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Lead Balloon Ep. 21 - Hip-Hop Mogul Russell Simmons Hijacks the Mainstage at LinkedIn's Sales Summit


When the co-founder of Def Jam Records goes off in front of a live audience, LinkedIn emcee Justin Shriber tries to save face.


When Justin Shriber was the Vice President of Marketing for LinkedIn Sales and Marketing Solutions, he was charged with emceeing the social media juggernaut's Sales Leaders Summit mainstage.

And with hip-hop legend and business magnate Russell Simmons lined up to serve as headliner, the hall was packed with people eager to hear Simmons's stories from the early days of hip-hop and his entrepreneurial awakening.


Instead, what they got was a strange tirade from an uncooperative guest in front of an increasingly uncomfortable live audience, made even stranger by the fact that, within a few months, Russell Simmons would flee the country to escape criminal prosecution for a string of assault charges.


These days, Justin is the Chief Marketing Officer at People.ai, an AI automation sales and CRM solutions provider. But in this episode, he looks back on this morality tale about the dangers of influencer marketing, relives the longest 45 minutes of his career, and recounts the lessons that he learned about planning a live event and relying on an unreliable celebrity.


You can watch Justin's on-stage dance with Shaq right here.


These two YouTube Videos were instrumental in researching this episode.



Transcript


Dusty Weis:

Stop me if you've heard this one before. A colleague in PR and marketing is talking about a time when they got to work with some big name celebrity. And they use the phrase, they were just so normal. He was just a regular guy. She was just like talking to any other person.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, the unspoken reason that we feel obligated to comment on the banality of these celebrity encounters is because the far more widely told tales of run-ins with famous folks are pretty weird. For me it's a half hour sit down that I had with legendary trash-talk television host Jerry Springer in 2008, which I have to say wasn't unpleasant in any way.


Dusty Weis:

He was super nice guy, but he was on tour with a series of political lectures that he was giving at the time, and it just was weird.


Jerry Springer:

Barack Obama is incredibly charismatic and it's hard not to notice that. It's like when you're in college and a beautiful woman walks into the room, the first thing that hits your mind is wow boy, is she attractive.


Dusty Weis:

Uncomfortable nonsequitors aside, listening back to that interview, I'm reminded that before Jerry Springer was instigating fights between baby daddies on daytime television, he actually had a short-lived political career. Even served as mayor of Cincinnati for a time.


Dusty Weis:

He knows a thing or two about politics, and I'd say that he even had some insights to share, but it was also unforgettably weird. For 30 minutes, he didn't want to be Jerry Springer, the king of sleaze. He wanted very badly to be Jerry Springer, political pundit. But as surreal as it was, again, it wasn't bad.


Dusty Weis:

When I asked him about his TV show, he didn't get mad or yell at me. No one hit me with a chair. He was cooperative and cordial, and that's more than today's guest can say about a public encounter he had with another celebrity of questionable character, Russell Simmons, entrepreneur, entertainment mogul, and co-founder of Def Jam Records.


Dusty Weis:

In many circles, he's known as the godfather of hip hop and Justin Shriber had to interview Russell Simmons on stage in front of a room full of people.


Justin Shriber:

I find myself in the middle of a diatribe of Russell talking about government conspiracies. They had nothing to do with the topic at hand. And I was just holding on for dear life, trying to make sure I didn't get thrown out of the rollercoaster car.


Dusty Weis:

At the time, Justin was the vice president of marketing for LinkedIn, the sales and marketing solutions division. They were hosting a conference and had hoped that Russell Simmons would serve as headliner, regaling them with stories of the early days of hiphop and his entrepreneurial awakenings.


Dusty Weis:

Instead what they got, is a strange tirade from an uncooperative guest in front of an increasingly uncomfortable live audience. Made even stranger by the fact that within a few months, Russell Simmons would flee the country to escape criminal prosecution for a string of assault charges. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR marketing and branding disasters and the well-meaning communications professionals who live them. Thanks for tuning in. Please make sure you're subscribed to this show. If you listen to the show on Apple Podcasts, for instance, just hit the search button on, punch in Lead Balloon, click our logo and mash that subscribe.


Dusty Weis:

By the way, if you stick around to the end of this episode, I'll play a little bit more of that Jerry Springer interview from 2008. I assure you it gets weirder. So especially with the current rise in prominence of influencer marketing, celebrities and micro celebrities are playing a greater role in strategic communication these days, but it's a double edged sword.


Dusty Weis:

Bringing in an outsider with a huge following can boost your brand, or it can backfire entirely. If we're lucky, these uncomfortable situations play out behind the scenes or are averted entirely in the planning process. But if you're unlucky, a hiphop mogul hijacks your main event to talk about conspiracy theories, yogic breathing, and highly charged political stances.


