Investing in Life

Whether helping MBA students or someone whose pet has cancer, alumnus Mark Tillinger invests in others.

From the Fall 2014 edition of Vanderbilt Business

Even with his 50th birthday just around the corner, Mark Tillinger, BA’81, MBA’82, did not have a midlife crisis: He was too busy fighting for his life. Emerging on the other side of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, he sought opportunities to make small investments in the lives of others—with hope that those small changes would build into something much larger.

Tillinger knew first-hand how investing in someone can make a difference for that person. He came to Vanderbilt as an undergraduate, inspired—and invested in—by his high school math teacher in Atlanta, a Vanderbilt alumnus. Tillinger chose the combined five-year Vanderbilt MBA degree offered at the time—four years for his bachelor degree in economics, the last year overlapping with Vanderbilt’s MBA program.

Soon after graduation, Tillinger landed at Arthur Andersen in its management consulting information division. He was based in Nashville until he was hired away by Commerce Union Bank as a director of strategic planning. When the bank merged with another, he was recruited back to Andersen’s Nashville office, and then on to Richmond, Virginia, where he headed the banking division. When he became partner—and Andersen morphed into Accenture—he moved to the New York office.

Opportunities for extraordinary things

He was working in New York and living in nearby Connecticut when he started cancer treatment. Cancer coincided with reaching the age of early retirement, an Andersen/Accenture benefit for partners at age 50. Although he hadn’t originally planned on retiring right at 50, his illness made him question how he wanted to spend the rest of his life.

The answer was help others. He took retirement.

One of his first ways to help was creating a need-based scholarship for Vanderbilt MBA students, the Mark A. Tillinger Scholarship Fund.

“I knew I wanted to make a reasonably significant contribution, but I wasn’t sure how to do it since I was an undergrad as well as an Owen grad. Ultimately, we focused on funding the scholarship at Owen,” he says. “It was exactly for that reason: to give opportunities to students who might not otherwise be able to go and help them launch their own careers.”

Five Owen students have received the scholarship since he endowed it in 2007. But he’s given more than the funding—he’s invested personally in the lives of students who received it as well. “That’s been on an individual basis and if it’s something the student wants,” he explains.

Those relationships have helped him to see how his goals for the scholarship program are being met. “It’s a small gesture, but one that hopefully will generate some people who go on to do some extraordinary things,” he said. “I’ve been thrilled to be able to do it.”

Continuing the fight

After retiring, Tillinger did something else that has even made the pages of People magazine: He launched the Riedel & Cody Fund, which offers assistance to pet owners whose dog or cat has cancer.

Why? While Tillinger was in a battle for his life, his beloved Bernese Mountain Dog, Riedel, was fighting her own cancer battle.

Mark and Theresa Tillinger with Shafer
Tillinger and his wife, Theresa, with Shafer, their Bernese Mountain Dog, in Nashville’s Centennial Park. After Riedel’s death, Tillinger was reluctant to get another dog until he met Shafer, now three.

While Tillinger successfully beat cancer, Riedel did not. “She was a special dog and I had a very special relationship with her,” he says. “We were fighting so long together and then, when she was gone, I still wanted to fight. I couldn’t turn it off. I didn’t want to turn it off.”

The fund has since helped more than 200 pet owners who needed financial assistance to provide cancer treatments for dogs and cats with cancer. “What has been inspiring to me is there have been many owners who have stepped forward and done extraordinary things and changed lives as a result of our intervention and allowing them to have more time with their dog or cat,” he says. “It sounds cliché, but we truly do believe it: By changing individual lives, one instance at a time, we hope to try to effect major change in the world.”

Back to work and to Tennessee

Not long ago, Tillinger returned to the workforce as vice president of transforming client relationships at Cognizant Technology Solutions. The role has him traveling the globe and helping to solve client challenges. Accepting the job came with the condition that he be allowed to continue his work with Riedel & Cody. The organization has a full-time executive director and generous financial support from Blue Buffalo Company and Petco, but Tillinger continues to chair its board of directors.

Tillinger and his wife, Theresa, recently have moved to the Nashville area and he hopes to be even more involved in Owen. In the 30 years since graduating, he has served on Owen’s Alumni Board and currently serves on the dean’s Board of Visitors. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing over time with Owen and Vanderbilt, but I love the school,” he says. “It’s been a huge part of my life and that’s why I’ve stayed involved with it.”

Whether through a successful career or envisioning a different kind of nonprofit, Tillinger feels he owes much to his Vanderbilt education.

“Without a doubt, the Vanderbilt undergraduate program and Owen trained me how to think,” he says. “The whole approach to the educational philosophy at Vanderbilt at the time—and I’m confident it still is this way—is all about giving graduates the skills and tools to be analytical, with that core capability to essentially always ask the next question in a very structured way.” ■