Intrinsic Drive®

Challenge Accepted with Mary Sullivan of mikeroweWORKS

December 07, 2022 Phil Wharton - Wharton Health Season 4 Episode 6
Intrinsic Drive®
Challenge Accepted with Mary Sullivan of mikeroweWORKS
Show Notes Transcript

Mary Sullivan, a straight-A biochemistry major while at Loyola University, thought she wanted to be a doctor but came to the realization that medicine wasn’t for her.  She chose law instead, studying at Georgetown University.  Upon graduation, she accepted a position at a full-service law firm in Los Angeles, learning the trade and transitioning to the entertainment arm. Mary came to realize that not growing up in the entertainment industry allowed her to think differently and push back on industry standards that didn’t make sense. In 2005, as a senior partner at her thriving boutique entertainment law office, she received a call from Mike Rowe, who needed an attorney. Mike arrived at Mary’s corner office three weeks later, covered in dust from working at a rock quarry while filming his soon-to-be hit television series, Dirty Jobs.  At the time of their meeting, her filthy-by-design client had no representation, agent, manager, or accountant. So, there was work to be done; Mary accepted the challenge.   

Mary is president of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation - a foundation co-created by both she and Mike - focused on promoting the skilled trades. Today student loan debt is the second highest debt category nationwide, with over 44 million borrowers owing an excess of $1.5 trillion dollars. Mary and Mike’s foundation have funded over five million dollars in scholarships for their Work Ethic Scholarship Program, providing training for the 7 million available jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree. 

Embracing a mission larger than herself, this powerhouse is the executive producer of many of Mike’s shows, including How Booze Built America, Six Degrees, Dirty Jobs, Somebody’s Gotta Do it, Returning the Favor, as well as The Way I Heard it with Mike Rowe podcast. It was a privilege to catch up with Mary, we warmly welcome her to this episode of Intrinsic Drive™. 

 Intrinsic Drive™ is produced by Ellen Strickler and Phil Wharton and Andrew Hollingworth  is sound editor and engineer.   

 

Mary Sullivan:

A lifetime of training, practice study, hard work, through discipline, some achieve excellence, mastery, fulfillment, self actualization. What can we learn from their beginning discoveries, motivations and falls?How do they dust themselves off and resume their journey? During these interviews, stories and conversations, we reveal their intrinsic drive. Mary Sullivan, a straight A biochemistry major studied law at Georgetown University. She accepted a position at a full service law firm in Los Angeles, quickly learning the trade transitioning to the entertainment arm. She realized not growing up in the entertainment industry allowed her to think differently and push back on industry standards that didn't make sense. In 2005, as a senior partner at a thriving boutique entertainment law office, she received a call from Mike Rowe who needed an attorney. Mike arrived at Mary's corner office three weeks later covered in dust from working in a rock quarry while filming his soon to be hit television series Dirty Jobs. At the time of their meeting, her filthy by design client had no representation, agent, manager or accountant. Mary became president of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, a foundation co created by these two former Baltimoreans focused on promoting the skilled trades. Today, student loan debt is the second highest debt category nationwide, with over 44 million borrowers owing in excess of$1.5 trillion. Mary and Mike's Foundation have funded over $5 million in scholarships for their work ethic scholarship program, providing training for the 7 million available jobs, which don't require a four year college degree, embracing a mission larger than herself. This powerhouse is the executive producer of many of Mike's shows, including; How Booze Built America, Six Degrees, Dirty Jobs, Somebody's Got to Do It, Returning The Favor, as well as The Way I heard It with Mike Rowe podcast. It was a privilege to catch up with Mary. We warmly welcome her to this episode of Intrinsic Drive. Mary, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us on Intrinsic Drive. It's so amazing to meet you and for you to come on the show with us today. Thank you for having me. In your Genesis take us to the beginning of your journey. And if any inciting moments for you there as you're coming out of the sciences, in the biochemistry, having much success having an insane amount of aptitude there. What was the next step in your journey there?

