A pay-it-forward foundation
"I used to define success for my children through attending the best schools and preparing them for the very best careers."
Before his Emory undergrad, before Goizueta Business School and well before becoming a partner at Bain & Company, a 17-year-old Denneen set a goal for himself: make $100,000 by age 30. He hit that goal when he was 28 and then set an even bigger goal for his 40th birthday. Denneen hit that one, too. Now, however, he defines success without using numbers.
“I don't care about money anymore,” Denneen said. For him, success is defined as “being interested, engaged, motivated and inspired by what I'm doing. It’s about being happy.” The story of how his definition of success changed through the years is also the story of Denneen’s growth, not so much professional growth as personal maturation, nurtured by circumstance and experience.
Although he didn’t recognize it at the time, the foundation for Denneen’s pay-it-forward mentality was laid years ago. He attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts, not far from the blue-collar neighborhood where he lived. Denneen’s student advisory group was led by Frank Millet, a distinguished faculty member and life-long educator, who took Denneen underwing. After graduation, Millet continued mentoring Denneen through monthly letters — all hand-written in calligraphy.
Returning to New England the summer after his first year in college, Denneen had dinner with Millet at the Harvard Club. It came out in conversation that Denneen wanted to join a fraternity but could only afford perhaps one-fourth the monthly dues. Millet, without hesitation, told Denneen that he would cover the remainder, which he did for Denneen’s remaining three years of college.
“That fraternity experience gave me so many life skills that I might not have gained had it not been for Mr. Millet’s benevolence,” Denneen said. Even after Millet’s passing last year at age 100, his example of altruism remains. Denneen attended his 100th birthday celebration — just months before his passing — along with hundreds of others whose lives Millet had touched, including singer/songwriter James Taylor and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.
“I used to define success for my children through attending the best schools and preparing them for the very best careers,”Denneen said. Now, he encourages his children — Darcy (15), Rachel (12) and Liam (7) — to find things in life that make them happy, “things that spark you. That’s where you should focus 100 percent.” Darcy, for example, likes to dance, so he encourages her to dance more, even if it’s at the expense of not getting straight A's. A younger Denneen might have pushed for all A's, even at the expense of Darcy dancing to her heart's content.
So what caused the shift? It wasn't something that helped Denneen change, but someone: Liam.
"We spoke to at least a dozen expert doctors around the world and read every single research paper we could find on Hunter Syndrome."
When Liam was 2 years old, Denneen and his wife Anne noticed something wasn’t right. Then, at age 3, Liam was diagnosed with Hunter Syndrome, an incredibly rare disease that is progressively degenerative with an average life expectancy less than 20 years. Though there’s no cure for this condition, there are two potential courses of treatment: enzyme replacement therapy or bone marrow transplant. There was also a new clinical trial happening at the time. Denneen and Anne faced a major decision: how to best treat Liam.
Conventional wisdom in the Hunter Syndrome community — both doctors and families — said that bone marrow transplant is too high risk and doesn’t really work. But Denneen and Anne didn’t want to accept conventional wisdom and instead leveraged their Emory educations and network to fully explore each option. “We spoke to at least a dozen expert doctors around the world and read every single research paper we could find on Hunter Syndrome,”Denneen said. “We also visited six different leading children’s hospitals in the country. When we finished sorting through everything it was clear to us that bone marrow transplant was actually the best option for us. We would never have gone down that path had we not known how to question accepted truths, do detailed research, apply critical thinking and formulate a better decision. We were so fortunate to have had such great educations.”
The bone marrow transplant itself was a challenging experience. Denneen and Anne decided to do the transplant at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital. Denneen took a leave of absence from Bain while he, Anne and Liam moved to Boston. The girls stayed in Atlanta with their grandparents. Liam lived in the hospital for seven weeks of intense chemotherapy, transplantation and regrowth of his immune system. Liam then moved to the small apartment with Anne and Denneen for another four months of living in isolation. Finally, after six months, they were able to move back home to Atlanta. But it was still another six months before Liam’s immune system was restored and he was allowed to go out in public.
“That was the hardest year of my life,” Denneen said. “Anne or I would fly down to Atlanta every other weekend to see the girls, but it was really tough to have our family split apart like that. It was especially hard on Liam as he couldn’t have any friends and really missed his sisters. Through it all, though, Liam was the most upbeat kid you’d ever meet!”
"Life will never be like it was (before diagnosis); we’ll never be ‘normal’ in the normal sense but Liam is the happiest kid you'll ever meet.”
Finally, after a year of isolation, Liam was allowed back out in public. He received a Make-A-Wish Foundation trip and chose to go to Disney World. “When he was in isolation,” Denneen said, “Liam couldn’t play with friends. The Disney characters in the movies he watched were his playmates.” So the trip to the Magic Kingdom, and seeing those characters face to face, held a special kind of magic for Liam.
While on the trip, the family stayed at a magical place called Give Kids the World, which is a special resort that is only accessible to families on wish trips. “I have never been to a place that made my family feel so special and cared for,” Denneen said. “They helped bring our family back together again — bonding and having fun — after the worst year ever.”
Since that trip, they’ve supported Give Kids the World, starting with Darcy’s Bat Mitzvah in the form of a 5K race fundraiser. That year, she was the top junior fundraiser. Most recently, she raised $18,000, surpassing her goal of $10,000.
Reflecting on their family life, Denneen said, “we have our own normal.” He says you have your life before diagnosis, or BD, and your life after diagnosis, or AD. “Life will never be like it was BD; we’ll never be ‘normal’ in the normal sense,” he said before adding with a smile, “but Liam is the happiest kid you'll ever meet.”
His condition precludes the family from going on long trips because of the care Liam would require were he to have an accident. And his severe ADHD means he can't be left alone often. His older sisters Darcy and Rachel attend to him, almost like his second mothers, playing with, caring for and entertaining him all the time. Like the girls, the family doesn’t consider it a burden to give up their time to support Liam. Rather, it’s simply what they do. It’s normal.
Beyond the walls of their home, Denneen exhibits that trait of supporting others with no concern for compensation. That manifests clearly on campus, where he’s a member of the Goizueta Advisory Board. And you can see it in the classroom, too, where Denneen donates his time by teaching one course one semester per year, typically in fall.
Denneen is acutely aware how fortunate his family is to provide the level of care they did. For this, he’s tremendously grateful, and like his life experiences, it’s one reason he keeps on giving.