Ellen Wilson
D. Ellen Wilson '79, chair of the Bryant University Board of Trustees. Photography by Dana Smith.
The World Builder: How Ellen Wilson is crafting a bold future for Bryant
Jun 22, 2024, by Casey Nilsson

As a child, D. Ellen Wilson ’79 dreamed of digging into the dusty earth to uncover remnants of past civilizations. Wilson, who grew up in a small dairy town east of Hartford, Connecticut, admired how archaeologists could piece together the fullness of the human experience and, in the process, deduce how our forebears worked together, lived together, and created together.

Little did she know, she’d grow up to do some world-building of her own. Her innate curiosity about people, and how they connect, helped her conquer the C-suite as a human resources powerhouse, orchestrating successions and assembling dream teams at Fidelity, UnitedHealth Group, and other international companies.

Today, she’s paying this success forward as the new chair of the Bryant Board of Trustees — the first woman in institutional history to hold the role — and founder of the university’s Ellen Wilson Leadership Center, slated to open this fall.

But her trajectory would not have been possible without a little redirection from her parents, Wilson admits. If she’d had it her way, she might’ve ended up excavating pottery in Mesopotamia.

“My mother, a high school guidance office assistant, and my father, an engineer, were the ones who gave me a gentle push to pursue business,” she says.

They encouraged her to explore career paths that would afford her a secure future. When it was time to choose a university, Wilson weighed two options: the University of Connecticut, which was a short drive from her family’s home, and Bryant.

“I was enamored by the campus,” she recalls. Just three years before, Bryant had moved from the East Side of Providence to a lush property donated by the Tupper family. The glossy buildings and new residence halls had an incredible allure, notes Wilson, who enrolled at Bryant to study Management.

She took business classes within her major and loved courses led by History professor John Jolley, who wore turquoise rings and taught subjects including contemporary religion and Russian culture.

“I learned at least as much outside of the classroom as in the classroom,” says Wilson, who pledged a campus sorority her first year of college and went on to be its president.

During one Greek life event, Wilson met Rich Siden ’80, who was pledging a Bryant fraternity. In the bustle of the Rotunda, Siden was tasked with serenading sororities — Wilson’s included — with the Schaefer Beer jingle.

“We fed off each other’s energy,” says Siden, who studied Marketing and works in corporate partnerships at WGBH in Boston. They had fun, he acknowledges, but they also did some good on campus. When the Blizzard of ’78 blanketed Bryant for two weeks, Wilson, Siden, and their Greek life brothers and sisters coordinated food drop-offs via helicopter to ensure the community stayed fed.

“We all go through Bryant with the same opportunity, and to see her thrive has been truly inspiring,” says Siden. “To me, though, she’s my best friend Ellen.”


 

Ellen Wilson

Wilson’s educational opportunities at Bryant didn’t immediately translate to a job, though. She and her peers graduated into an economy marred by rising inflation and high unemployment.

“Those were the years when you would bring your rejection letter to the campus pub for a free pitcher of beer,” she says wryly. “We were all in the same boat.”

After Commencement, Wilson temped for Telex Corporation in Hartford, spending a summer on Nantucket assisting the CEO and, in the fall, joining the firm’s Boston office full time. She then moved on to a role at Haemonetics, a medical technology company, where she met her first mentor.

“He was the one who told me it was important to go and get my MBA,” she says. “I knew I needed to get my strategic and analytical skills really polished; if I was going to succeed in HR, I needed to be able to understand business.”

Wilson completed her MBA at Babson College while working at Bank of Boston — now Bank of America — as head of HR for commercial banking. The company, where she stayed from 1988 to 1992, paid for her to finish her advanced degree. It was also where she met her then-husband and several lifelong friends, including Sue Sgroi.

“I met her and immediately felt like, ‘I’ve got to get to know her,’” says Sgroi, who heads up HR and technology at Eversource Energy. “Ellen is a very engaging person, but she’s also a very poised leader.”

Wilson’s most influential piece of advice, recalls Sgroi, sounded simple: Just be yourself.

“To become a leader, you have to invest in knowing yourself so you can empower and influence others,” Sgroi says, a skill she witnessed firsthand in Wilson.

