Ernest Wooden Jr. ’06, ’07 | Business Administration, Management
From a Brooklyn Tenement to Hilton World Headquarters
Ernest Wooden Jr. proves it's not the cards you're 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 Ernest Wooden Jr. had already achieved professional success as a top executive at one of the world’s 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, during his Response to Graduates address at the College’s Commencement in October. “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, executive vice president of Global Brands for Hilton Hotels Corporation, 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.”
Today, Wooden sees little indication of winter’s blight in his office at Hilton’s Beverly Hills headquarters – though the daily pressures on him are equally daunting.
Wooden is charged with global advancement of Hilton’s full complement of brands – Hilton®; Conrad®; DoubleTree®; Embassy Suites®; Hampton Inn®, Hampton Inn & Suites®; Hilton Garden Inn®; Hilton Grand Vacations™; Homewood Suites®, and the Waldorf Astoria Collection®.
In this capacity, he is responsible for the branding vitality of nearly 3,000 properties in 80 countries, revenues in excess of $8.2 billion, and oversees 30 senior vice presidents and vice presidents, along with the venerable Hilton Honors Program®.
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 College.
“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.
Despite being a frequent corporate traveler, Wooden remains an eager explorer. His wife, Annice, helped him develop an appreciation for art and museums, which has enabled Wooden to find something fascinating in every place he visits.
Dr. John Mellon, one of Wooden’s mentors at Thomas Edison State College, said Wooden’s point of view is refreshing, especially in a corporate setting.
“It’s impossible to overstate the wisdom and intelligence of Ernest Wooden in the industry,” he said. “This is a man who briefed former owner of the Beverly Hilton, Merv Griffin, during lunch, but is completely modest about what he’s achieved.”
The softening in Wooden’s voice, however, reveals the people who he is truly in awe of – his family. He describes his primary job as husband, father and grandfather.
Wooden’s eldest daughter, Marlowe, is completing her nursing degree at the City University of New York; his second daughter, Lauren, holds an undergraduate degree in elementary education, and will soon complete her master’s degree in sign language; his son, Ernest, is a graduate of the American Music and Dramatic Academy in New York; and his youngest daughter, Gabrielle, will embark on her baccalaureate degree in September. In addition, Annice earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Thomas Edison State College and is now completing a master’s degree in fine arts.
Wooden said he is honored to be part of a school whose graduates refuse to be “victims” of difficult and inconvenient circumstances.
“Thomas Edison State College has defined the educational setting more broadly than tradition has allowed,” he said. “The College has provided a framework which encourages motivated adults of all stripes to grow in their understanding of the world.”