Having served on the UNLV Foundation Board of Trustees since 2008, Diana Bennett stepped up to the role of board chair in May. The acclaimed businesswoman and philanthropist is co-founder and chairwoman of the board of Las Vegas-based Paragon Gaming and is a second-generation hospitality industry icon. Her father, the late William Bennett, established Circus Circus Enterprises in the early 1970s.
Bennett is the just third woman to head the UNLV Foundation board since its inception in 1981, following Claudine Williams (1983-1985) and Elaine Wynn (1985-1991). She created the Bennett Honors Mentor Scholarship Program in the UNLV Honors College and a scholarship in UNLV’s School of Medicine. She also funded a fellowship and served on the board of UNLV's Black Mountain Institute.
Her service to UNLV has earned her numerous honors. Among them are the Silver State Award, presented by the UNLV Alumni Association in 2016; an honorary doctorate from the university in 2015; and induction into the Lee Business School’s Business Hall of Fame in 2014.
What qualities do you think are most important in a leader – and who were your role models?
The number one skill is listening. People seldom listen intently when someone is talking. They’re already thinking about what they’ll say and solving problems in their head. And too often, the higher up the ladder someone’s position is, the less listening they do.
You also need to provide an atmosphere where people are driven by common purpose. Fear doesn’t bring out the best in anyone.
I learned the hospitality business from my father and from Mike Ensign (former Circus Circus Enterprises CEO). But I didn’t adopt their management styles. At that time, there were no women to follow. I was well into my career by the time I found female role models: Jeanne Hood (former president and CEO of the Four Queens), Thalia Dondero (former Clark County commissioner and regent), Claudine Williams (late gaming pioneer and UNLV Foundation chair).
You’re stepping up to leadership of the board during an unprecedented period in the history of UNLV and Nevada. Where do you start?
The whole world faces new challenges – but I think there’s also more hope.
It was six years ago that I was asked to get in the succession line for this position on the board. At the time, I thought we would be launching UNLV’s largest comprehensive campaign ever. Clearly, circumstances are so different. How could we have foreseen this?
Fortunately, I am succeeding outstanding board chairs and I have learned a lot. I’ve worked with [former UNLV presidents] Len Jessup and with Marta [Meana], over a long period of time. Now it’s important to get a new Foundation president and the right people in place. It’s important to establish relationships with the regents and chancellor. We know we must work with them for UNLV to attain all of its Top Tier goals.
Then, as the philanthropic arm of UNLV, we want donors to understand the role of the Foundation. We have relationships with every college. All of the work that the Foundation does, all of the dollars in gifts, helps them to achieve what they want to achieve.
We also have to look at how to tell UNLV’s story. We are already one of the most diverse schools in the country. We have to make certain everyone knows about our diversity and why that matters.
Is there one experience that shaped your philosophy on higher education?
I didn’t graduate from college and it’s been a major regret. I spent two years at Arizona State University and had a 3.9 grade point average, and now I wish I had completed school. At the time, I wasn’t encouraged to stay – the prevailing belief was that women didn’t need a degree; college was someplace you went to meet a husband.
I used to feel like an outsider looking in, but then I got involved with UNLV through my father and step-mother’s involvement. That’s how I met [former UNLV president Carol] Harter, who introduced me to many people and invited me to the Black Mountain Institute board. I became so interested in watching UNLV grow, knowing how much Las Vegas needed this university. You have to invest in education in order for the state to attract more businesses and to continue to grow.
You and your family have helped define this city. How has your family influenced your philanthropy?
My father was a very quiet and spontaneous philanthropist. He might be watching TV, see a story about a police officer being killed, and write an anonymous check to the widow. My philanthropy is a bit more strategic. I have a charitable foundation with set priorities: women and children, social well-being, education, health, and culture.
What is most rewarding to you about your partnership with UNLV?
There’s no question: it’s the students. Talking with them and hearing about what they want to do and who they want to become. When I meet with the students who received my scholarships, I hear about how they are already passing on the help they got. As little as some of them have, they want to help others with less. I get back so much more than I give.