The Surge Institute was established to broadly address issues of race and class in urban
Founder and President
It has been said that “high-impact entrepreneurs disrupt the status quo and drive enhanced societal benefits.” These trailblazers create immeasurable positive change for generations to come. And so it is with Carmita Semaan.
Carmita Patrice Semaan, the Founder and President of Surge, is a proud product of Birmingham, Alabama — a city that has significantly shaped who she is, what she values and how she defines her life’s work. Carmita’s career started in Corporate America where her technical savvy, business acumen, faith and commitment to developing others quickly advanced her through assignments in global marketing, strategic planning, and engineering/operations management for Fortune 500 companies including Procter & Gamble and the Danaher Corporation. In spite of her corporate success, Carmita yearned to lead high-impact initiatives that benefit urban youth and transform urban communities; and so began her journey into the non-profit sector.
This passion for empowering our country’s most under-served young people by providing them with pathways to excellence through education and holistic supports led Carmita to the Chicago Public Schools Office of High Schools. There she served as Chief of Staff under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the former U.S. Secretary of Education. She spearheaded change initiatives as Chief Strategy Officer for America’s Promise Alliance, a youth development organization founded by Gen. Colin Powell. Carmita is also the former CEO of Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), a medical research foundation that funds global breakthrough research to find a cure for epilepsy — the disease to which her mother succumbed.
Carmita holds an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan. She received a 2016 Chicago Business Journal Women of Influence Award and was selected as a 2013 Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund. She was a 2010 Aspen/NewSchools Entrepreneurial Leaders for Public Education Fellow, a 2009 Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow, and she is a graduate of the Broad Residency of Urban Education.
Carmita has unbridled passion for urban education and the arts. She is a member of the Kellogg Alumni Council and serves on the Board of Directors for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, Marwen, and America’s Promise Alliance. Carmita currently resides in Chicago.
Executive Director, Chicago
A mission-driven leader with a history of building effective teams and delivering top-tier results, Chicago Executive Director Tamara Prather is the chief brand ambassador for The Surge Institute in Chicago, responsible for building and maintaining relationships with partners and funders while ensuring exceptional delivery of the Surge Fellowship program. Tamara brings over 17 years of combined experience in the private sector and education through her past work at GE Capital, Kraft Foods, Chicago Public Schools and most recently, A Better Chicago.
As managing director and head of marketing at A Better Chicago — a venture philanthropy fund focused on improving educational opportunities for low-income youth — she led marketing initiatives to enable the organization to achieve its aggressive growth targets. While there, she developed and executed an inaugural education summit that convened over 260 business, civic and academic leaders and 30 world-class speakers to explore how philanthropy can accelerates change and deliver a high-quality education to every Chicagoan. Additionally, she was a member of A Better Chicago’s management team, working closely with the CEO and other managing directors on organization-wide strategies and decisions.
Tamara transitioned her career from the private sector to education when she was selected to participate in The Broad Residency in Urban Education program in 2013. She completed her residency at Chicago Public Schools, where she led initiatives to increase stakeholder engagement and developed a strategy to improve student achievement during school transitions, periods of time when students across the spectrum of achievement are more likely to fail without sufficient supports and interventions. Tamara also created the first-ever district-led student advisory council to provide a forum for the CEO and other district leaders to hear the voice of students directly and engage them in hands-on work to help solve problems that concern students most, such as violence, inequity, and lack of college preparedness.
Tamara is intimately aware of the opportunities education affords and is passionate about leading change that makes quality education accessible to all. As a first-generation college graduate, she has witnessed the widening gap between the opportunities available to her and those available to those closest to her – this gap she is committed to closing. Tamara holds a BS in business administration from Ohio State University and an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Vice President, National Programs
Rito Martinez is a giver whose own deep commitment to personal development through learning, self-reflection and an embrace of the process fueled his passion to support the development of others.
As Vice President of National Programs for the Surge Institute, Rito is responsible for setting the vision and direction for the content of the Surge Fellowship — the Institute’s signature program — as well as the design of the Surge core curriculum.
Rito is a proud alumnus of Chicago Public Schools. Growing up in Little Village, a working-class neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago, he overcame significant challenges stemming from poverty and urban dysfunction to become an award-winning educator.
As a teacher, Rito constantly pushed his students to explore self, identity and culture and to find their purpose. He also helped students unpack the impact of low expectations and demanded that they form an intellectual identity. His work on creating culturally relevant curricula, as well as the relationships he formed with his students, led to his receiving the Golden Apple Award for Teaching Excellence.