When Wilson transitioned to Fidelity Investments, she recruited Sgroi to join her. At the time, Sgroi was working at Citizens Bank, managing mergers and acquisitions nationally — read: three apartments in three cities — while also parenting a young child. Wilson, whose daughter Caroline was still young at the time, understood the challenge of balancing a career and home life.

“She thought of me for this role, as head of HR for the asset management division, and her outreach to me was professional as well as personal,” Sgroi says.

While Sgroi found stability in her life and career, Wilson sought a new challenge. In 1999, she left Fidelity for a role at an internet startup, Viant, and had a hand in taking the company public.

“It was an awesome experience,” Wilson says. “I’d go in there and I could be building a culture. I also could be building a bookcase.”

The space had all the trappings of an offbeat startup. She remembers a life-size, motion-activated cutout of Austin Powers beside her desk in the wide-open loft space, taunting her as she took calls.

“I’d be on the phone trying to recruit a senior person, someone would walk by, and it’d say things like, ‘Shagadelic, baby!’” she says with a rich, infectious laugh.

Despite the excitement of the role, a Fidelity executive lured her back.

“He asked me, ‘Have you had enough yet?’” she remembers. “And I said, ‘I think I have.’”

In her new role, Wilson served as head of HR for several businesses and worked closely with Fidelity’s then-chairman. “He was so smart, and so willing to take risks. I was fortunate to know him, and he really could make work an adventure,” she says.

Then, a new president took over at Fidelity and became another important mentor for Wilson — even after she stepped away at age 51 so she could spend more time with Caroline, who would soon head to college at the University of Richmond.
 

D. Ellen Willson '79, Chair of Bryant University's Board of Trustees


Wilson’s retirement lasted a mere year and a half — an artistic walkabout that, in time, led her right back to her career. She studied cooking at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She apprenticed with a silversmith, making fine jewelry.

“I learned that I love the design phase and end result,” she says. “But the middle — I can’t tell you how tedious handmaking jewelry can be. You could be sanding for a week.”

She took art classes at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, specializing in still lifes. In the sitting room of her Boston condo, which overlooks Back Bay and the waterfront, a small easel hosts watercolor lake scenes of Maine, where Wilson and her husband, Mark, who were married last October, live full time. Beside the front door, one of her delicate charcoal portraits hangs below a photograph taken by the actor Richard Gere — “my husband’s only competition,” she jokes.

But, even throughout her temporary retirement, Wilson began each morning with The Wall Street Journal. She never lost touch with the business world, and it didn’t forget about her, either. One day, out of the blue, the former president of Fidelity, who had since joined the board of UnitedHealth Group — called her.

A former colleague had been tapped to lead Optum, a healthcare services company in the UnitedHealth portfolio that had acquired 40 companies — none of which were integrated: No product rationalization, no assimilation, nothing. And he wanted Wilson to lead the charge. She signed on without many details; she didn’t even know the title or salary of the position.

“It was really kind of cool. There was a purity to it. That was the gift I got: to enjoy the work. I figured it would be a one-year gig, and I ended up there 10 years,” she says. “You know, I was really liking retirement. But it ended up being the best job I ever had.”

A year and a half into her role, she was asked by UnitedHealth’s CEO to take over HR for the whole operation. Wilson wasn’t interested. “I’d done that for a very long time, and Optum was my fun job,” she says. “I said no.”

UnitedHealth’s CEO asked again.

“I’m of an era where, if the CEO asks you to do something more than once, you really should do it,” she says.

"Numbers are fairly predictable. But, people? They are beautifully unpredictable.”

The CEO was a strategic and financial genius, Wilson says, but she wasn’t sure how much time he spent thinking about the people side of the business.

“It ended up being perfect timing for us to cross paths, because I was at the point in my career where I wasn’t going to convince anyone that people were important. I had no patience for that anymore,” she says. “And he was at a place where that’s exactly how he felt, too.”

When she first began working for the CEO, he told her he spent more time with her than any other direct report.

“And I was like, ‘Of course you do, because you’re the CEO of a 400,000-person company.’ There’s always going to be a people issue, a structure issue, a design issue, a leadership issue, a succession issue,” she says. “I love when people say HR is the soft side of the business. For me, HR is incredibly complex. Numbers are fairly predictable. But, people? They are beautifully unpredictable.”

