To hear Mary Owen tell it, the two most beneficial classes she ever took were keyboarding in high school and quantitative analysis at the Commerce School. She uses keyboarding every day, quietly pitying those who continue to hunt and peck at characters on their devices. No less impactful, she’s relied on the quantitative analysis to build upon her ever-growing skill set throughout her working life. It taught her a great deal about the dynamics of consumer markets and metrics, while serving as a formative experience in a storied career that continues to flourish.
Currently an investor and Strategic Advisor at Rival Inc., a Los Angeles based startup in the live event technology space, and an investor and advisory board member of Gaming Nation, a sports gaming company, Owen began her professional journey in earnest while a student at McIntire. The niece of a famous uncle who also attended UVA—the NFL’s Buffalo Bills Founder and original Owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. (A&S ’41)—Owen insists that his being a ‘Hoo had little to do with her own decision to attend. She was fully swayed by the promise of a McIntire education after visiting Grounds. She figured that if she could get accepted into UVA, coming to Charlottesville was a done deal.
“What I love about UVA and McIntire is that you complete two years of liberal arts and become well-rounded first, allowing you to make sure that business is what you want to do before you dive in,” Owen says. “My McIntire experience was incredible because, without that education, there’s no way I could enter the workforce at such a sophisticated level.”
Her new-found knowledge helped fuel summers spent in Buffalo interning for the Bills. During her fourth year, Owen brought her Rust Belt experience back to McIntire, undertaking an independent study that incorporated her management information systems knowledge with what she learned in Western New York: building and launching the iconic football team’s website, buffalobills.com. Upon graduating from the Commerce School, she moved to Buffalo.
“My friends thought I was a little crazy,” she recalls. “It was a bit of a different path.”
For five years, Owen was entrenched in database and analytics work for the Bills as a Coordinator and then Manager of Marketing Communications and then as Director of Business Systems. Feeling as if she were completing a chapter, Owen planned to head to New York. Her uncle offered her an alternative.
“Ralph said, ‘Don’t leave. Why don’t you move to Detroit; learn the other businesses; and take more of a leadership role in this office, manage my philanthropy, and take on a more strategic role for the team?’” Owen says.
That initial invitation eventually led to a position as Executive Vice President of Strategic Planning while also taking on a host of responsibilities that included managing Ralph and Mary’s philanthropic work and heading the Buffalo Bills Youth Foundation. Around that time, Wilson offered Owen another, longer-ranging opportunity.
“He explained that when he passed away the team would be sold,” she says. “He asked if I would be a trustee of his estate, along with my aunt, his senior adviser for 25 years, and our estate attorney. I was young. It was definitely a turning point and a defining moment in my life. I gave a lot of thought to what I wanted to do, and I decided to stay.”
“Buffalo is a great city, that feels like a small town—a small town with an NFL football team,” Owen says bluntly. “I wanted to live in a big world, and UVA—especially McIntire—really empowers students to think big and think like CEOs. Once you learn and experience that mindset, you can’t settle for anything less. That drove me to take on a broader role with the company and Ralph over time. You should always strive to think and do bigger. I have definitely embraced that mindset throughout my career.”
Owen’s resume was soon exploding in every possible direction, and she found herself splitting time between her strategic planning role and running the team’s community outreach programs, along with a medical research foundation and the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation.
“I gained a lot of philanthropy experience,” says Owen, noting that she also served on the board for the NFL Foundation, the league’s organization for charitable efforts.
Owen had more than a full plate. Her uncle, reticent to keep up with the pressures of representing the team at meetings and games, had his youthful, outgoing niece appear in his stead. Adding to her already long list of responsibilities, during the season, she hosted many guests in the suites at home and away games, win or lose. It was often more of the latter during the tough years following the four successive Super Bowl appearances of the early 1990s.
Then, while attending a league meeting in Orlando, Fla., March 25, 2014, Owen received word that Wilson passed away.
“It was kind of surreal. It was overwhelming, but we had a good game plan. We called it, ‘The Playbook,’ she says. “We were very successful in selling the franchise during a very high-liability time.”
In an auction process, the team was sold to the Pegula family, who promised to keep the team in Buffalo. Completed in five months, the deal gained NFL approval in September 2014 and transitioned to new ownership the following month.
The Wilson family—and Owen—were out of football.
