‘You Can Change Lives': Sherry Lansing on the Power of Giving Back

At TheWrap's power women's breakfast, the former Paramount CEO exhorts some of Hollywood’s most powerful women to get behind philanthropy

“Philanthropy is like the movie business,” says Sherry Lansing. “If you have a good idea and you’re passionate about it, you just keep going and make it work.”

That’s what the former Paramount CEO told some of Hollywood’s most influential women Friday morning at TheWrap’s second annual power women's breakfast, this one themed, “The Power of Giving Back.”

“In sisterhood,” said TheWrap's Editor-in-Chief Sharon Waxman to applause in her opening remarks, “there is strength.”

Certainly there was insight and inspiration as Lansing (pictured at left with Waxman; all photos by Jonathan Alcorn), who formed her own philanthropic Foundation in 2005,  was joined on the panel by Dress for Success founder and DoSomething.org CEO Nancy Lublin and author and organ donor advocate Sue Whitman.

“Each and everyone of you has an idea,” Lansing, whose Stand Up To Cancer organization has raised $200 million for cancer research and awareness since 2008, told the breakfast of assembled agents, studio execs and producers. “Each and everyone of you can give of your time and show up and change lives.”

The breakfast, in the sun-drenched dining room of Brentwood's Tavern restaurant, saw serious Hollywood muscle with not just Lansing, the first woman to head a Hollywood studio, but also Universal Pictures President of Production Debbie Liebling, producer Paula Wagner, “Conviction” screenwriter Pamela Grey and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, among others, in attendance.

The event was sponsored by Tavern and the L.A.-based fashion house, Johnny Was, with participation by LuLu Lemon.

Amid the networking and coffee common to such top-flight industry gatherings, there was also another type of serious business at hand — how to make it all work, both in life and giving.

Asked by Waxman how she managed philanthropy, life and work both back when she ran Paramount from 1995 to 2004, Lansing poignantly answered, “If you care, you find the time for your work, your children, and your husband — you just find the time.”

Still, even with her poised message, the former studio executive and University of California regent didn’t try to sugar-coat the hard position a lot of philanthropy finds itself in during these tight economic times. “It is harder right now to raise money. You have to be focused in who's giving and what you are asking for, Lansing said. “But philanthropy isn’t just about giving money — though that’s good — it’s about getting involved.”

Certainly both Lublin and Whitman (pictured above right) were in agreement. After having started Dress for Success with a small inheritance she got while in law school, Lublin now serves as the CEO of DoSomething.org, the organization started by former “Melrose Place” star Andrew Shue to motivate youth to get involved with social causes. “If I could make this happen,” she said, “you can make anything happen.”

Lublin, who like Lansing emphasized how the skills of the commercial world and their not-for-profit work are very similar, also laid out her straightforward strategy for creating a success organization. She has just published “Zilch,” a book that espouses not-for-profit principles to do for-profit business.

<< Titles – “Titles are cheap and a great incentive in a not-for-profit environment.”

<< Don’t Silo – Keep people out in the open and in the “high friction” mix.

<< Don’t Spend on Consultants – “The best ideas come from your own people.” Open up to the people who actually live and love what you do.

Whitman, author of the recently released “The Match: Complete Strangers, a Miracle Face Transplant, Two Lives Transformed,” brought many in the crowd to near tears with the story of her husband Joe Helfgot’s death and organ donation. “To save a life from a life is tough but required,” Whitman said.

Lansing nodded in agreement and added to the point later during a Q&A with the audience.

“A ‘no’ is an opportunity to turn it into a ‘yes,” she knowingly said. “It’s not personal.”

But, as Friday’s breakfast revealed, sometimes it is.