Owens Alexander grew up in the world of television. He moved to Jackson at the age of five, in 1954, when his father took the job as the station manager of the new television station WJTV, a CBS affiliate.
“I started working at the station when I was 14 years old,” he said. “I couldn’t drive so I had to hitch a ride any way I could after school, and the lady that did the 10 p.m. weather lived nearby so she gave me a ride home.”
He worked in the news department for about five years, including summers and holidays, shooting 16mm film, covering anything from politicians to tornadoes.
Long Learning Experience
“In 1964, the day after I got my driver’s license, I was hired by CBS News to be a courier between Philadelphia, MS, and Jackson,” he said. “That is when three civil rights workers were killed there and their bodies were hidden.”
Alexander’s job was to get the film shot in Philadelphia on that particular day and rush it back to Jackson to be processed and fed to New York for the CBS Nightly News. Roger Mudd and Dan Rather visited Jackson several times during the investigation of the workers.
During the summers of high school and college, Alexander was the news cameraman for Bert Case, the news director at Channel 12. They traveled all over the state, following Charles Evers’s political career, state politics, hurricanes, tornadoes and local news.
Born and Raised Ole Miss
Alexander’s decision to choose UM was influenced by two of his greatest mentors: His “adopted” big brother, Bill Roper, and his father. He never missed the opportunity to assist his father while he did the public address announcing during the Ole Miss football games in Jackson at Memorial stadium.
“I can’t remember thinking much about any college other than Ole Miss,” Alexander said. “It just became the only place to go.”
He began his college education as a math major, following in the footsteps of Roper. Halfway through the process, he realized the curriculum did not sit well with him, and he switched to the business school, majoring in statistics. He studied under his favorite professor, Dr. Charlie Taylor, in accounting for a number of courses.
Alexander recalls he might have majored in accounting if given a mulligan. He graduated in 1971 and moved on to pursue an MBA at LSU.
“The MBA decision wasn’t hard,” he explained. “I did not feel like I had gotten all the business education that I wanted or needed, spending only two years in business at Ole Miss, and I thought going somewhere else might be a good change.”
Life After the Diploma
Alexander did not leave LSU empty handed: He received his MBA degree and met his wife, Emily, on a blind date.
He accepted a position, and began working as a management trainee, in the forecasting department at Southern Bell Telephone Company in Atlanta.
Climbing to the executive ranks, Alexander’s career run at BellSouth lasted exactly 21 years to the day. He started 10 years before the Bell System breakup and stayed 11 years afterwards.
A Career in Telecom
In 1984, Alexander got a call about a new vice-president of marketing position with Southern California Edison, (the second largest electric utility in the country at the time) and subsequently headed off to Los Angeles with Emily and their two boys.
He was brought in, because of his experience in the telephone industry, to respond to the California regulators aggressive stance on the subject of deregulating the sale of electricity at the wholesale and retail level.
After Edison, Alexander joined Science Applications International Corporation in San Diego as a senior-vice president and the corporate director of the utility practice. SAIC played a big role in the Y2K challenge and later won major IT outsourcing contracts with two major utilities. He also worked in the group overseeing some integration work after they acquired Bellcore (renamed to Telcordia).
In 2004, he joined the Titan Corporation as CEO of their wireless subsidiary, Titan Wireless. They provided a variety of international telecommunications services including building all of the telecom infrastructure in the small west African country of Benin.
After Titan Corporation received a buyout offer, and the acquiring company was not interested in the international telecom business, Alexander had the equally challenging job selling off the telecom assets.
Following what could have been a retirement, Alexander co-founded and served as CEO of a San Diego start-up, Real Phone Corporation.
“We designed and built the world’s thinnest and lightest mobile phone, and the only one in its class with voice recognition dialing,” he said. “We thought we had done things right but the product just didn’t sell.”
“The failure of Real Phone was one of the greatest business lessons of my life. It gave me much of the start-up company experience I have been able to share with students.”
Joining the UM Faculty
“I guess the most difficult adjustment was the heat and humidity in the summer,” Alexander joked regarding the decision to return to Mississippi in 2013. “Oxford is an incredible place to live with all the restaurants and university activities.”
After meeting future neighbor Bill Gates, he was introduced to Ken Cyree, dean of the business school, one afternoon on the Square. Then he visited with management department chair and professors and that lead to joining the UM faculty.
At that time the business school had just received approval to start the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “My background fit well with what they wanted to build,” he said. “In addition to my role on the faculty, I held the title of Entrepreneur-in-Residence in the CIE.
“That means I was the guy in the shop who was available to students to help them develop business ideas and start their ventures.”
When the alumni-run Rebel Venture Capital Fund was established, to provide seed money grants to student startup companies, he managed the “deal flow” for them by selecting the students and coaching them to be ready to present their business ideas to the RVCF.
A Leader for Entrepreneurs
Almost 50 years after Alexander attended the University of Mississippi, he found himself teaching at the institution. He reflects on the many changes since his graduation and on the mainstays of the campus, including his freshman-year dorm, Kincannon, still standing.
“For me, it might have been a bit of a bucket list thing, but really I wanted to give back and share my experiences from a varied business career with the students,” he said.
These last five years Alexander has taught over 500 students in the classroom and another several hundred involved in the student entrepreneurial activities with the CIE. He has been able to give back to an organization that gave him so much.
Alexander admires the warmth and friendly atmosphere of the campus at Ole Miss. He might have viewed his sudden employment at the business school as something fun to do initially, but after spending long hours preparing for class, and getting to know the students, it became a memory he was never going to find anywhere else.
“I don’t really like that word retire,” he said. “But when you get to be as old as your students’ grandparents, then maybe it’s time to move on.”
By Haley Young