Home » Alumni » Gabelli School Alumna Mary Lou Quinlan — A Multitalented Women’s Advocate, Author, and Performer, Shares Her Unique Vision on the Stage and in Real Life

Gabelli School Alumna Mary Lou Quinlan — A Multitalented Women’s Advocate, Author, and Performer, Shares Her Unique Vision on the Stage and in Real Life

Alumni | Apr 29, 2024 |

When Mary Lou Quinlan (GABELLI ’82) was an M.B.A. student attending classes during the evening while working full time at Avon Products, she was pursuing what she believed would be her lifetime career. She worked incredibly hard to realize her dreams of becoming a successful corporate businesswoman, moving from Avon into the advertising world where she was SVP/EVP at DDB and President/CEO at NW Ayer, and later launching her own women-focused marketing consultancy—Just Ask a Woman. Although she had a thriving career, working with brands such as Wells Fargo, Saks Fifth Avenue, KAO, Westin Hotels and Resorts, and Kraft to provide marketing insights, she felt that she needed to make a change. Burgeoning creative interests outside of the scope of her business began to percolate, compelling her to shift her focus and fully realize what she believes was her true calling.

“When I was 45, I took time off to step away and make space to figure out my life. I wanted to understand what my values were and to align my career with what mattered most to me,” she noted. During this time, her creative talents blossomed, drawing her towards the things she enjoyed doing most and empowering her to support other women to do the same. Although Quinlan always had a passion for championing and advocating for women as professionals and consumers, she also was inspired to pursue speaking, writing, and performing opportunities as a way to share the women’s stories that touched her most profoundly.

She became a prolific writer and commentator in the media about women’s issues, and produced breakthrough business books—What She’s Not Telling You, Time Off for Good Behavior, and Just Ask a Woman. She also has written inspirational features in magazines such as Real Simple and O: The Oprah Magazine, and was a correspondent on CBS’ “The Early Show,” in addition to contributing to other television projects.

When her beloved mother, Mary Finlayson, passed away, she embarked on a deeply personal and poignant project that explored many themes with which women connect—learning to live with grief, finding your true self, and the power of letting go. “My mother’s death was a big turning point for me,” explained Quinlan. “I wrote about her to keep her in my life.” The result was “The God Box, Sharing My Mother’s Gift of Faith, Love and Letting Go,” a book, which was based upon her mother’s God boxes—simple containers that were stuffed with tiny notes written by her, asking and praying for everything from the right flooring for her daughter’s new home to a cure for her own blood cancer.

Mary Lou Quinlan in “The God Box, A Daughter’s Story”

So inspiring was the book’s content that it became a New York Times bestseller, and which she has performed as a one-woman play, “The God Box, A Daughter’s Story,” which has been performed Off-Broadway, around the United States, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and in Ireland. Quinlan’s remarkable performance expresses what it’s like to lose someone you love and to be open about it, teaching us the lessons of learning to let go. All of the funds raised through performances of “The God Box” are donated to non-profit causes. Over the past decade, more than $650,000 has been amassed for cancer research, hospice care, education, and women’s and community causes.

The God Box, A Daughter’s Story” will be performed at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture; May 7–8. Tickets can be purchased at https://www.sheencenter.org/

In addition to her writing and dramatic performance work, Quinlan also is a talented ballroom dancer, a passion she first discovered when she competed to raise money for Catholic schools in Philadelphia. As part of her continued commitment to raising money for women’s causes, she also is a pioneer supporting member of Fordham’s Women’s Philanthropy Graduate Business Endowed Scholarship giving circle and works alongside other alumnae who are giving of their time and financial resources to ensure the success of the next generation of women business leaders. She also is helping to build an endowed scholarship for Fordham Gabelli School M.B.A. women that will live on in perpetuity and will provide women with the chance to pursue their dreams.

Quinlan currently is working on a new play about a group of women during the 1970s who are struggling to survive as the women’s liberation movement begins to take hold. While the story takes place decades ago, she feels many of the sentiments it expresses are relevant today. In her speeches to women, including her address at the 2017 Fordham University Women’s Summit, she advises them to find space in their lives in order to discover what they are truly passionate about. Her philosophy about being true to oneself, finding the path that makes you most happy, and giving back to others is an inspiring example of a life well lived—one from which we can all take inspiration.


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