Growing up in a modest household in Old Algiers in New Orleans with parents who instilled strong values and morals, Gayle Benson learned from an early age the importance of giving back and being compassionate towards others. Those humble beginnings and her Catholic education gave Benson the foundation to shape her into a prominent business professional, philanthropist, and owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans.
“I grew up here and I just feel like you need to give back if you’ve been here and you’ve been successful and you have businesses here,” Benson said. “Prior to marrying my husband (late Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson), I had a design business for 30 years, so the community really helped me. I just feel like it’s very important to give back.”
Benson began her professional career as a manager for a New York-based jeweler. She then branched out into real estate, which allowed her to combine her passion for interior design with property management. In 1975, she began a 30-year career in the design industry, where she won numerous professional awards and directed design efforts for major clients, including prestigious New Orleans hotels, supermarkets, automobile dealerships and more.
While Benson’s hard work and tenacious spirit were crucial to her success in business, she has also thrived by continually looking out for others and helping them address concerns, whether professionally or personally.
“To be a good leader, I think you need compassion, patience and to listen to people,” she said. “Being compassionate is about caring for others, paying attention, being available for others and learning from others. I think it’s very important that we all are compassionate in life.”
Benson’s local and national profiles grew considerably after she married Tom Benson in October 2004. The couple were mainstays on the sidelines at Saints games, encouraging fans to cheer on their favorite players in good times and bad. When Tom Benson took over ownership of the Pelicans in 2012, they took that same spirit to the NBA franchise. Behind the scenes, they served as leaders in the professional sports world, advocating for positive changes, state-of-the-art facilities and financial support.
Benson said her husband was one of her primary mentors in her professional life. After he died in 2018, she applied those lessons successfully, playing an instrumental role in NFL circles on issues such as social justice and officiating and helping New Orleans land Super Bowl LIX in 2025. Although she remains one of the few female pro sports owners, Benson said she has never felt out of place among her peers.
“I don’t think there are any challenges that I’ve overcome. I just look at people as people. I don’t look at someone as a man or a woman,” she said. “I feel like we’re all equal, so it’s really no challenge to me.”
As a testament to her commitment to her hometown, Benson has long dedicated herself to philanthropic causes that have left an indelible mark on New Orleans. Whether it’s supporting health and wellness initiatives, cancer care, education or the arts, she continues to work tirelessly to improve the lives of others. In times of adversity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters, Benson’s swift response and generous donations have provided vital aid to those in need.
“I feel so humbled when I’m able to help others,” she said. “We can’t help everyone, but when I am able to help, it just makes me feel really good to know that I’m making a difference in other people’s lives. It’s quite a blessing.”
With the Saints ready to embark on a quest for another NFC South title and the Pelicans looking to continue their rise to prominence in the NBA’s Western Conference, Benson will have plenty on her plate as the new seasons get underway this fall. But, even amid her busy schedule, she’ll always make time to pray for her community and its people, make philanthropic donations, and be the biggest champion for New Orleans.
“I don’t like to think about legacy because I think if you do that, it kind of ruins what you are doing today,” she said. “You need to take care of today and the legacy will follow.”
The “She Is” campaign is a partnership between Hancock Whitney and The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, The Advocate and The Acadiana Advocate to curate and share stories about women who are thriving – what motivates them, how they motivate others, and how women can continue to drive impact. Visit www.hancockwhitney.com/she-is for more details on Hancock Whitney’s ongoing work with female leaders and to share your own favorite “She Is” story.