Todd Wagner – From Lawyer to Yahoo to Philanthropist

Former Client Todd Wagner and CDA

Todd Wagner has presented at Career Design Associates a number of times since he was client of Dr. Harkness’ in the early 1990s. Todd is a great example of a client who has reinvented himself a number of times – from Lawyer to High-tech Entrepreneur to Investor and Philanthropist. Todd has made his efforts and his investments count in a variety of ways, often for the benefit of society. He is committed to being a change agent.

Phase One – Running From The Law

Harkness_Wagner_lowres-7029Like a lot of lawyers, Todd Wagner is bright and articulate, and the law seemed like a good fit for him.

However, as he said in a Dallas Morning News story in 2004, he describes people trapped in jobs as doing “the walk of the living dead.” He’s experienced it twice, and both times, career counselor Helen Harkness came to his rescue. Dr. Harkness and Mr. Wagner first crossed paths in 1991, when he took her informal course at Southern Methodist University called “Running from the Law” – a sort of group therapy for disgruntled lawyers. At 30, he fit the bill. He’d gone to law school for lack of anything better to do and graduated from the University of Virginia in 1986.

At first he liked carrying a briefcase, acting like an adult and driving to the downtown Dallas office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. But that was fleeting. After switching to another law firm, Todd said “I discovered that had nothing to do with it. I just wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer,” he says. “But like so many people, I still didn’t do anything about it.”

By 1992, he was a partner, pulling down $200,000 or so, but he was miserable. Dr. Harkness hounded him about escaping. The warning that finally stuck was: “If you don’t quit, you’re going to be dead of a heart attack or something by the time you’re 45.” He realized she was right. “When the pain becomes greater than the fear of the unknown, that’s when you go,” Mr. Wagner says. “Finally the pain was so great, I didn’t care if I swept floors or bartended, I just wasn’t going to do that anymore.”

Phase Two – Yahoo

Harkness_Wagner_med-7020When he resigned to explore “this thing called the “Internet”,” the senior partner of the law firm told Mr. Wagner he’d never make it as an entrepreneur.

“I was scared because I didn’t know what I was going to do next,” Mr. Wagner recalls. “But you know what, I was really exhilarated, too. It was the happiest time maybe of my whole life.” Well, perhaps the second happiest. When he and his college-buddy-turned-partner Mark Cuban sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo, they pocketed more money than either could spend in two lifetimes. Ironically, this good fortune led to his second career crisis. In a remarkable move, Mr. Wagner turned down Yahoo’s offer to stay on as chief operating officer. He also turned down Mr. Cuban’s offer to go halfsies in buying the Dallas Mavericks. He needed soul renewal, not to jump into another business inferno.

Phase Three – Philanthropy

Harkness_Wagner_lowres-7018Instead of returning to business immediately, Todd started his charitable foundation. He has made a substantial commitment of his time, energy and resources to giving back through the Todd Wagner Foundation. For more than a decade, the Foundation has implemented Wagner’s vision of venture philanthropy and invested millions in cutting-edge programs that empower underserved communities and at-risk youth.

The Foundation’s signature program is MIRACLES®, a structured after-school program focusing on technology, education and life skills for children grades 6-12. In 2007 the Foundation made a substantial grant that united the MIRACLES® curriculum with The Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s (BGCA) technology program “Club Tech.”

One of the Foundation’s first initiatives was the Minority Technology Fund, which provided resources, mentoring and training to help entrepreneurs in Dallas’ inner city compete in today’s technology-driven world. The Fund made important early investments in several companies who continue to thrive more than a decade later.

In 2003, the Todd Wagner Foundation partnered with the nationally renowned Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) to bring KIPP’s first college preparatory public school to Dallas. KIPP TRUTH currently has more than 350 students enrolled in grades five through eight, and KIPP recently announced ambitious expansion plans for the Dallas/Ft. Worth area with hopes of having 10 KIPP schools serving 5,000 students in the region by 2025.

Phase Four – Business and Philanthropy

Later, Todd Wagner fused his passion for entertainment with his business portfolio to build the Wagner/Cuban Companies, which spans content creation, distribution and exhibition: 2929 Entertainment, 2929 Productions, Magnolia Pictures, Landmark Theatres and AXS TV. He has provided artistic vision and business acumen critical to such important films as the Oscar®-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, as well as Akeelah and the Bee and The Road. Wagner currently is developing The Flyer, a film about the Wright brothers’ invention of flight.

Wagner continues to invest in and nurture a variety of technology and media start-ups.