James Pitaro ’91 focuses on the everyday magic of Disney
James Pitaro ’91 chairman of Disney Consumer Products and Interactive Media (DCPI), is a man on a mission.
“At DCPI, it’s our mission to bring the magic of Disney into the daily lives of families and fans around the world,” said Pitaro, who oversees the The Walt Disney Company’s creation of physical and digital experiences across more than 100 categories.
“We’re [Disney] fans’ everyday connection to their favorite stories and characters, which is a huge responsibility and honor.”
That honor, and indeed DCPI’s function, is to bring to life the characters and stories of four iconic brands – Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel – serving as the world’s largest licensing business across toys, apparel and home goods; a leading children’s book publisher; a robust digital game slate including mobile and console experiences; 300-plus Disney Store locations around the world; and a digital network that reaches 1 billion people.
Pitaro’s journey to Disney all started at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology.
“Between the opportunity to play football and the incredible academics, there really was no question,” said Pitaro, who reminisced about falling in love with Cornell during the football recruiting process. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated, but was really attracted to the variety of academic options at Cornell.”
“I knew I would get all the benefits of a medium to large university, but also have the intimacy I was so accustomed to from high school through the College of Human Ecology – and I was right,” he added. “I formed some very close relationships with my teachers during my four years and, actually, in my senior year, became a teacher’s assistant within the College.”
During his junior year, Pitaro had a life-changing experience while in the Cornell in Washington program. He interned by day and attended classes by night, including one titled The Holocaust and Jurisprudence.
“After one of the classes, my professor came up to me and said that I’d make a good lawyer,” he recalled. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life at that time, but I really respected and admired this professor and decided right then and there to become a lawyer.”
“Obviously my career has twisted and turned, but I would not be where I am without that moment.”
Upon graduation from Cornell, Pitaro went on to study law at St. John’s Law School in New York City and after receiving his Juris Doctor degree, practiced law at several firms in the city.
Following his wife’s career to the West Coast, he got a job as legal counsel for a start-up called Launch.com. A little over a year later, the start-up was bought by Yahoo! and through the acquisition, Pitaro joined the company, working in business affairs for Yahoo! Media Group.
He was then made general manager of Yahoo! Sports, and as a sports fan and someone who was looking to run a business, Pitaro says it was a dream opportunity.
“Then, in 2010, Sheryl Sandberg, who is on Disney’s board, recommended I meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger about an opening leading what was then the Disney Interactive Media Group,” Pitaro said. “I met with Bob and I quickly knew I wanted to work for him and for Disney.”
Pitaro and his DCPI team are focused on infusing technology into Disney’s physical products and fully leveraging digital experiences to immerse fans into their favorite stories in new ways – something he says is exciting.
This includes new approaches to some of Disney’s longest-running franchises, such as turning Minnie Mouse into a fashion icon, and pioneering in the digital space to bring the new Club Mickey Mouse series to Facebook and creating the BB-8 app enabled droid toy based on the Star Wars character
“Technological change is the most transformative force in the industry,” he said. “Looking ahead, we’re focused on cutting edge tech, like artificial intelligence, machine learning and augmented and virtual reality to create next-generation experiences.”
“Too often, innovation gets confused with technology, but really, innovation is all about mindset, not 1s and 0s,” Pitaro said. “Bob Iger often talks about the most important attributes of an executive and at the top of his list is always curiosity. The point being that it’s not enough to be smart and talented – you have to be curious.”
Decades later, his time at Cornell is something that he still holds close today.
“I have a sign outside my office with advice I received from one of my mentors, and it reads: ‘Work Hard and Be Nice to People,’” Pitaro said. “I was inspired and challenged all the way through Cornell, and there was no cruising. I bring that work ethic with me every day.”