The joy of helping others

Tamara Owen.

Throughout her career, Tamara Owen, EMBA ’02, has consistently worked to help people overcome challenges—from her first job as an athletic trainer, to her years at helm of several large hospitals, to her current role leading Visually Impaired Advancement (VIA), a Buffalo-based nonprofit agency.

“It always feels good to help people,” Owen says. “There's nothing more satisfying than removing barriers so people can be successful, and helping them have purpose and be a part of a larger solution.”

Owen’s passion for helping others first took her to Springfield College in Massachusetts, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physical education and sports medicine, respectively. In 1990, she earned another bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from the University at Buffalo, and took a job in that field at Buffalo General Hospital.

For the next 20 years, Owen advanced through a number of leadership roles at area hospitals and added new credentials to her résumé by earning an Executive MBA from the UB School of Management and completing Harvard Business School’s Managing Health Care Delivery program.

In 2007, she became president of DeGraff Memorial Hospital and was instrumental in getting the facility removed from the state’s list of hospitals targeted from closure. Next, as president of Millard Fillmore Gates Circle Hospital, she oversaw day-to-day operations for the 200-bed facility, while also leading its move to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and its successful integration into Gates Vascular Institute and Buffalo General Medical Center.

Even as she managed massive organizations and solved complicated business problems, Owen remained focused on her life’s mission: helping people.

“Being in charge does not mean having all the answers,” she says. “My leadership style is about recognizing and promoting the capabilities of our employees—helping staff understand their own strengths and value, so they can help the clients they serve.”

VIA offers a range of vision rehabilitation, education and employment services, including specialized vision, education and mobility training for children.

In 2013, Owen was named president and CEO of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, which helps people who are blind or visually impaired achieve their highest level of independence. During her tenure, she has turned the agency into a thriving, financially strong organization, leaning on skills she gained during her Executive MBA program.

“My training and education from the UB School of Management was invaluable,” she says. “It gave me the foundation to be a strategic thinker and see how we could simultaneously accomplish our mission and put a strong business plan behind it.”

Today, VIA provides vision rehabilitation, education and employment services to more than 2,500 people each year. And, during the pandemic, VIA’s impact has been felt throughout the community. Manufacturing staff, mostly made up of individuals with visual impairments, packed and shipped personal protective equipment to organizations and governments; meanwhile, operators for the 211 helpline fielded more than 75,000 calls in 2020 alone to help community members find food, shelter, child care and mental health assistance.

“I measure our impact through the lives of the people we serve,” Owen says. “When a child who is blind can participate in a classroom and in recess right alongside his or her sighted peers, that’s success. When we provide a machine operator or mortgage broker who is becoming blind with the tools and strategies to keep working, that’s success. It’s about every individual we can help live a joyful, purposeful life.”

Written by Matthew Biddle