Sharp Focus and Big Figures
But life isn’t like the movies. Except—when it sort of is.
In the 1914 movie “Brewster’s Millions,” Monty Brewster becomes rich after his late father bequeaths him $1 million, but suddenly, a well-meaning uncle offers him $7 million if he can judiciously spend the original inheritance without telling anyone about the challenge. The improbable story was retold in 1945, with an ex-soldier facing a similar lucrative conundrum, and again, 40 years later, a third version of the comedy featured Richard Pryor charged with the task of spending $30 million in 30 days to inherit another $300 million.
Take this tale of incredibly generous and seemingly impossibly sized colossal giving: Legendary Buffalo Bills owner sells the team for a record amount, and upon his passing, tasks his niece and her three fellow trustees of his namesake foundation to spend $1.2 billion on philanthropic causes within a 20-year period.
No small change. No lack of unmitigated altruism, either.
Yet unlike the ludicrous plot of the movie, there’s no second payout to the foundation for honoring Wilson’s directive. And, with a 20-year span established, there’s no need for a particularly madcap scramble to action. There’s also the fact that the funds will be spent in two regions that Wilson called home throughout his life. Ultimately, the challenge is a much more sobering one than a silly movie, and for that reason, it is perhaps even more compelling.
“We’re very focused on Southeastern Michigan and Western New York, two regions that are both in a renaissance right now because of social and private investors, as well as public funds,” Owen says. “Ralph cared about them, and they supported him in his businesses. They’re two regions that have learned how to work together and use those dollars wisely, and together, we hope to play a role in transforming them.”
For Owen, managing this remarkable endeavor of giving in a finite period is just another of the many accomplishments she has to her credit since her time at McIntire.
“This was Ralph’s vision: We knew he was going to fund his foundation, but no one knew how big it would be,” Owen remembers. In the Foundation’s initial year, the Trustees developed a Transitional Legacy Grant program, in which they worked with the organizations Ralph and Mary Wilson historically funded. “We developed a model of all his past giving and went to each to discuss how they could participate in the grant program. We ended up funding a lot of endowments because there was no guarantee those organizations were going to be part of the foundation’s mission going forward, but Ralph cared about them and wanted to make sure that they received a lasting gift from his legacy. A lot of those organizations are still part of our program because our mission is derived from, and informed by, Ralph’s history of giving.”
Owen says that with her current positions as a Life Trustee and co-chair of the Program Committee with her aunt, the foundation occupies about a quarter of her time. The other 75% Owen still dedicates to being a strategic adviser and consultant. Living primarily now in Dallas, she’s often called to other cities requiring her presence. But holding down many executive-level jobs and the travel associated with them doesn’t account for all of her time.
“I do a lot with UVA, too.”
It’s ‘Hoo You Know
Owen puts a great deal of stock in people: meeting them, communicating with them, and helping them.
Ask McIntire Professor Jeff Boichuk. When he’s had students he thinks might benefit from her experience, Owen has been there to lend a hand.
“When it comes to meeting with students interested in careers related to sports management and business development, Mary’s always been so generous with her time,” Boichuk says. “Then when it comes to the reactions of the students who have spoken with her, they’re always filled with appreciation and inspiration. Mary gives our students the advice they need to begin their careers on the right track and understand what their options are.”
Owen says she’s happy to do it. “It’s opening a door. I don’t believe in entitlement, but you open a door, and it works out or it doesn’t. It’s creating that connection to get things started. It’s important to me because I know that who you interact with when you’re at UVA is significant.”
In addition to mentoring and appearing at speaking engagements, she is also a board member of The Jefferson Trust and has served as the Regional Selection Chairperson of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation since 2003.
From her personal giving to the University and her work with the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to her consulting history and her own more recent foray into venture capital investing, Owen sees a connecting thread through it all: It traces back to her connections with people and making sure that she fosters those connections.
“If I learned anything in sports, in business, and now in the VC world, it’s about relationships. It’s about your network.”
Owen is reminded of a recent example: “Last week, I was in New York City. I had a bunch of meetings, but I also had some time to have lunch with Kimberly Fields [Engineering ’97, M.E. ’00], Chief of Staff to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. I got to know Kim at a NFL Owner meeting when, during some downtime, we were next to each other on treadmills. She said to me, ‘I went to UVA. I’m a Wahoo.’ At that moment, we struck up a relationship.”