Unknown:

Well, I like you said I was really I really loved science. I was good at it. But I really didn't see that I wanted to be a doctor. And my family was not wealthy, let's put it that way. And the idea of taking on a huge amount of debt and and going through the schooling that I would need to gave me a little bit of a panic attack. I looked around to say what do I want to do? I had some inkling that I would love business, but I had no business aptitude because I hadn't taken any classes. So I decided to go to law school, mostly because the entrance exam was logic, reasoning, and reading and I could do both of those. I got accepted to Georgetown. It was a great firm. I did a stint in Hawaii over the summer, my summer internship. That convinced me, there was life off of the East Coast.

Mary Sullivan:

Very good. Very good. So, I ended up accepting a position applying for an

Phil Wharton:

Interesting. accepting a position and a firm in West LA, called Mitchell, Silberberg and Knupp. It was about 150 lawyers. They had a corporate department. But it was also a full service firm. And it it really was the best ground for someone like me. They were letting me draft documents when I was my you know, when I was in

Mary Sullivan:

I ended up moving to the entertainment department my second year. Of course, they were heavily marked up and that was the process of learning. I was invited into meetings because we had a lot of small medium size companies and so I really was able to participate. I was a female at the time when females were starting to really get into law firms, but there wasn't an abundance. So I was actively involved in recruiting and all sorts of aspects. So it was great, I did corporate, I ended up because they had a motion picture television department doing film financing work, that was my entree into entertainment, which ultimately led me to where I am now. Even though I had zero interest in entertainment, I didn't really understand it. with the idea of doing more what I'll call corportey type transactions, you know, acquisitions of film libraries, that kind of stuff. And ultimately, I ended up spinning out to go with a group of talent lawyers to a boutique that I helped start. And the idea was they would do the talent work, I would still be doing more of the corporate stuff. But the truth is, I miscalculated, even though I was fairly independent in the large law firm to really have the kind of practice I wanted, you needed all of all of those other people around, or at least I did. So I gravitated to start doing entertainment stuff with them. But since I didn't grow up in the industry, I found myself being a really senior lawyer that could do the most complicated deals and figure stuff out, but had no idea how to do the most basic deal because I didn't know what standard was, I just knew how to make things up. I knew how to, you know, craft. So it led me into areas where that kind of background was less necessary. Some of that was animation, some of it became reality. You it sounds like read my the story that got posted on Facebook, Mike and my birthday. Most it is mostly true. I got a call from my ex partner who had gone back to Mitchell Silberberg and said that Mike had wanted to hire him, but his firm had a conflict. So he referred Mike to me, he did call me from I think it was a grease trap. I did answer my own phone.

Phil Wharton:

And he was eating like a ham sandwich or something. You know, are you in a sewer? Are you in a bathroom

Mary Sullivan:

I'm representing all these like, really? first?

Phil Wharton:

High powered

Mary Sullivan:

clients? Yeah. I'm getting a call from a guy in a sewer. It's like, Thanks, Bob. What did I ever do to you to deserve this? But we talked for a while it turns out, we both grew up not far from each other. So there's there was a lot of shared sort of history, even though we never met when we were younger. He I went to Loyola College, he was at Towson. Okay, so there was all that proximity. we were around that area. And he just talked and talked and talked. And I went watched the show. At that time, there were only a few on the air. And I realized it was good. And Bob, the ones who referred him to me said, you know, the show's got potential. So I, I took him on. And I helped him to renegotiate his deal with Discovery. Yeah, he said, it was just atrocious. I mean, all his sort of way goes his history, right? Was the all these blind spots. And you're like, okay, it was amazing at the time that you were willing to, you saw something in there. That was that was different, that was unique, which it is. And you know, it's so important. And it was funny, because, you know, my background getting into the entertainment industry was odd. And my, you know, both because I was bio major, but also because I was more business oriented. So the entertainment industry to me, was a little odd. Like, you have these powerful clients that have agents who have hundreds of other clients, kind of running things or managers that still have a lot of other clients. And, and my brain just didn't work that way. Well, Mike, didn't have an agent didn't have a manager didn't have a publicist. I'm not even sure he had a competent accountant at the time. And so we were kind of two odd ducks. I spent about after I finished the Discovery deal. I spent about a year and a half, two years taking him around to get an agent or a manager or some somebody to help him because all of my people had people.

