Ricky and Mara Sandler find ways to make a difference in students’ lives
Photos by Paul L. Newby II
If sparks can fly on a cold February day, it must be true love. That’s just how things went for Ricky Sandler (BBA ’91) back when he was a teenager. It was the 1980s, before the internet and email took over the world. Decisions weren’t culled from information that flies at you fast and furious and shared by a thousand of your friends. Decisions were made from what you saw and what you did; they were made from the heart.
Sandler hadn’t made his college choice yet but had come to UW—Madison one February weekend to visit his brother Andrew (BBA ’88). Ricky Sandler had been to campus for football games but this was the first time he experienced it the way a student would.
There was State Street. There was a city that was easy to explore. There were students, everywhere, working hard but taking time to enjoy everything around them. There was a spirit unlike anything he’d seen before and he knew he wanted to be part of it. What Sandler likely didn’t know on that cold winter day was that he would be part of the university, and it would be part of him in ways he couldn’t imagine, for the rest of his life.
“The passion students and alumni feel about being Badgers, is infectious,” says Sandler, CEO and chief investment officer at Eminence Capital, a New York hedge fund. “Every time I’m back on campus, it’s exhilarating. That energy that you felt when you were a student, it’s still there. You can see it walking to class on University Avenue or strolling across State Street."
Sandler is a Badger through and through, and in far more than spirit. He gives his time on campus-related boards, as a teacher and a mentor, and with his wife, Mara (B.A. ’91), brings a strong sense of philanthropy to help ensure that Business Badgers and students across campus find ways to succeed.
“Wisconsin is a second home to Ricky,” Mara says. “He will do anything to help a fellow Badger.”
That philosophy inspired the Sandlers to provide the lead gift for the Wisconsin School of Business’s Learning Commons project that will renovate the Business Library and create a transformative learning experience for students as well as provide a hub for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and business partners to collaborate.
—Ricky Sandler (BBA ’91)
“It's a key piece of a broader strategy to enhance the experience and improve the opportunities for WSB students,” Ricky says. “Practical real world educational experiences, internships and mentoring, and leveraging the Badger Alumni base are other ingredients. Upgrading the school’s physical space to be state-of-the-art in 2017 will allow us to deliver a more engaging and technically relevant student experience. Combined, all these elements can improve outcomes and attract the brightest minds. The attainable vision is to put the WSB at the very top of the public universities.”
The Learning Commons is just one project launched with the help of the Sandlers. They also made the lead gift to the university’s Educational Innovation REACH project that will build on innovations throughout campus to enhance undergraduate learning. They’ve been involved with Badger athletics and have endowed a tennis scholarship. Sandler was campaign chair for the UW—Madison Hillel Foundation’s Barbara Hochberg Center for Student Life that opened in 2009.
Sandler is also a familiar face on campus to students, faculty, and alumni because, despite the demands of his time in New York, he also gives much of his time to UW. He serves on the University of Wisconsin Foundation board and is very involved with its investment committee.
“There are a lot of different causes to give your money to, but time is probably your most precious commodity,” Sandler says. “So I work on giving my time to efforts where I know I can make a difference.”
During the academic year, Sandler is sometimes on campus in a teaching role. He brings finance and Wall Street expertise to a groundbreaking Applied Equity Market Research course that is now in its third year. The class provides top finance undergraduate students the opportunity to learn from successful executives. Sandler was a strong advocate of the course since its inception and helped make it happen.
Sandler helps Business Badgers in New York, too. A coordinated effort there, he says, creates opportunities for graduates to build a Badger presence on Wall Street. Through the Badgers in Finance initiative, UW‒Madison partners with alumni like Ricky to invest in the career education and preparation of students across campus pursuing careers in finance. Already the work of Sandler, the university, and other alumni has paid off with a boost in internships and full-time jobs.
“It’s a circle that is very powerful,” he says of the Badgers in Finance community. “Finance students can know that if they work hard and immerse themselves, there are going to be many more doors that can be opened.”
Ricky and Mara, both natives of Long Island, New York, met on the second day they arrived on campus as freshmen. They had many friends in common, but somehow had never met back home. They were students just before technology transformed so much, which gives them insight into the differences between what students once needed and what they need now.
