Mary-Jane Foster is in the fifth year of her fourth career. As vice president of university relations at University of Bridgeport, she is getting results as impressive as those she generated in her three prior and markedly different careers.
First, she was a successful New York City stage, film, television and radio actress, then a family law attorney who advocated for victims of domestic violence and then a businesswoman who was instrumental in bringing minor league baseball to Bridgeport and in developing the popular Arena at Harbor Yard.
Foster’s significant contributions to the business, civic and cultural life of Bridgeport led to a meeting in 2009 with Neil Salonen, president of the university. “We talked at length about his vision for the university,” she said. “Basically, he said that the university needed someone to communicate the great but untold stories that were unfolding at the university so it could realize its potential. I am thrilled and privileged to have accepted that challenge.”
Under her leadership, the university has raised its profile with the community by offering a robust program of film screenings, lectures by prominent speakers and art gallery exhibitions as well as providing health and wellness services. Bottom line: Foster estimates the university has attracted more than 2,000 visitors since she assumed her new post.
But her vision for the university is also about building bridges to the future as evidenced by a weekly program that hosts a small group of elementary school students from Roosevelt School so that “they can see first hand what a college campus looks like, spark their interest in pursuing a higher education and leave them with a favorable impression about this university.”
The larger goal she has in mind is for the university and city to “forge a true partnership that will combine our collective efforts to help achieve a sustained recovery for Bridgeport. I believe the university can be a very valuable asset for the city to leverage going forward.”
Foster is passionate about Bridgeport. “I fell in love with this city’s diversity and geography from the very start,” she said.
Foster’s introduction to Bridgeport occurred in 1988 when she became a volunteer for the YWCA of Eastern Fairfield County. “That step profoundly changed my life,” she said. “I became passionate about the need to help abused women and children. I quit my 20-year-long actress career to do whatever I could to address the gravity of domestic violence.”
She became a certified domestic violence counselor. As a logical extension of her volunteer work, she obtained a law degree with honors from Quinnipiac College Law School in 1995 and started a sole practitioner practice specializing in family law. Foster also served nine years on the Board of Directors of the YWCA’s successor organization, The Center for Women and Families. A new chapter in the evolution of that remarkable nonprofit began earlier this year when it became Connecticut’s first Family Justice Center, a “wonderful addition to our community as the premier provider of services that address all issues of domestic violence.”
In 1996, she and her husband cofounded and co-owned Bridgeport Bluefish Professional Baseball Club, the Minor League baseball franchise in the Atlantic League. She worked to develop the team’s ballpark with a seating capacity of 5,300 as well as the surrounding 10,000 square-foot Arena of Harbor Yard that became a popular regional destination for sports and entertainment events. “It changed the perception of Bridgeport for future development, especially downtown where we have seen a spike in new small businesses and the growth of second- and third-generation store leases.”
Proud of her track record in bringing people together to improve Bridgeport’s quality of life and contributing to its economic revitalization, Foster ran as a candidate for mayor in the 2011 Democratic primary. Although her attempt to start a fifth career as a politician did not translate into an electoral victory, it underscored one of the basic tenets of her philosophy about what it takes to be successful “Don’t be afraid of failure because you can learn from it.”
Foster said her mother was the inspiration for her success. “She became a single mom when my two siblings and I were very young. She worked very hard and went into business for herself by opening a successful jewelry store. My mother taught me that I should do what I want to do, but that I had to work hard to make it happen.”
She added a proven piece of advice: “Don’t ever be afraid of change.”
Winners Circle is a regular feature that takes a look at successful women in business and at top attorneys, men and women, in the region. To nominate someone, contact Bill Fallon at email@example.com.