After 12 years as a classroom teacher, Rito returned to his community to support a grass-roots movement to open a new high school in Little Village. In 2004, he was founding principal of Social Justice High School, an innovative small school that was birthed from a community grass-roots struggle that culminated in a 19-day hunger strike. Rito worked incessantly to create a powerful high school culture that would address the political and racial divisions of North and South Lawndale. Social Justice High School became a vibrant school where black and Latino students actively engaged in civic and social justice projects to address systemic issues of inequity in their community. By the time he left in 2009, he had forged significant and meaningful partnerships with community organizations, universities and foundations in order to implement successful school-wide programs.
As he transitioned from being a classroom teacher to being a principal, Rito made a critical realization: He had to transfer his love of teaching high school students to a love of teaching and developing adults. Rito’s expertise in adult learning, design, leadership development and executive coaching has informed his work for the past five years. He has discovered that other African-American and Latino leaders had similar formative experiences as children.
Rito believes that every leadership journey features peaks and valleys that inform one’s ever-evolving leadership identity. For leaders of color, that journey is oftentimes centered on self-doubt: a fear of failure and a fear of disappointing one’s self or others. When left unexamined, these inner voices diminish a leader’s effectiveness and impact. For black and brown leaders, it is imperative that they examine issues of identity, race and ethnicity as a means of understanding both their strengths and areas of development.
Rito is deeply committed to impacting African-American and Latino communities by supporting and developing the leaders who serve them.
Manager, Operations and Development
Sasha Dzuba, serves as Manager of Operations and Development for The Surge Institute, where she is responsible for executing the direction and administration of Surge’s internal systems to support fundraising, external relations and internal infrastructure, all in support of high quality program delivery and quality control.
This magna cum laude graduate of Trinity International University marries her degree in organizational leadership with an impressive resume of luxury service administration and event management to drive results for The Surge Institute. Her experience with start-ups, including Chicago’s Ian Schrager’s Public Hotel, Kabocha and Union Sushi & Barbeque, leaves Sasha well-equipped to create the effective, nimble structure often missing and desperately needed by fast-paced, high-performing teams. Sasha’s work with perfection-oriented executive chefs also gave her what she calls “a love for the energy of exceptional service!”
Sasha infuses her proclivity for order, creativity and pristine service into all that she does. This passion flows from her, through The Surge Institute, and into everything that Surge delivers. Sasha Dzubay delights in doing the critical, behind-the-scenes work that makes Surge, surge.
As a Korean-born adoptee raised in Minnesota, her perspective of growing up as an undefined “other” inspired her passion for issues within non-traditional families. She co-founded the Ah-Gah Project to raise funds and awareness for Holt International Children’s services. Sasha lives and works in Chicago, and enjoys travel and nature.
Program and Development Coordinator
As a former educator and department head, Sandra Rush knows how important it is for minority education leaders to have a voice in our school systems. A desire to help make that happen is what drew her to The Surge Institute in 2016, where, after just a few months, she became the program and development coordinator, planning day-to-day fiscal, administrative and operational activities, as well as assisting in development.
Before deciding to bring her expertise to the nonprofit sector, Sandra held numerous management positions, both in academia and at Fortune 500 companies, gaining valuable experience in talent acquisition, project management, training and development, compliance and governance, and management and supervision in human resources.
As a project manager at BMO Financial Group, where she was a senior advisor in Diversity and Inclusion, she developed new start-up guidelines for Employee Resource Groups. Her coaching of BMO emerging leaders and committees, from seven corporate groups, led to the development of highly successful enterprise-wide sponsored events and programs to highlight, recognize, celebrate and engage the diverse employee workforce.
Prior to BMO, as a talent acquisition manager at AT&T and its spin off companies, she developed and implemented new employment recruiting strategies and designed databases, utilized by a team Recruiters and Researchers, as well as process improvement and territory management tools. She led multiple cross-functional teams on organizational initiatives, resulting in implementation and standardization of team’s quality improvement recommendations.
Her contributions to the community include leading a Professional Women’s Network committee that culminated in annual 5K scholarship awards to female high school seniors; a former Firman Community Services board member and committee chair; and Chicago Chamber of Commerce, Youth Motivation Program, Corporate liaison and facilitator for CPS High Schools.
Sandra holds a master of science degree in education from Chicago State University. She is a Chicago native, avid jazz lover and a collector of African sculpture, African-American art and literature.