrow money with a 10 percent interest rate, but with a steady 25 percent turnaround continually coming his way via his other strategies, his lead kept extending.
For instance, one strategy he used to further his lead in points included raising the overall cost of labor from manpower to machines so his competitors couldn’t keep up with his production. “I kind of did what like a Walmart would do. It’s kind of dirty,” he said with a chuckle, “but it’s fair. You’re not in business to be nice or help competitors.”
His theoretical company ended the competition with $250 million in sales with $100 million in profits. “There was only one person who was relatively close [Yijiao Jiang from Australia’s University of Queensland], but he was still way back, so it was great to compete against the best students in the world and do so well.”
In such a multiethnic diverse international competition, Wallette’s Native roots gave him added motivation. “It was good to represent my tribe and be a Native American,” he said. “We always get all of this negative press, and for me to be Northern Cheyenne and do something like that, it’s really cool. My family was proud, my tribe is proud, and the school is real proud and making a big deal out of it.”