Phil Wharton:

And this was pulling teeth. So this was really this was not an easy process, but maybe took a lot longer than Hey, we're just gonna go get this done. Right? It was like.

Mary Sullivan:

He would take the meetings. He was very charming. He'd answer all the questions. He just would never hire anyone. So essentially, I failed miserably at my job. And I recognize that and left the practice of law to come and help him start a business. We had started the mikeroweWORKS foundation before that. It was the very beginning stages, but we knew, given Dirty Jobs and and his beliefs that we wanted to highlight skilled trades and alternatives to a four year degree. We, it also gave the opportunity, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. And probably he didn't either to not try to fit something into a box, you know, I would figure out what is what does he want to do? And how can we make that happen? What's going to make it more likely that it would be engaging, and that he'd want to, as opposed to a lot of times the industry, if you go to an agency, you know, they try to they pull from their vending machine, what kind of client do you want? They're trying to match as best they can. But we always found that it was a lot better, we'd like partnerships. So I'd turn away. At the beginning, it was much to his chagrin, probably because I would say no to a lot of things. But the idea that you want to get in business with somebody, you want to do good for them. It's, it's got to be mutually beneficial. It's not about money. It's about having fun, doing good work, making it effective for them, keeping consistent with who you are. And that that was mostly through finding longer term partnerships that you could work with people. Now we worked with Ford for seven years. And yeah, and through all different aspects. And mostly that was because we struck upon campaigns that allowed Mike to be Mike, instead of being a traditional spokesman who would walk in, hit a mark, and read a line. His philosophy was you don't need a spokesman, you need a fan of your brand, and someone that's curious. And the people that should be spokesman should be the people who are working with you, your technicians, if you're talking about parts and services, or your customers, because those are the people that you know, are really, engaging with your brand. And, you know, look, if, if I'm going to be looking to buy a car, am I going to listen to the Ford spokesman for who I should buy a car from? Or am I going to listen to my friend? So the closer that Mike stayed in that category, you know,

Unknown:

If you don't know what you're doing, you don't have any

Phil Wharton:

And the person on the assembly line, I just love this Mary's is, you're elevating right away is that you're, parameters. I remember Mike, who had been in the industry, I you're inside the ethos of something it's a mission that's bigger than yourselves. And right away, you both were able remember speaking up with one of the agencies, and talking about to figure this out. And I think that's these odd ducks. This is this is very sly like a fox, I think this is so great. This is what I thought, you know, of the creative and what we needed to so great as you're sort of do. And Mike was later I understand sitting back just kind of laughing because I am telling this huge agency, you know, what's wrong with everything. I didn't know, I didn't know I wasn't supposed to. Right? It's just all this off color practice, right? It's like all this. This is this is the discovery, as we call it in the show, you know, these, the mentors and teachers is all these years you have right away cutting your teeth and all this different type of law and then becoming a partner. But then having the courage to step outside that and say, Wait a minute, you're challenging these industry norms. And I just think that's the that's the beauty of this and find finding the authentic.

Mary Sullivan:

Yeah, it's funny, because I didn't know I was challening. I mean, I think it was a fear of failing, because I didn't, I didn't know what I was doing. And so I was trying to figure out so hard how to craft something, there wasn't, an obvious path to me that I could go down. And that makes you think through things much like when I was when I was a lawyer. I always liked to draft contracts really from scratch rather than relying upon a form because if I did that, I mean sure I'm pulling provisions from a form. But if I'm putting it together myself, I'm really thinking through it. It was the same way with what Mike and I were doing. It's like okay, that might be standard, there was a standard in the industry of you'll negotiate that a client, he'll shoot for a day. And you can get one commercial or two commercials and cut downs. And Mike is incredibly talented very fast. So the first contract, I negotiated kind of fit those norms. And he went on a shoot one time, and I think within, you know, the first half an hour, he had already done what the contract called, but because they know they have you for a long time, they would just have to do the same thing over and over and over again, to the point where he calls me up. He's like, I can't do this anymore. The next contract, we said, look, let's try something different. Take this period of time, shoot as much different stuff as you want to figure out what's good. Use as many commercials as you'd like. Because the truth is, it is better from my, our perspective, I think, for you to see 10 different commercials with Mike with 10 different people, than to see the same one over and over and over again.