Building teams, from her own 3,000-employee outfit at UnitedHealth to the company’s executive suite, became one of her specialties. That focus stayed with her long after she went home.

“I’d lay in bed at night thinking about the business challenge, agonizing about how to even start to solve it,” she says. “But then, I guess unconsciously, I would think about the people who could solve the problem: this dream team, whether you can get them or not. And then, I’d be able to go to sleep.”

Getting it right meant she had to listen to employees across sectors, particularly when mergers and acquisitions were underway. Wilson worked Monday through Friday out of the company’s Minnesota office, returning home to Boston on weekends to be close to Caroline, who still lives in the city. In between, she traveled the world visiting UnitedHealth employees.

“It was important to me to understand the different cultures and how to keep the teams engaged, particularly the serial entrepreneurs who would be part of this huge company,” she says. “Knowing the employees enabled me to give them a voice in the C-suite, and that made a difference.”

 

Wilson understands this need for diverse voices at the table. As an undergraduate at Bryant, she was one of only a handful of women in her courses.

“Did that make me quieter, in terms of class participation? You know, I remember thinking that way,” she says.

That male-to-female ratio extended into her career, which she combatted by taking on the hard assignments and finding the right mentors. But gatekeeping could be fierce from all sides.

“If you did find that rare woman who made it, we used to joke that they would pull that ladder up behind them,” she says. “You could feel like there’s no way in. And that, to me, is the puzzle to be solved.”

Now, Wilson is intent on creating opportunities for all future leaders. In March, she gifted the university $5 million to develop the Ellen Wilson Leadership Center, which will be anchored in the new Business Entrepreneurship Leadership Center. A cohort of 20 Wilson Leadership Fellows will join campus this fall as part of the Class of 2028; throughout their four years at Bryant, they will have access to intensive co-curricular leadership training, stipends, and other opportunities.

“For women who are at the top of the game — and a lot of those people are Bryant alumni — there’s an onus on us to not only keep the ladder in place for the next generation, but to reach back and pull them up, as well."

Also under the center’s umbrella is a Women’s Leadership Institute, which offers programming across themes including applied leadership; industry-specific leadership development; and, most importantly for Wilson, mentorship.

“For women who are at the top of the game — and a lot of those people are Bryant alumni — there’s an onus on us to not only keep the ladder in place for the next generation, but to reach back and pull them up, as well,” she says. “Having a daughter has helped me understand the importance of being a good role model to her and, by extension, to other young women.”

Wilson says she’s passionate about Bryant, and higher education in general, because she believes it’s the great equalizer.

“Yes, it’s the gateway to economic freedom but, to me, the definition of success is choice. It’s not money. It’s not status. It’s the opportunity to make choices for your life,” Wilson says. “So, if we can make sure that both men and women have a great education that prepares them for the real world, not some ethe real world they want it to be, we’re affording them a huge opportunity.”

As the new chair of Bryant’s board of trustees — a role she assumed from David Beirne ’85 —– Wilson recognizes that to provide students with that opportunity, the university must grow. One of her chief goals is to deliver the university’s Vision 2030 Strategic Plan. Through investment and broad campus development, the plan has the potential to elevate Bryant from “best-kept secret” to “best in class,” she says.

“It’s critically important for us to expand our reach,” says Wilson. “We know every company in Rhode Island loves us. Boston companies love us. But what we have to offer transcends a single region.”

She’s watched Bryant grow in leaps and bounds over the years, including its expansion into the liberal arts and health sciences.

“I wish I could be a student again, because the experience would be so different,” says Wilson. “It’s so exciting to see what we offer our students. I mean really, truly exciting.”

Wilson, who retired from UnitedHealth in 2022, joined the board in 2019 and took on the chair position in May because she’s intent on giving back to an institution that set her on a path to success. It’s become a passion, she says, in the same way that art and history and human connection have captivated her over the course of her life.

“I used to say that I got really lucky in my career, but I’ve been corrected by people who tell me: ‘You took advantage of the opportunities, and you made your own luck.’ And I guess that’s true. We all have opportunities thrown in front of us. It comes down to the question: Did you pick the right one?” she says. “I’ve loved my career. I’ve never not loved it. And, yes, of course there have been those days...

“But, honestly, I’m not sure I would’ve felt the same level of satisfaction if I was digging up pottery in Mesopotamia.”

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