Flying High, Under the Radar

USD alumnus Curtis Chambers alongside students and faculty on an Israel study abroad trip

CURTIS CHAMBERS GIVES BACK, BIGTIME, TO USD

A few years ago, Curtis Chambers was not really on anyone’s radar at the University of San Diego. This in spite of the fact that Chambers — who had nearly completed his computer science degree at USD — was a member of Uber’s founding team.

Serendipitously, it was one of Chambers’ former classmates and friends, Lisa Johansen ’04 (BS/BA) who mentioned his name while having dinner with Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering Dean Chell Roberts. The dean reached out to Chambers, who was living in San Francisco, and arranged an initial meeting.

“When I first met him, I couldn’t believe how young and humble he was,” he recalls. “You would never guess that this young guy was the software genius behind Uber.”

Given the stratospheric trajectory of his career, it’s hardly surprising that finishing his degree wasn’t a priority, but a variety of factors convinced him to finally close the loop. He and his wife, Shirley, were renovating their San Francisco home and needed to relocate while the work was underway. Both of their parents live in San Diego and were happy to welcome them home indefinitely.

But the primary influencer was Shirley.

USD alumnus Curtis Chambers

Curtis Chambers ’19 (BS/BA)

“My wife said to me, ‘How are we going to convince our daughters to get their college degrees when their own father hasn’t finished his?’ She had a point, so I figured I’d better fix this,” Chambers says with a laugh.

Through a series of meetings, USD figured out which classes Chambers would need to actually complete his degree. The curriculum had changed considerably, so it wasn’t a simple matter, but in the end, he came back to campus for a semester to finish his final two classes.

In May 2019, 18 years after his first day on campus, Chambers became an official alumnus.

There were a number of reasons that Chambers left USD before completing his undergraduate work. Mostly, he was busy writing code to launch companies: between creating a point-of-sale software platform for Harney Sushi in Old Town and building the software for the online expense management system Expensify, he was otherwise occupied.

And then came Uber.

The original idea, conceived by former CEO Travis Kalanick and co-founder Garret Camp, was created so they and their friends could have a driver at their disposal for social gatherings. Before long, other friends thought it was a great idea and wanted in.

Over the course of the next seven years, Chambers helped turn the startup into a global presence, ultimately branching out to form UberEats and UberFreight. He officially retired from Uber in 2017.

Since reconnecting with USD, Chambers has been in high demand. He gives his time generously, presents in classes, speaks at events and mentors students with start-up ideas of their own.

And he’s proven to be a generous philanthropist: For the past two years, he and Shirley have provided one-half of the funds needed to support a cohort of students to spend spring break on a study abroad tour of Israel, part of a mechanical engineering course focused on water challenges and solutions in both California and Israel.

Earlier this year, Chambers (pictured above, in back row at far right) joined the group, spending time with students as they visited an ancient aqueduct and wastewater treatment plant in the Old City of Jerusalem. He and his wife are Jewish, and liked the idea of giving students an opportunity to visit the region.

“Israel is a complex country with many different narratives. Many people aren’t aware of what a leader Israel is in the realm of water innovation. We believe this program provides the opportunity for students to experience Israel for themselves and then bring knowledge of the advanced water technology back to California, which desperately needs better water systems.”

Chambers has been vocal in his critique of the way computer science is taught in higher education. He believes the field tends to be too theoretical, outdated and disconnected from real-world skills.

Seeing this as another problem that needed to be solved, Chambers recently made a generous donation to hire a Professor of Practice in Data Science in the engineering school. Once hired, the hope is that this professor will be able to implement a data sciences minor at USD.

According to Dean Roberts, this is exactly what the school needs right now.

“Data science has become one of the key drivers of our economic future. The ability to hire a data science professional with extensive industry experience is critical in helping us create relevant experience for our students and in providing them with a foundation in data ethics and data fairness. We hope to become a national leader in these areas,” Roberts says. — Elisa Lurkis

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