Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to Los Angeles winning the 2028 Olympic Games bid.
I think it is really fascinating to see how we evolve as leaders throughout our careers. We learn to mold ourselves into these positions as we move up the ladder. We learn to paint the vision and communicate why our organizations exist. But I think one of the most powerful traits that the best leaders inherently learn (or maybe their born with), is the ability to connect with people at all levels, ability to work their tail off and be a voice for the whole.
As such, I couldn't have asked for a better person to interview than Renata Simril, President and CEO of the LA84 Foundation.
LA84 Foundation President Renata Simril holding the face of what at the time was the LA 2024 brand. Photo cred: LA 2028
LET'S SET THE SCENE
Bottom line: Renata's vast experience of working in civil service, the sports industry and a major news publication elevated her to paving a new way for the LA84 Foundation and its involvement with the 2028 Olympics.
In this interview, we cover:
- How to manage a foundation to leave a lasting impact and event legacy.
- Stepping into a predecessor's shoes (and how to not step on toes).
- How to elevate an established brand without compromising its original mission.
- Leadership lessons from the top (spoiler alert: she still gets butterflies speaking publicly).
Renata has grabbed her career by the (basket)balls with a deeds not words mentality. And it's led her to what she claims is the best job in America.
Renata Simril helping to carry the LA84 Olympic Legacy into the future. Photo Cred: LA84 Foundation
So do you mind if we just jump in?
Jump in. I've got my bathing suit on.
I love it. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Carson, in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. I am a third-generation Angeleno.
Nice and big family, small family?
I have two sisters and a brother. Relatively small family.
What was 15 year old Renata like?
That's a great question. People who know me are going to find this surprising, but I was actually very quiet and shy. I road the bus 45 minutes to a private school and my husband would walk to the back of the bus right past me. We started dating when I was 15.
Renata with husband, Ken Simril, at Super Bowl 50. Renata is a huge football fan, too. Photo cred: Renata Simril
Yes way. We have been married 19 years. He actually worked the '84 Olympic games and here I am—the steward of the LA84 Foundation.
Renata's husband, Ken, taking center stage at the '84 Olympics. Photo cred: Renata Simril
Where did you end up going to college?
I went to the military first after high school. Then I went to Loyola Marymount University for college and USC for grad school.
Fast forward to today. If we're hanging out with your friends and they're a little tipsy, how would they describe you?
They would describe me as very serious. I always had my hair back in a bun because I didn't have time to do my hair. I was about the work and getting shit done.
That's sort of a running joke with my colleagues. I'm very focused on success and giving back. My friends would say, "That's Renata, just getting shit done and making stuff happen."
If you were a piece of event equipment, what would you be and why?
I'd be a camera to capture the quiet moments. I really like the stories behind events and the meaning behind reaching the pinnacle of success. I think the camera has the opportunity to capture those moments that can be recorded in your mind forever.
Simone Biles and her mom. Photo cred: Success Story
If you could work on any event in the world, what would it be?
The Super Bowl that's coming to LA in 2022, without question. I am a huge football fan. Always have been. On Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays, I'm in front of the TV watching the games.
I went to Super Bowl 50 with my husband and it's an incredible event to be part of. It's just gotten so much bigger. It'd be a fun event to work for a week.
I'm curious, were you in LA for the '84 Olympics?
Is there one image that sticks in your mind? I'm sure there's thousands.
Yes, there's one. Rafer Johnson walking up the stairs to light the rings and cauldron. He's sort of ascending as a god, so reminiscent to where the Olympics began. Then he pauses for minute and puts the torch to the bottom of the rings. I thought that was such a magical moment. It sticks into my mind to this day. And now I get to work with him, how crazy is that?
Rafer Johnson setting the rings ablaze in the 1984 Olympics.
That is crazy. What was your initial reaction when the position with the LA84 Foundation came across your desk?
My first reaction was, "You want me to what?" I was in complete disbelief.
My second reaction was excitement. The position description fit me so well. I'm a third generation Angeleno, so I knew about the LA84 Foundation. This foundation has had a huge impact on the Olympic games legacy. I aspired to be in the Olympics even though my athletic career ended in high school. This is an opportunity to still be a part of this community.
LA84 Foundation serves the greater Los Angeles community with youth sports programs. Photo cred: LA84 Foundation
Being able to step in after the amazing accomplishments former CEO Anita DeFrantz was able to achieve has been a symbolic passing of the torch. When I was voted as next president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, I got emotional. I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing right now. I have the best job in America.
Wow! I'm curious, what example do you think other cities can take from the '84 Olympics and the LA84 Foundation?