Dusty Weis:

Such as the case with Justin Shriber who joins us now. Justin is the chief marketing officer at People.ai, an AI automation, sales and CRM solutions provider. Previously, he served as LinkedIn sales and marketing solutions vice president of marketing, as well as regional vice president at Oracle.


Dusty Weis:

You can hear from him regularly on the Legends of Sales and Marketing podcast, where he interviews executives from throughout the business world. So Justin Shriber, thanks for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Justin Shriber:

Dusty, it's great to be here.


Dusty Weis:

Appreciate your making the time. Justin you've charted an interesting course in your career throughout Silicon valley. Serving as a marketing executive in that world very often requires a person to play a very visible thought leadership role, often interacting publicly with a number of prominent people.


Dusty Weis:

And as anyone who's ever worked the celebrity interview circuit will tell you, sometimes the best laid plans are no match for the personality of the person that you're trying to interview. Tell me about this event that you were hosting. This was the LinkedIn Sales Leader Summit. It's an annual event. How many people... Who comes out for this? What do they do and learn about? And what's your role?


Justin Shriber:

Yeah, this was the big user conference that LinkedIn sales navigator hosted every year. And our focus was always obviously to deliver value to our customers, talk a little bit about some of the state-of-the-art in B2B sales. We'd pull in our product and talk about new product announcements. We also though wanted to pull in a guest speaker that could really expand the conversation and get people thinking a little bit differently about the world of sales.


Dusty Weis:

So who are some of the other headlines who have filled this role that Russell Simmons came to fill for you in the past at this event?


Justin Shriber:

Believe it or not a few years before we had hosted Shaquille O'Neil, who was absolutely phenomenal. Obviously we think of Shaquille as the great basketball player. He's a very savvy business person though. And so he came, we were down in Vegas and he came and did a fireside chat with me. And actually at one moment I found myself doing the whip nay nay up on the stage with Shaq.


Dusty Weis:

Rest assured, I was not going to miss the opportunity to view that spectacle on YouTube. And for you faithful listener, I've put a Shaq and Justin doing the nay nay link in the episode description. Oh, that was not a good song... "Stanky leg...."


Justin Shriber:

I was no match for the big man, so I quickly sat down. And then the culminating moment, we actually called someone out of the audience and had a free throw contest. The way that we set it up is every free throw that the guests made, LinkedIn and Shaq donated to one of Shaq's charities that he supported.


Justin Shriber:

We had an absolute blast and Shaquille O'Neal was a fabulous guest. I think, as he was in basketball no pun intended, but a student of the game, sat down and really wanted to understand the audience, how he could connect with them, put a lot of preparation into it.


Justin Shriber:

And as one of the initial experiences that I had with a celebrity, I was like, wow, this is great. So easy to work with. We've got to do this again sometime. And I was looking forward to bringing in some other celebrities on in future years.


Dusty Weis:

You start to figure, oh yeah, they're all going to be like this. And of course, very often at an event like this, you've got a lot of things going on, but you've got the main event. And so your Shaquille O'Neal's, your Russell Simmons.


Dusty Weis:

You're looking for a buzz-worthy headliner that ties tangentially to the topics on the agenda, but really stands out in their own right as a draw for the people who are on the fence about attending. What was it about Russell Simmons that made you say, oh, this is the guy. He's going to be a great fit for this?


Justin Shriber:

Well, we thought Russell would be a home run. He's really the father of modern hiphop. And we know him obviously as the founder of Def Jam Records, he discovered instrumental and run DMC's, phenomenal success. Discovered the Beastie Boys, but beyond that, he is a very savvy business person as well. He's launched a number of different brands and he's built these brands into nationally and globally recognized entities.


Russell Simmons:

Let me get a big gold medallion with diamonds on it said Rush. That was my nickname, it stuck with me. And I started Rush Productions in college, right? I gave these college parties and then Rush became communications, became the charity, Rush Philanthropic Art Foundation. Became Rush Management, became a lot of Rushes.


Documentary Speaker:

He just held onto this idea and all of a sudden boom the Def Comedy Jam takes off. Now he wants to form a clothing line called Phat Farm.


Justin Shriber:

So we thought, wow, if there's ever someone that is able to see things before anyone else and translate those into a brand and an experience, it's Russell Simmons, we got to get him in here and have him share a little bit of his experience and wisdom.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, a lot of water had run under the bridge since Russell Simmons made his name as a hiphop mogul. Let's see, married a supermodel, became an outspoken vegan and prominent spiritualist. Waded into politics, nasty divorce. And of course, by the time Justin Shriber and LinkedIn invited him to be their headlining speaker at the LinkedIn Sales Leader Summit in 2017, he had written a few books.


