Leon Wagner, '77, and finalists from the 2019 Alumni New Venture Challenge

Leon Wagner’s Philanthropy Continues
Two Centers to Benefit

The year he earned his MBA, Leon Wagner, ’77, gave a $50 gift to Chicago Booth. Throughout the years, he continued his giving, culminating in a recent $1 million contribution to support the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership.

“I felt a real debt of gratitude to Chicago from the time I started my career and realized that my MBA had really prepared me for the professional world,” Wagner said. “While I was there I met professors like Harry Davis, Steve Kaplan, I took a course with George Stigler—a Nobel laureate! It's just so incredible, earning my MBA from the University of Chicago was one of the major highlights of my career and my life.”

Wagner’s gift to the Polsky Center’s Alumni Venture Support Fund will provide support for a broad range of alumni entrepreneurship programs that help alumni entrepreneurs at all stages of their efforts. These programs include the Alumni New Venture Challenge, the Polsky Global Forums, UChicago Global Entrepreneurs Network, and the Alumni Entrepreneurs Growth Forum. Wagner’s $500,000 gift in 2015 help launched the forum, a series of interactive workshops focused on a variety of topics central to growth-stage companies and entrepreneurs. 

“I’ve found that the most satisfaction I've gotten in my career is being an entrepreneur and building businesses,” he said. “You help create jobs, you help support families, you help people achieve their goals in life. That’s something that's very near and dear to my heart.”

“We are deeply grateful for Leon’s continued support of the Polsky Center and our alumni entrepreneurs. His new gift will enhance Booth’s ability to be a lifelong resource for our alumni across the globe,” said Starr Marcello, AM ’04, MBA ’17, deputy dean, MBA programs at Chicago Booth and former executive director of the Polsky Center.

Wagner is currently the principal of his family office, LWPartners, LLC. Prior to establishing that company, Wagner was a founding partner and chairman of GoldenTree Asset Management, an alternative asset management firm. At the time of his retirement, GoldenTree managed in excess of $12 billion dollars in capital. Throughout his career in asset management, Wagner also worked for the Argosy Group/CIBC World Markets, Dabney/Resnick and Wagner, Drexel Burnham Lambert. He started his career at Shearson Lehman Brothers in fixed income sales helping to finance growth companies in cable, gaming, and cellular telephone operations including several deals for MCI Communications.

“The vast majority of my career, and it continues to this day, is providing capital to middle market companies that otherwise don't have the ability to access capital,” he said. “Capital is not a scarce resource, finding talented people with good ideas is a scarce resource. That's where I'm spending my time—looking to partner with smart people and provide capital.”

About seven years ago, Wagner became involved in the Special Purpose Acquisition Corporation (SPAC) market. In a short time, he has become a leader and innovator, helping make public One Spa World and Whole Earth Brands.

“When you’re raising capital for a company, the most important thing is credibility,” he said. “The company, management team, and I have to have credibility. That critical level of credibility goes a long way toward creating long-term relationships. When I call someone with an opportunity, there has to be confidence that you're putting an idea on the table that's going to be profitable for my firm and the client.”

Wagner’s parents were Holocaust survivors, originally from Vilnius, Lithuania. During their time in the concentration camps, they lost a child, parents, and siblings. When they were released, the couple was determined to get to America, and realized their dream in 1949 when they moved to Brooklyn. Wagner’s father, Rubin, a barber, quickly recognized a demand for housing and got into the home building business. He eventually became the largest land owner in Huntington, New York.

“Throughout his life in America, my father’s mantra was ‘God Bless America’—for the opportunity he and my mother were given to rebuild their lives through hard work,” Wagner said. “Here they had good fortune, religious freedom, and the ability to provide their children with a quality education for their future. My brother, Harry, became a lawyer, and I got an MBA and went into business.”

Philanthropy is nothing new for Wagner. In 2003, he received the Gustave L. Levy Award from the Wall Street Division of the UJA-Federation of New York in recognition of many years of community service, philanthropy, and leadership.

“I think philanthropy is so important to me because my family came here with nothing,” he said. “So, I direct my giving to organizations that help people.”

Throughout his career, Wagner has faced economic downturns similar to what is now happening in the pandemic, and has seen huge companies go bankrupt.

As advice for students and alumni seeking a job in the current environment, Wagner said, “Think about your individual strengths and build a foundation on those. Then find a growing field where you can really make a difference. Hopefully that will lead to job satisfaction, financial success, and a happy life—as it did for me.”