Phil Wharton:

Right.

Mary Sullivan:

And that opened up the relationship. And it was simply because I had no idea why that that rule was in place. It didn't do any good for the client, you know, unless you were going to wait cut down the time. So you just change things. Yeah, you don't know what you're doing. There are no parameters.

Phil Wharton:

It's like the banging your head against the wall. We always do we always did we always get we've always got. And I love this creativity is showing this in a new light. What were some of the drives?, Mary that urged you all forward?, and you particularly what were some of the external and internal forces and motivations during that time in your life? When you've got the ascent, you're coming up in this and you're sort of saying no to the, as he said, The Entourage moment where you're in the room and they're trying these slick, you know, that like they did with Mary J. Blige. You know, that's the sort of create this sort of cookie cutter, as you're saying vending machine brand. And this is not that and what were some of the drives for you?

Mary Sullivan:

Well, initially, it was the fear of being poor. Later. I think it was really internally not being successful or not being able to figure something out.

Phil Wharton:

Yes.

Mary Sullivan:

You know, there was certainly no external pressure. You know, my mom was the sweetest woman in the world. She was supportive of any, you know, it's all, you know, internal, and it was that desire to figure it out. When I, went from bio to law, it was a little bit of a transition, but you're still in school. It's still not a real world. I think the the harder one was when I made the decision to leave the practice of law. Because I knew when I stepped out with my, there probably was no going back, you know. I had, transitioned all of my clients to other people. I was jumping out really with one, one client. And if he would just decide to retire, or, you know, that would have been not good.

Phil Wharton:

No, that's extremely scary for sure.

Mary Sullivan:

And if I didn't succeed, if I didn't do a good job, and then as we started building the, you know, the business and bringing in a few more people, it's the responsibility to them. To try to do something well. And the other motivator is just, I really like, what what we're doing, you know, it, it helps to have a partner that you appreciate who's talented. Mike is incredibly talented and hardworking. So he is just as involved in everything. The team that we've got here, they're all just fantastic. You know, they are internally motivated. They're the show up early, stay late kind of people. And when you have that kind of synergy around you, it's, it's really helpful. But when I stepped out, there was that moment of, uh oh, what if, what if it all falls apart? What if, you know, I just sort of figured, well, I'll figure it out.

Phil Wharton:

Right, and in that any sort of fall or speed bumps? What about lowest moments you're comfortable sharing in your career life overall? Was there a major moment or event there that comes up for you?

Mary Sullivan:

You know, I mean, I don't think there was one low moment. But you you have moments all the time, both personal and professional, you know? My, my mom, when she got older and dying, and realizing that I lived on the West Coast, she's on the East Coast. You know, that kind of tension of it. I have kids the tension of how do you balance, you know, trying to be there for them and still doing what you need to do. But I think, from the from the business standpoint, the moments where it has been tough have been, where I feel overwhelmed, you know, where there's a bunch of things start happening at once. And I've sort of started to two things. Realize that, take all of those just start knocking one off at a time. Stop looking at, stop looking at all of them, because that really freaks you out. Let's focus on this one. And then this one is like, chip away. And the second to realize that no matter no matter what happens. It'll be okay. The world is not going to stop spinning.

Phil Wharton:

Right. Perspective there.

Mary Sullivan:

it's you, you have to have that if, you know, if this deal goes away, okay, well, maybe we tighten our belts, maybe we do this, you know, but it'll be we'll figure it out. And to, not believe that it's going to be catastrophic. I think it's one of the reasons I don't know that I could have become a doctor is because the idea of losing somebody's money, you don't want to do it. But at the end of the day, it's money.