—Mara Sandler (B.A. ’91)
“The School has advanced in so many ways,” Ricky says. “We studied in the Commerce Building, where the resources were very limited. If we had computer work we had to go all the way to the Computer Sciences building.”
Mara, a psychology major, spent much of her time studying at Memorial Library with friends and classmates. Everything they needed was there, though the resources weren’t just a few clicks away on a computer like they are now.
“It’s nostalgic to think you went to the card catalog and found a number, pulled out the books and then you’d spend hours there,” she says. “It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”
Ricky stayed in Madison with internships during three of his collegiate summers. One, with the State of Wisconsin Investment Board, made an impact beyond work experience. Sandler worked for a man who took the opportunity teach the young college student how important it was to give back.
“They worked out together, they did triathlons together, and he impressed upon Ricky the values of both working hard and giving back through philanthropy,” Mara says. “That became Ricky’s philosophy from the time he was 19. It impacted both of us.”
That’s part of why Ricky encourages Business Badgers to be part of the School’s future no matter where they are in their careers.
“Even if you are just giving back $5 because that’s all you can afford it can still be meaningful,” he says. “You can start early building that loyalty. Somebody’s donation helped you. Somebody endowed a professor who made a difference in your life. Somebody provided an internship that opened a door for you.”
As a couple, the Sandlers’ eyes were opened to the importance of trying to make a difference. Just months after graduating from UW—Madison, a close friend died, which sent a jolt through their lives.
“We were 22 years old and we learned that in one second everything can change, that you have to live life to its fullest and do what you can to make the world a better place,” Mara says.
Much of Mara’s philanthropy and volunteer work has roots in her psychology studies at UW and master’s in education at Columbia University Teachers College. She has been active with causes around mental health, addiction, and ovarian cancer. This year, she also sponsored One Love Foundation’s work to educate young people at UW—Madison about healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“I saw what One Love was doing to engage young people on campuses and in communities across the country and I wanted to make sure that UW and other Midwest schools could participate,” she says.
Mara also has a strong interest in art and design, having been a buyer for Bergdorf Goodman department store and an art consultant. She is co-founder of Diamondocity, a contemporary art gallery known for its “Jewelry for Your Walls” crystal pieces. The notion of more appealing spaces for students is part of what intrigues her about the Learning Commons project.
“There’s so much research that says it does a lot for the psyche to be in a place where you feel inspired and engaged,” she says. “Learning Commons is an amazing opportunity to create that.”
The Sandlers’ giving philosophy evolved along with their relationship to the university. Before they had children, they came back to campus for fun. The first time their three children joined them, the Sandlers started seeing their alma mater in a different way.
“We went into a classroom with our kids, and they were sitting at desks where we sat and we explained what it was like,” Mara says. “We went to a football game. We have pictures of our kids sitting on the Abe statue and with Ws on their faces. It was the best weekend.”
The Sandlers began to see the college experience not just as alumni, but as parents. Soon after, Ricky served as campaign chair for the Hillel project, finding creative ways to give and discuss the project’s importance.
“We never went home for the Jewish holidays,” Mara says. “Now that we have a family, we wanted to help provide students a safe place where they could go and observe.”
From Wall Street to Grainger Hall, the commitment of Ricky and Mara Sandler to the Wisconsin School of Business—and throughout campus—will have an impact in the near future and for generations to come.
“It’s going to take some time,” Ricky says, “but I think we can move mountains."
The Learning Commons project will create a new heart for Grainger Hall, home of the Wisconsin School of Business. Bridging the two wings of the building, this space will pulse with the spirit of innovation, collaboration, and connection.
The Learning Commons is designed to extend learning beyond the classrooms, with spaces that tap into the traditional approaches of studying but also build on the success WSB has experienced with the Collaborative Learning Classroom that opened in the 2015-16 academic year.
Features of the Learning Commons include:
Wisconsin School of Business students thank alumni for their generosity. View Now »
“Thank you for your continuing support of WSB. Your contributions inspire us all to make a difference and leave a lasting legacy now and beyond graduation. On, Wisconsin!” Read More »
“Thank you so much for your contribution to the university! It is because of the generosity of alumni such as yourself that I am able to pursue my passions and make the most of my experience here.” Read More »
“Your generosity does not go unnoticed. You are doing great things for the university and we current fellow badgers thank you! On, Wisconsin!” Read More »