It's not rocket science. As I've heard the story, [Hollywood talent agent] Lew Wasserman said, "Hey, wait a minute, we can actually invest these dollars into the market. We can maintain the corpus and invest the income back into the communities." And 32 years later, he was absolutely correct. That is the guiding principle under which we operate. Investing money in the market, keeping your corpus whole and using investment income really helps to make sure you're sustaining the investment in the communities who need them the most.
Youth sports programs from LA84 Foundation help kids come out of their shell. Photo cred: LA84 Foundation
It seems like a model that could definitely be replicated even for non-Olympics events.
Absolutely. The Games in Salt Lake City have a foundation to maintain the Olympic venues and keep them open for public use.
There was about a $40 million surplus from the Los Angeles World Cup. Those funds went to start the US Soccer Foundation, which provides soccer training and new pitches throughout the United States.
Now that the city is vying for the Olympics, what is the role that the LA84 Foundation plays?
My focus here has been renewing our vision, mission and strategic framework to be relevant to the next generation. Call it the 'Road to 2028' for my organization. We partner with LA 2024 to show the legacy that Olympics can leave on a city. Eighty-eight percent of Los Angeles residents support the Olympic games, in part because of our existence as a foundation. We fund over 2,200 non-profit organizations, impacting over three million kids and their families, and train 75,000+ coaches.
Photo cred: LA84 Foundation
Say you're awarded the games this fall, what happens immediately after that?
For the LA84 Foundation, we're going to keep doing what we're doing, win or lose. We're going to continue to invest in communities to give them access to sports.
It's a way for us to preserve the Olympic values and ideals to inspire the next generation to watch and perhaps become Olympic athletes themselves.
What's been the funnest part of this bid process for you?
The funnest part has been getting to know the Olympic athletes on a casual level. To meet and work with Janet Evans, Angela Ruggiero—five time Olympian in hockey, Allyson Felix, the three-time track and field world champion. It's so surreal. These are Olympic legends and they know me by first name. It's been an absolute treat.
From L-R: Renata Simril, Angela Ruggiero, Candace Cable, Anita DeFrantz, and Janet Evans. Photo cred: LA 2028
What is one leadership lesson you've picked up in your career?
When I worked for the Los Angeles Times, my former boss Austin Beutner told me that I get shit done. His running joke is, "I wanted her title to be, 'Get Shit Done Girl,' but that was a little long on the business card," so we settled on the Chief of Staff. I'm about purposeful movement, deeds not words. I move at a very deliberate and intentional pace because I see the purpose with the work that we're doing. That's definitely something I've picked up in my career.
With the LA84 Foundation, I'm picking up an amazing legacy from Anita DeFrantz after 28 years of service. As most leaders of organizations who come on after that length of service, being able to be patient and understand the legacy and work that we do is really important.
From L-R: Herb Wesson, Renata Simril, Anita DeFrantz and Mark Ridley-Thomas. Photo cred: LA Sentinel
In your work life, are you insecure about anything?
Damn, are you channeling your inner Oprah?
I might've picked up a few things. But we all have insecurity, so I figure, why not?
I'm insecure about public speaking. But as I've taken on leadership positions in my career, particularly here, it's a big part of what I do. I was just in Chicago last week at the Social Innovation Conference giving a 10 minute TED-like talk on play inequality. No podium, no notes, and there's butterflies and uneasiness in my stomach.
You mean this talk?
LA84 Foundation President at work.
Oh boy. Ha, yeah that's the one!
There's a certain insecurity in terms of being the voice of the organization. My staff cracks up because they're like, "We know you don't like public speaking but you're so good at it."
I can tell you though the most nervous I've ever been. Last year, Casey Wasserman called me up and said, "Hey, Renata do you want to come present with me to the 32 NFL owners for us to bid on the Super Bowl?"
Talk about pressure!
Right?! So, here I am giving a four-minute presentation in front of 32 owners plus their number twos. It was pretty unnerving.
Yeah, well I'm sure your work speaks for itself.
That's what my staff says. Luck favors the prepared. I'm probably my hardest critic, but I hope people have some take away value of what I have to say.
What's the best piece of career advice you've been given?
Your best growth is outside of your comfort zone. Public speaking is truly outside of my comfort zone. I'm Miss Hang-On-to-the-Podium because that's my security blanket. When I look at opportunities that I've been afforded, I became a Deputy Mayor at 35 years old. Being a Deputy Mayor of the second largest city in the country—definitely outside of my comfort zone. Growth happens when you're uncomfortable. And always being intellectually curious and wanting to learn regardless of how far in your career you go or how old you are. Those are two lessons in life that I still adhere to, to this day.
Do you have any parting wisdom for folks working on large scale events?
It's all about engagement. What is the connection that a patron has to an event, and are you providing an experience that keeps them coming back.
Well, this was really amazing. I appreciate the time.
One of the most interesting questions I've had of any interview, so very well done and thank you.
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