Phil Wharton:

replaceable.

Mary Sullivan:

To lose a client, you know, a patient that might have, that might have I did not have the right attitude for that. I have a friend, friend of a friend who's a doctor, the most upbeat, optimistic human being, and she is the a specialist in female oncology. Most of her patients die. Like she gets the worst of the worst. And yet her attitude is the best I've ever seen of anyone

Phil Wharton:

That's remarkable. Yeah, yeah.

Mary Sullivan:

Know what you're good at and what, what you might suck at. That's right. Very well said, I think you've you've just brought us into your pivot, which was so beautiful, the power of discernment, when all these things imagine, the meteoric rise in the show is unbelievable. And just the accolades, because it's important work. And it's about a real America, a lost America almost coming back. And, and so then, you know, wow, it's like, okay. In the roll back, if you had the opportunity, what would you redo or do differently? If anything? You know, I can't say that I would do any, anything different. There might be little moments where sometimes you make choices that and most of those are personal, okay, do I really have to do that? Maybe I should have gone to my kids thing. But it's, kind of like, saw the movie sliding doors where, you know, she Yeah, it's like, depending upon whether she makes the train or bus, whatever it was, or not completely changes her whole life. So I think about any one of those connectors that wouldn't, that didn't happen in the past would not have, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. And I like what I'm doing..

Phil Wharton:

A guy walks into your office, it's amazing, the guy walks into your office, and you're in this boutique, you know, Hollywood entertainment law firm. And the story goes, and he's coming in from a quarry. And you're just like, you're just okay with that. You just you looked at the depth of this, instead of, you know, all the other stuff that came with it, then drill down and say, Look, this is this is something very interesting, and it feeds a curiosity that there's a problem to solve.

Mary Sullivan:

Oh, and he was, he was the perfect partner in that regard, because he was abnormal too, I should say. But, he was very involved in all of the decisions, like we

Phil Wharton:

Yeah. All these synchronicities? Yeah, the That's great. thought through things together. This isn't Oh, Mary is like connections I love, I love this, in your journey, Mary what's telling him, you know, here's the path you go. We basically would spend a lot of time talking to figure out, where is it that we should go? And how do we get there? And so it really was very much of a good partnership. And that always helps if you have somebody that you're working with that you're aligned with philosophically, who is equally hard working and you know, motivated. So it was that was a little lucky. So any of the things that I would say, oh, at the time, maybe that wasn't good, or whatever that thing led me to, you know, it was, was it a mistake that I left the large law firm to go to the boutique? Because the kind of law that I practice I really liked? Well, had I not done that I wouldn't have met Mike wouldn't be so. most important to you now? What does the road ahead look like for you? And what's next?

Mary Sullivan:

Well, since the most of my career has been Forest Gumping my way through, I don't suspect that I'm going to have a really good answer for that. I think part of it is because it has been, you know, a tough road. And there's been a lot of time, it is focusing on hopefully, doing more stuff in the in the team environment here, I've got a phenomenal group that I work with. And so I like seeing them engaged. Part of it is I like getting out and meeting the clients and the customers and and now that I've got, you know, more people in the office that are capable of helping with stuff that's, that's feasible. Where do we, where do we want to go? You know, I don't know that we have a specific, I want to do this, because right now, we probably have multiple TV shows, we have a podcast, we have multiple relationships, we do some speaking stuff, do some writing stuff, yes, it's, it's a box of chocolates. In some ways, I kind of like the box of chocolates.

Phil Wharton:

It really fits with your, the creativity in you. The problem solving but also the array of offerings that are there. And so the way that you're sort of presenting all this beautiful work, and I think that's really speaks a lot to your all's collaboration in that

Mary Sullivan:

And I think we, we now, you know, we're working on things, the foundation being one of them. But also we had a show called Returning The Favor for a while, where we would go out and highlight people in their community that were doing good things for their community, and we do something nice for them. That was a Facebook show, we had, like 100 episodes. But that concept of entrepreneurship of, finding people that are solving problems that we have today, whether it's addiction, homelessness, you know, educational, you know stuff. So with the team, I'm working on some stuff where we can kind of highlight people that are doing good work in that area. So I'll call it, it's a blend of missionary and mercenary work in my future.