Justin Shriber:

In hindsight, if you look at his published books, they kind of tell the story of the arc of his career. I'll just rattle off a couple of those. You can pull these up on Amazon, but his first book that he ever published was called Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money, and God. There's going to be some good stories in that, you can be sure.


Justin Shriber:

Then he gets to Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All. Then Do You, then The Happy Vegan. Something happened at some point and we get a major shift from Super Rich to Happy Vegan. And then just before I interviewed him, he published a book called Success Through Stillness: Meditation Made Simple. So needless to say, Russell's gone through an evolution in his career.


Justin Shriber:

I think I hit him at about that moment when he was kind of shifting into this guru mindset. I remember though the first call that I had, usually we like to jump on and just talk a little bit about what Russell wants to do, what the event's all about and no agenda. It's pretty freeform. So I get on and Russell's got like five people on the call, five members of his team.


Dusty Weis:

You've got the manager, you've got the planner, you've got the style consultant.


Justin Shriber:

The whole nine yards. So I kind of weighed in gradually to the conversation and ask Russell what he wants to talk about. And he kind of says, "Well, we need to talk about meditation. We need to talk about enlightenment." And I was like, "Whoa, whoa, wait a second. What about the Beastie Boys?"


Dusty Weis:

You've got people that are paying to come here and talk. They want to hear about the Beastie Boys. They want to hear about Run DMC.


Justin Shriber:

We want to hear about the moment when you were there and you realized that hiphop was this thing before anybody else did and how you launched the whole thing. And so I'm kind of talking, I'm getting excited and I'm telling him about the event and who's going to be there. And then I pause to get his reaction.


Justin Shriber:

There's no response. And I go, "Well, Russell, what do you think?" And one of his people jumps in and just in a very calm way says, "Russell's no longer on the phone." I said, "Was there a problem? Was it something that I said?" And he said, "Yes, there was. He didn't like what you were saying."


Dusty Weis:

They were just saying this to you all matter of fact, like, oh, this happens all the time.


Justin Shriber:

Yeah, it was kind of like, this is the third time today it's happened. So been here, done that. So I said, "Okay, let's reset. Why don't you guys help me out here? You guys know Russell let's work together. And then when we're all ready to go, we'll bring Russell back to the table." So anyway, we had the conversations.


Justin Shriber:

I thought we got to a good place. Eventually we got Russell back on the phone. He seemed more amenable to kind of straddling that world between the visionary business person that he was and this new sense of enlightenment that he had. So I was like, great. So the day of the event, we're in San Francisco and we're at LinkedIn headquarters. We've got a greenroom there.


Justin Shriber:

And so I go into talk to Russell beforehand and Russell's really worked up. He's worked up because apparently he feels like my team had been just a little bit too over the top in terms of making sure he was in the right place and walking him through all of the cues and what was going to happen. And Russell, doesn't like to roll that way.


Justin Shriber:

So he's really agitated behind the scenes and we're about to go on. So I'm like, I'm the emcee of the whole event, and I'm trying to calm Russell down. And I did a lousy job apparently, but finally, I had to go and just get the show started. The idea though was there was this moment in New York, Russell was at this show and there was this artist that he heard, a rap artist.


Justin Shriber:

And he heard this person and he was like, that's the new thing. And so what we were going to do is he was going to come out and actually be doing a live performance of this song that he heard that started it all. And we had all the music cued up and it was going to be phenomenal. So anyway, I'm up on stage and Russell's behind the scenes and his mic goes live.


Justin Shriber:

You can't see him yet because he's off stage, and so we got like 400 people. And all of a sudden Russell just starts cussing a blue streak over the intercom. The doors fly open. I literally think somebody pushed Russell out onto the stage. He comes stumbling out. He's disoriented. I bring him up. And so that's how the interview starts.


Dusty Weis:

I've had interviews start in worse ways than that, but I can't imagine at that point you're sitting there thinking, oh, this is going to go great. As you're standing out on stage, trying to stick to the script and introduce this performance and you hear this cussing start, how's the audience reacting at this point? And how are you keeping it together as a professional? Or are you?


Justin Shriber:

I mean, you're getting all sorts of reactions from people just like, yeah, that's Russell, to some unconscious laughter, to people that are offended. And the job of the MC is to juggle these different dimensions. You've got your guests and you want to make sure that you're putting the spotlight on them.


Justin Shriber:

You really need to bring the audience into the conversation that will break down that fourth wall. And the magic moments happen when there's this point in time where you're in sync with the guests, with the audience, and everybody's together. And what you realize is there's this organic spontaneity that needs to happen. And regardless of how you scripted it, it's going to be what it's going to be.


