Steve Curtis: The high school dropout who built a $100 million business and beat terminal cancer

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Steve Curtis

In 2005, Steve Curtis, CEO of ZAG Group, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer for which there was no treatment, cure or survivors past a few years. Curtis traveled the world in pursuit of a cure and building a team of top researchers and clinicians from universities, such as Yale, Stanford and Harvard, and he formed the TLC Foundation. They explored the cutting edge of mind-body and alternative medicine, including the emerging field of Psychoneuroimmunology and he focused on finding a solution through mastering health, the inner journey, and living a life of epic joy. Today, nine years later, after receiving no treatment, he is alive and well with, miraculously, no trace of his diagnosis.

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Courtesy of Steve Curtis

There is no question Curtis lives life to the fullest – he grasps the absolute need to do so, having his life almost taken from him in his twenties.

In addition to his philanthropy and deep need to give back, he has received numerous awards and is an author, public speaker, poet, singer, songwriter, artist, pilot, extreme sportsman, mountain climber, and soon to be, Ironman and astronaut.


What does philanthropy mean to you?

Steve Curtis: Philanthropy is a core component of being human. In today’s society we spend a lot of time thinking about what we get (income, car, house, things etc) but we forget about how we originated, living and working in small tribes and communities where it was all about sharing and ensuring we took care of each other.

Philanthropy is more about thinking of a holistic way of being – where we work together as a community.

Why is giving back to important to you?

I had a difficult childhood growing up – I had a lot challenges in school. I was the kid who got in a lot of trouble growing up, the kid in the hallway. When I left school, I chose to focus that into work, career success and learning.

To me, money was the score. I was determined to be successful and from 15 years old to my mid twenties I routinely worked 100 hours a week. It was very unhealthy. During that time I started a business and grew it to $5 million in revenue. But then I started to develop health issues – colds that lasted too long, headaches and strange stomach aches. I think in a way it was my body telling me to wake up, but I kept ignoring it. Until one day I noticed this little spot which turned into an orphan disease – a type a cancer.

I came to realize through cancer was that this endless path of never enough – to make more money and prove I had value had this opportunity to shift into a place where I had value. To let go of everything and be of service. I spent a lot of time thinking about serving humanity and dedicating myself to a higher purpose.

At that time, I thought if I die now, how will I be remembered and what impact will I have? I couldn’t think about much so I decided to change it. And that is when I started working with youth at risk and getting involved in some of my other charity work.

Courtesy of Steve Curtis

Do you have a philanthropic mentor?

There were lots. I think about people with great dedication – those who serve and have served humanity. I am inspired by the Dalai Lama and by Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King always chose service and sacrifice.

What is your proudest philanthropic achievement?

When I was on vacation a year ago, I was thinking about how I give to charities with time and money. I started thinking about my company and what I wanted to do there. Our partners haven’t necessarily had the same opportunities as I did to give back. So I decided to give 1% of our revenue to charity. Once we announced it, I noticed how quickly our partners embraced it. We have now given to numerous charities through our company giving program, Heartbeats and it is our staff who run it.

What is your happy place?

There’s a lot going these days in a global business with people in offices and customers all around the world.  My happy place is when I am somewhere that allows me time to settle into silence and peace. I actually love being in nature, out on the water in a sailboat, in the middle of nowhere with no phone and just having the sounds of the elements around me.  Even better if I get stuck in the perfect storm!

What is the coolest thing you have ever done?

We recently opened Zend Conscious Lounge in Yaletown, which is a plant based dining and botanical bar. With a menu that is 100% vegan and made for sharing, we serve a variety of healing food and drinks. I am super proud of it and think the concept is very cool. We haven’t even had our official opening yet and it’s been incredibly busy.

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Courtesy of Steve Curtis

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SEE ALSO: Meet John Volken: The man who donated his entire personal wealth to charity ($150 million!)

What is one way people can be kinder everyday?

It’s old and its cliché, but I find putting ourselves in other peoples shoes I find is a rare skill in the world. We spend a lot of time thinking about how people do things that don’t make sense or how they make judgments, or act in a way that isn’t a way we would. I think really digging into how people emerge, how they grew up and what opportunities they had or didn’t have or what they are going through in the moment, can really allow us to have a more profound and grateful experience of life.

Learn more about Steve Curtis.

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