During almost 30 years in the motion picture business, Sherry Lansing was involved in the production, marketing, and distribution of more than 200 films, including Academy Award winners Forrest Gump, Braveheart, and Titanic. In 1980, Lansing became the first woman to head a major movie studio when she was appointed president of 20th Century Fox. In 1992, she was named chair and CEO of Paramount Pictures and began a tenure that lasted more than 12 years.
Since embarking on her “third act” as a philanthropist, Lansing has overseen her foundation, which is devoted to cancer research funding, public education, and encore career opportunities for Baby Boomers. In addition, she serves on numerous nonprofit boards and is a co-founder of the Stand Up to Cancer initiative, which has raised over $280 million to fund cancer research “Dream Teams.”
Lansing has served on the board of regents of the University of California since 1999, including two years as chair (2011–13).
How has your career informed your role as a member of the UC Board of Regents?
Throughout my career in the movie industry, I encouraged collaboration. I listened to everyone and did my best to bring all parties together. I am a firm believer in empowering department heads to manage their divisions and brought that mindset to my role as chair of the regents, encouraging everyone to think of big, outside-the-box ideas. I strove for consensus. Over the past two years, we have been very active during an extremely challenging period financially, yet we always put student welfare ahead of personal ideologies. A good example is our endorsement of Governor Brown’s successful ballot initiative, Proposition 30, which raised taxes on wealthier Californians to help preserve UC funding. As a result, undergraduate tuition should not increase for at least the next couple of years.
Education is a key mission of the Sherry Lansing Foundation. Why is it so important?
After graduating from Northwestern University in 1966, I moved to Los Angeles and worked as a math teacher at public schools in South Central and East L.A. I have always thought of myself as a teacher, even viewing the movie business as simply a larger classroom. Many of the movies that I supervised or produced reflect that philosophy, including The China Syndrome, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Verdict, The Accused, and School Ties.
Now, I’ve come full circle, as many of my foundation’s initiatives are tied to education. For example, the EnCorps Teachers Program retrains science, technology, engineering, and math professionals to serve as science and math teachers in underserved California public schools. I am especially pleased that many EnCorps teachers are now receiving certification through a partnership with UCLA Extension. Another program, PrimeTime LAUSD, recruits highly qualified retired professionals from all disciplines to serve as volunteer mentors in Los Angeles public-school classrooms.
How can education lead students today, especially women and minorities, to professional success?
Everything starts with education. Education provides the foundation and the skills needed to pursue and excel in an increasingly competitive global workforce.
I always encourage students and young professionals to find their passion and pursue their dreams. It is essential to fully commit to every task, to accept responsibility, and to develop one’s own style. In addition, success comes from being in the moment and enjoying the process. I have also found it invaluable to embrace change and to not be afraid of failure. One of my mentors taught me that success is not built on success, but rather on failure, frustration, and, sometimes, even catastrophe. You learn from these experiences, then pick yourself up and begin again. Resilience is crucial to achieving one’s goals.
What’s next for you?
More of the same. I will continue to focus on my three passions: raising funds for cancer research, improving public education, and expanding encore career opportunities for Baby Boomers. I have never felt more energized or fulfilled. This is truly the most rewarding period of my life, and I feel incredibly grateful.