Russ Pillar has an infectious passion for his family and for life. His excitement — about food, sports, his kids, a new business opportunity — pulls you into his orbit in the best way. Russ and I became friends in 2008, while we both served on the board of environmental nonprofit Heal the Bay. But we had actually “met” a year before that, when Russ ran in the 10K that I owned, and I gave him a special low number reserved for Heal the Bay supporters and friends. He and I clicked immediately, and soon after getting to know each other Russ led the purchase of the Los Angeles Marathon. He asked me to join him there as the CMO. So in the span of three months, Russ became a close friend, a colleague and my boss. Our time together rebuilding the marathon was professionally one of the most exciting chapters of my career, and the most fun. We successfully rebuilt the event around the mission of inspiring athletes and connecting communities, and we both learned firsthand how important it is for an organization to stand for something. Since that time, we’ve collaborated on several other businesses, and we’re closer friends than ever. We try and run, hike, ski or ride bikes when we can, and our time spent outdoors together provides a background for our most productive conversations.
Prior to the LA Marathon Russ was the head of well known and important consumer brands, including the Virgin Entertainment Group, Prodigy Internet, and the Viacom Digital Media Group. More recently, he founded Reigning Champs, a profit+purpose business that is the world’s largest path-to-college company for student athletes. Russ is the Executive Chairman there, and they’ve helped place nearly 100,000 student-athletes in college while providing $23 million in free college prep services to students most in need. It makes me happy that he took the time to answer my questions about the pandemic.
1. Give me some highlights and lowlights from your first two months in lockdown mode
I’m an optimist by nature, but the disruption to routine and new sense of normal that this pandemic caused really threw me at first. My initial thought went to family and how best to protect them, especially with my eldest son living overseas when things broke; then to friends and colleagues; and then to my wider community. Our youngest son just graduated from high school last week and is set to head to college in the fall…assuming that’s something that’s still happening, of course. The uncertainty now surrounding so much of life — especially around mundane things that I previously may have taken for granted — is taxing and can get exhausting. But we are among the fortunate ones: I have several close friends who have suffered terribly from this virus. Our inconveniences and stresses pale in comparison.
Once my family and I all were in the same place and safe, the upside of sheltering together quickly became clear. I reconnected on a deeper, more meaningful level with a variety of friends from different points in my life. Even better, my wife and I have the unexpected, repeatedly joyful opportunity to share long, lingering dinners with our 18-year-old and 21-year-old sons. Sometimes our dinner conversation is deep and interesting; sometimes it’s not. Regardless, I cherish every minute that the four of us get to spend together.
2. How have you grown personally and professionally during this disruption?
Ten weeks in, with all I can see I’ve accomplished now behind me, I still feel like I’m just on the cusp of real personal growth. As someone who’s always prioritized the health, well-being, and happiness of others, it’s taken me some time to get to a place where I can focus on my own needs. Having dear friends (like you, Peter!) who remind me to stay balanced certainly has helped. But I also know that I can swing on a pendulum: I ran three marathons last year, for instance, but since this pandemic started I’ve found it challenging to lace up my running shoes and string together even a paltry 6 mile training run. And yet, I’ve found other ways to stay healthy and sane, with emotional growth around kindness, forgiveness, and living in the moment. All of that — combined with the slightly used hardtail mountain bike I recently acquired and subsequently fell in love with — has me headed in the right direction now.
On the professional front, I admit initially to having felt rather inadequate. It seemed to me that if I didn’t start to program in a new computer language, learn to speak a new foreign language, or read a previously impenetrable novel, I somehow wasn’t living up to my potential. That’s where forgiveness came in (truth be told, I’m sure War and Peace is amazing; I just find it hard to crack).
The more I relaxed, the more I realized I was, indeed, accomplishing quite a bit: I joined the Board of Directors of the Ocean Institute, an organization run by a friend with an environmental education and opportunity democratization mission important to me; I helped another friend organize a new non-profit that works with the United Nations to create learning opportunities around global sustainability goals for the world’s youth; and I worked with a third friend to help her shore-up a non-profit that provides for those suffering from food insecurity in my own greater neighborhood. I also began advising the CEOs at two start-ups in a space with which I was rather unfamiliar, requiring me to learn about an entirely new set of participants, rules, and opportunities, forcing me to raise my game and sharpen my proverbial tools. And all of that was on top of continuing to carry out the various responsibilities of my day job. In short, the more I relaxed and let go, the more productive and in-the-flow I became. It’s been quite fulfilling, but I admit to coming to that clarity and comfort only in hindsight.
3. Has your relationship with your family and your community changed because of the pandemic?
I have a younger brother and younger sister with whom I’ve always been close. During the pandemic, the three of us have taken to getting on the phone at the same time, with predictable hilarity ensuing from our reliving a lifetime of shared experiences. Dinners with my wife and our two sons have solidified a foundation of love, common interest, and growth, too, ones that we’d already developed, but perhaps not to the current extent. And a stream of calls and messages with longtime friends both near and far has helped me stay grounded and has fueled my optimism.
On the community front, my involvement with the three non-profits I mentioned really has deepened my belief in the 17th century poet John Donne’s timeless wisdom, that “no man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” It’s not only a lesson worth reinforcing at my age, but it’s one I want my sons to appreciate as they’re beginning their respective journeys into adulthood, too.
4. Can sports create positive change in the world during a crisis, even now when many of them are canceled? If so, how?
Sport — both participatory and as a fan, vocationally and avocationally — is an integral part of who I am. And while most of us won’t be towing the line at a summertime 10K or jostling for position at an organized gravel bike ride anytime soon, we still can train and dream and encourage friends and strangers alike to harness what I call “the transformational power of sport” to change their lives.
Sport on television provides relief, too. Although I admit initially to being spooked by the echo of an empty and cavernous Bundesliga stadium watching the resumption of play earlier this week, I am grateful for the distraction. And it needn’t be competition: whether it’s The Last Dance or Lance on television, sport continues to provide us with life lessons — of personal trial, team commitment, striving, failure, recovery, and achievement — that only sport can provide.
If history and this current dislocation has taught us anything, it’s that the greatest human trait may be resiliency. Optimist that I am, I am hopeful that those who are fortunate enough to avoid or recover from this illness will emerge stronger, wiser, more thoughtful, more grateful, and better prepared for life in the “new normal.” And when we do, our favorite sports will be waiting there for us to watch, to play, to cheer, and to share, pulling us back closer together even as we try to stay six feet apart.