Phil Wharton:

Very good. No, I love that story that I read. It was incredible. But I think it was Donna Brin, who is a woman that makes your masks that, was a 2020 article, and it was unbelievable. What happened with her, $220,000, coming from these, the masks made in the USA, and all of a sudden there's the workforce. And that sort of spoke right there to me, of seeing the ethos in practice real practicality of Made in America, right there, creating these job opportunities, and just amazing story that spoke to one of just one of the projects

Mary Sullivan:

Yeah, it's funny we just about a year or so ago, that launched a line of of Tennessee whiskey, which was being sold online. And it just hit the retail shelves in a few places. Liquor industry is incredibly complicated and not recommended for the faint of heart. But the first place that it was being sold at was in the Maryland area where we're both from, so we actually took a day and Mike and I drove around and we got a chance to meet some of the retailers that had taken it. And if you have a chance you can go on his Facebook, and read the stories. They're hysterical.

Phil Wharton:

Amazing.

Mary Sullivan:

And that's the kind of thing it isn't the biggest I mean, these were not you know, they took a case or whatever. But actually going there and meeting them telling their stories. One of the places two Marines that started it. One was a 72 year old woman who just loved Mike and we ended up going to a birthday party, next door it was it was a little bit of an adventure but that's, the goal can you make? Can you be in business and find ways to make it fun? And to as a result of that, you know, fun, have a business that's sustainable. And so far we've been, we've been focusing on that. It's gotta be interesting and fun.

Phil Wharton:

It comes through. And it really you exude that and being with you here in this in this moment. It just comes through that you have this joy for this and but it also uses your talents in a very unique way with Mike and it's combination. Any parting gems of advice you'd like to leave for us on the show today? Any?

Mary Sullivan:

You know, what a lot of people will, will ask me, because I'm constantly talking to youth that are that are coming up. And I usually say the same two things. First, nobody really should expect somebody at 17 to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Look at me, I'm like the complete Forrest Gumping my way through. Be good at what you do. And figure out a way to like it. I loved biology, I loved working in the law firm. Because in doing that, opportunity will help find you. And then be open to it, you know, be open to taking some risks, which usually means Be careful not to be, you know, over your ears in debt. But be able to take some of those shots and then shine, I think in today's economy and today's workforce, finding someone who is engaged, enthusiastic, who is really truly a member of the team and contributing and doing their best. You know, People want to hire those people all day long.

Phil Wharton:

That's right. That's right. And hats off to you and Mike, It's what is it$1.5 trillion dollars in student debt now, and that you all are going after this and creating these scholarships for, the skilled trades. And I think that what is it more in excess of five, 7 million in that zone of that you've raised so far? And through partnerships It's much

Mary Sullivan:

Yeah, we gave away a little over 1,000,005 more. this year and 1,000,005. Last year, I don't know what the numbers are, each of the years before it's, it's continuously grown. And so part of our foundation is focused on scholarships, because we do want to do, the other half is really on promotion. We now have enough history with people that we've given scholarships to. To go back and tell their stories, because those people are the people who can motivate people that are either, you know, coming up into the working force or that are deciding to switch careers. We highlighted a girl named Chloe Hudson, Chloe looked like she should be a model. She wanted to go to become a plastic surgeon, decided the debt was way more than she wanted to and ended up going into welding. She is awesome.

Phil Wharton:

She's a star. Yeah.

Mary Sullivan:

Yeah. She's making a great, great salary and loving life.

Phil Wharton:

Well, you all are very well loved where we are here in the educational system in South Central PA. So kudos and hats off to

Mary Sullivan:

Thank You.

Phil Wharton:

Much more success to come. And just so appreciate you spending your time and just coming to Intrinsic Drive. We're just so loved having you Mary.

Mary Sullivan:

Thank you very much for having me.

Phil Wharton:

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