Jimmy Pitaro at HEAA event

“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,’” says Jimmy Pitaro ‘91, President, ESPN & Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks. “I was inspired and challenged all the way through Cornell, and there was no cruising. I bring that work ethic with me every day.”

Pitaro, who was named ESPN President and Co-Chair, Disney Media Networks, on March 5, shared this and other sage advice during a ‘fireside chat’ with Cornell alumni sponsored by the Alumni Association Board.

Hosted by Lisa Drayer ‘96, an award-winning nutritionist, author, journalist, and television personality, at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York City, the discussion ranged from how Pitaro’s Human Ecology education helped prepare him for his leadership role at ESPN, to insights on risk and disruption from his life and career.

Describing the College of Human Ecology as an ‘oasis,’ Pitaro, a Consumer Economics and Housing major, appreciated the intimate feel of the College that allowed him to study varied topics within a multidisciplinary perspective.

“I had the opportunity to study economics, to study marketing, study sales, take courses of course outside of Human Ecology at Arts and Sciences for example, and just having that foundation was incredibly valuable to me.”

Upon graduation from Cornell, Pitaro studied law at St. John’s Law School in New York City, and went onto practice at several firms in the city. Following his wife’s career to the West Coast, he joined Launch.com – a start-up – as legal counsel. A little over a year later, the business was bought by Yahoo! and through the acquisition, Pitaro joined the company, working in business affairs for Yahoo! Media Group. Pitaro was hired by The Walt Disney Company in 2010 as Co-President, Disney Interactive.

Within his success, Pitaro said hard work is the recurring theme. For recent, or soon to be, Human Ecology graduates, hard work, a little luck, and getting a foot in the door is key.

“Just get going,” he said. “You may want to work at Spotify or get that perfect job at Instagram or whatever it might be, and that’s great if you can get it, but you don’t necessarily have to hold out for that,” he said.

“There comes a certain point when you have to make a decision, so just get your foot in the door, whatever it might be, work hard and be nice to people, and things take care of themselves.”

Pitaro discussed ESPN’s vision towards the future and being a disruptive force in the industry. For alumni in the room who are veterans of the workforce, he argued that being smart and talented can only take you so far, and curiosity is vital in an ever-changing business landscape that has been turned on its head by new technology.

“Instead of being disrupted, disrupt yourself,” he said. “A big part of that is being curious, so I believe it’s not enough to be smart and talented, you have to be curious as well. You have to devour as much as you can, as much information as you can, about your respective industry, and be proactive.”

Pitaro pointed to ESPN and Disney as good examples of organizations that disrupt themselves, embracing change and not resisting it through their broad array of programming and turn to digital applications and other and products.

According to Pitaro, sometimes these ideas succeed and sometimes they do not, but one should not be afraid of failure, but build from it. Recently, this was the case with some of ESPN’s new programming that did not capture the audience originally hoped.

Pitaro said he is okay with trying something new and it not working, but organizations have to learn and move forward in such cases as audience expectations evolve.

“You try new things, you find facts. You looking at the data and say ‘okay, it’s not working.’ You move on and you get better because of it,” he said. “We’re going to continue to try new things, there isn’t going to be a time when ESPN isn’t trying new things.”