Meg O’Connell On Leadership: Really Good Leaders Are Impatiently Optimistic

By Stan Linhorst

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Stan Linhorst introduces us to Meg O'Connell, the executive director of the Allyn Family Foundation. O'Connell shares the latest on an exciting new project that will offer entrepreneurs in Syracuse a place to start and build their businesses.


Meg O’Connell is executive director of the Allyn Family Foundation, established in 1954 by founders of Welch Allyn. She oversees distribution of several million dollars each year from the foundation’s $95 million in assets.

The foundation continues to be comprised of Allyn family members, now in the third, fourth, and fifth generations.

“They come together with a vision that is based in improving the quality of life in Central New York,” O’Connell said. “We are what you would call a place-based foundation, meaning that, geographically, we give grants in Onondaga and Cayuga counties.”

O’Connell has worked at the foundation since 1995 with two exceptions.

One was 1998 to 2000 when her husband was assigned to work in England.

Another came in 2011 to 2012 when she was interim president of Onondaga Community College.

Much of what the foundation does results in quiet donations behind the scenes. However, some projects have been very visible. One was the lead role family members and the foundation took in establishing the Redhouse Arts Center in 2004 on the western edge of Armory Square and then its move to the former Sibley’s department store, between Salina and Clinton streets. That move in 2014 resulted in a much larger performing arts center and a broadened mission that includes retail, offices, and apartments.

Now, O’Connell leads another noteworthy project a block away at 484 S. Salina St. That’s where the foundation is building the Salt City Market. The ground floor of the four-story building will host retail food entrepreneurs, a coffee shop/coffee bar, and a grocery store. The second floor will be for offices. The two top floors will have 26 one- and two-bedroom apartments. Construction began in October 2019. The Market is scheduled to open this fall.

Give me a synopsis of how the Salt City Market project came about.

A: First, one of the things that's important about the Allyn Foundation and its 65-year history is that the family’s work comes from a deep place of humility. It gets to their leadership qualities – and you've talked to Bill Allyn about that. It doesn't come from a place of self-promotion. This new building is not going to be the Allyn building by any means. It's not about them.

Now, to answer your question, a few years ago there was a group of people on the North Side who had an idea for a world food market. The concept had been done in cities across the country, but the model and this project didn't really fit a not-for-profit in this community. It occurred to us: The foundation could do this. We have the ability to take risks. We have the ability to pull partners together. Why couldn't we think about doing this? We felt strongly that we needed to step out, do it, as an economic opportunity.

We created the Syracuse Urban Partnership, a 501(c)(3). It's meant to be a catalytic project for this end of downtown Syracuse. In all the work that we've done for years and years, we’ve seen that Syracuse has a tremendous amount of talent and human capital that is untapped.

We could have stopped with the concept for a food market and public market for entrepreneurs. But we felt strongly that mixed-income housing was an important part – we need more affordable housing. It's a tricky development model, but it's being done in cities across this country.

It also speaks to what millennials want. Syracuse has had growth in the last year. It's primarily among those millennials. Those millennials want a city that embraces diversity in all its forms. That's what they're looking for.

Tell me about your path to be a leader. Were you in leadership roles growing up?

A: No. (Laughter)

Well, tell me about growing up and early influences.

A: I am the third of four kids, and we're all pretty close in age. I was a quiet and kind of nerdy kid. I grew up in Rockville, Maryland.

Interestingly, my mom's name was O'Connell when she married my dad and his name was O'Connell, too. They grew up around the corner from each other in the Bronx in New York City. All four of my grandparents came over from Ireland. My parents were classic first-generation.

My dad was a Jesuit priest for a number of years and then decided that that wasn't for him. He left the order, went down to Sea Girt, in New Jersey, and met my mom. They had known each other because the Irish Catholic world of the Bronx in the 1960s was a tight-knit community.

My two older siblings have very strong personalities. My brother was a phenomenal basketball player and athlete. My sister was brilliant, dynamic. She was the head of the student council in high school. She was always just a dynamic force.

The two of them would butt heads a lot. I was the quieter, peacekeeper type. When I look back, I believe that there are doors that open for you and you should try and walk through. You should always say yes to things. And so I was really grateful that my parents (Margaret and Michael) realized I was this quiet, studious kid following my brother and sister into the same high school where their personalities were so strong. My parents had me take a scholarship test for Catholic school (Connelly School of the Holy Child). I got the scholarship.

That was the first door that opened. It was a phenomenal opportunity. I had teachers that were remarkable, and I kind of came into my own. That gave me the opportunity to get into Dartmouth College. I was a religion major with a minor in women's studies – nothing that I do right now. (Laughter)

My first year at Dartmouth was hard. I had been the valedictorian of my high school class. Then I’m in with all of these really smart people and thinking, Oh my God! How am I going to survive in this? I'm not this smart. I'm not like these people.

College became transformational for me. I strongly believe in the power of education to change people's lives, to discover, to transform. I'm a true product of that.

What a story about your parents. The same last name. Your dad leaving the priesthood. What did your parents do?

A: He was a salesman. He sold computer software systems for Honeywell. This is the 1960s and ’70s – these big main-frame systems. It was hard. He would work for two years on a sale.

By the end of my freshman year at Dartmouth, my dad started to get ill. He died halfway through my sophomore year.

I took a leave from Dartmouth. I was going to transfer to Georgetown and commute from home.

I will never forget that the dean of the students called my mom and said: No, no, we want Meg to come back. We will help financially. There'll be opportunities for her so that she can come back.

My senior year I was selected to be a senior fellow, which was a huge honor, and my tuition was paid. I spent the year working on the role of women in the Catholic church. I worked with Boston College’s Professor Mary Daly. I spent the whole year studying and researching and writing this thesis to use for graduate school, to go on and get a divinity degree. In that year, I realized I was not an academic. So, I didn't go on for that master's and Ph.D. at Harvard Divinity. I have so much admiration for academics, but I realized that I needed to change course.

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