Ernest Wooden, Jr. ’06, ’07

Ernest Wooden, Jr.Ernest Wooden Jr. will tell you it is not the cards you are dealt that matter, but how you play the hand.

His moment of clarity came during a family vacation in Martha's Vineyard and was inspired by a rock lying in a dusty corner of a gift shop.

Even though Wooden had already achieved professional success as a top executive at one of the most renowned hotel companies, finding that rock helped him answer a question he had been struggling with for years.

It was inscribed with the following words: “It's not the cards you're dealt that matter, it's how you play the hand.”

For Wooden, life's purpose finally found a foothold.

“The vagaries surrounding my own drive and motivation suddenly became clear as I held the rock,” said Wooden. “It was a treasure in plain sight. Ironically, we've all witnessed people who have been dealt a ‘royal flush.’ People who have caring parents, financial wherewithal, good looks, health, privilege - all the ingredients for success - yet tragically squander their potential.”

If you never met Wooden, senior managing director of Alagem Capital Group, you might think it peculiar that such a transformative event occurred after a steady rise through the corporate ranks of some of the most distinguished hotels, including Sheraton, DoubleTree, Omni and Hilton.

But those who know him understand that he is passionate about education and lifelong learning. A man with an unwavering eye toward self-improvement, Wooden was originally dealt an astonishingly poor hand of cards.

The son of a single mother, he grew up in Brooklyn's hardscrabble Bedford-Stuyvesant tenements, where he recalled snow actually falling inside the hallways where he and his four siblings roamed.

“We had to boil the water we used to wash up for school in the morning,” he said. “I grew up in an extremely disadvantaged neighborhood where just getting to school was perilous.”

Why would someone with such a successful and challenging career want to continue their education?

“It's about self-excellence and the character-defining power of education,” explained Wooden. “I'm always suspicious about what I don't know, and try to set an example of enthusiasm for learning for my children and my colleagues.”

Wooden added that it is about developing an appreciation for and an understanding of life.

“Unfortunately, many people open the newspaper to read that inflation is on the rise, but they lack the capacity to fully understand why,” he said. “A better understanding of the 'mechanism' affords people a valuable grasp of the world in which they operate.”

The mechanism that Wooden selected to continue his education was the variety of course methods available at Thomas Edison State University.

“It was the most flexible learning environment I had ever come in contact with,” said Wooden, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in hotel management in 2006 and a Master of Science in Management degree in 2007. He is now pursuing a doctorate degree from the International School of Business in Paris, France.

“Thomas Edison State University has defined the educational setting more broadly than tradition has allowed,” he said. “The University has provided a framework which encourages motivated adults of all stripes to grow in their understanding of the world.”