Justin Shriber:

And so at that point, I'm like, all right, I guess we're doing this. And this is how it's going to roll, so let's just make the most of it. So I bring Russell on and we had a couple of questions that we had prepared in advance. I quickly sifted through and reshuffled and hit him with what I thought was a softball question that could kind of allow us to reset.


Justin Shriber:

And so I asked him a question and it was something about how he was able to see this trend that became a major cultural phenomenon before anyone else did. I mean, how are you going to stumble on that one? Puts him in the spotlight, lets him talk about his thing. And a minute later, I find myself in the middle of a diatribe of Russell talking about government conspiracies and how it's just all a racket.


Justin Shriber:

Now, Russell may have had some points. I'm not making any commentary about his political views. The thing is though, we were not there to talk about government conspiracies. They had nothing to do with the topic at hand. And I struggled question after question to redirect him, and it was almost like I wasn't there.


Justin Shriber:

He was on stage and he was going to talk about what he was going to talk about. And I was just holding on for dear life trying to make sure I didn't get thrown out of the rollercoaster car.


Dusty Weis:

Coming up after the break, Justin Shriber strapped firmly into the Russell Simmons experience, stairs down the barrel of the longest 45 minutes of his professional life.


Justin Shriber:

I also needed to make it very clear that we are completely off script here. The views of this guest are not the view shared by LinkedIn.


Dusty Weis:

That's coming up in a minute. You're on Lead Balloon. This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. If you've never conducted a live interview before, you've probably never thought about how easy it is for the interviewee to make the interviewer's life a living hell.


Dusty Weis:

After all, as the interviewer, your attention is divided between pairing on a conversational dialogue and making sure you present yourself well to an audience who's sitting in silent judgment of every word. Yeah, I'm talking about you. It's the kind of thing that would undermine my confidence and reduce me to a babbling wreck if I ever stopped to think about it.


Dusty Weis:

But I try not to. Having an interview subject who's flustered or nervous will quickly drive a live interview right into the ground. But for then LinkedIn marketing VP, Justin Shriber, he was locked in to an onstage conversation at the LinkedIn Sales Leader Summit with someone who was actively trying to subvert the interview, noted hiphop mogul Russell Simmons, who wanted to talk about anything other than his legendary career. And so things were about to get weird.


Dusty Weis:

When you're in a situation like that, do you think he had decided in his mind that he was going to be uncooperative or is that presuming a level of focus that was just not there at this point?


Justin Shriber:

I think that he had an agenda. He had points that he wanted to deliver. I don't know how conscious he was of trying to preempt the agenda, but I think he did recognize I have a forum here, a platform and I'm going to say the things that I need to say. But what was particularly frustrating is that didn't come out in advance.


Justin Shriber:

We had an agreement and he agreed to it. I guess I should have read between the lines and realized this is not a guy that's going to be scripted, but I missed that.


Dusty Weis:

But I think we can safely assume here that he wasn't showing up at this event to do you a favor, that there was probably a pretty substantial speaker's fee that was in it for him. Was he just ignoring that?


Justin Shriber:

That would be a safe assumption.


Dusty Weis:

Why do you think he was so reticent to cooperate then?


Justin Shriber:

Well, I've actually since then had the opportunity to work with different celebrities and you have a spectrum. On the one end, you've got Shaquille O'Neil who really just is enjoying the moment and find success in having a mind meld with the people that he's working with and kind of creating that synergy.


Justin Shriber:

And then on the other hand, you have a group of people. And let's be honest, you've got an iconoclast that have made their name because they're willing to take conventional norms and just completely throw them out the window. They're the Mavericks and that's what's allowed them to be successful.


Justin Shriber:

And I think in certain cases, unfortunately the fame can go to people's heads and they get to a point where maybe what allowed them to be initially successful, which is challenging the status quo engenders in them a sense of hubris and allows them to actually lose touch with the audience. And so you've really got to be cognizant of who you're working with, where they're coming in.


Justin Shriber:

And I think the big mistake I made is you're not going to change anybody. People are who they are. And you need to accept that. And probably I had enough early warning signals that I should have pulled the plug well before we got up on the stage, because it wasn't working. And I needed to say, hey, you know what? This just doesn't feel like it's the right fit. Let's pursue other options.


Dusty Weis:

If you go back and watch other clips of Russell Simmons from this era, you'll note that this pattern of behavior, this hijacking a well-intended interview and steering it way into the weeds was sort of becoming his MO at this point. Justin tells me that there's no recordings of his interaction with Russell.


Dusty Weis:

And that's a darn shame. Certainly I was unable to find one on the internet. But I did come across this appearance Russell made on AARP's YouTube channel in 2014.


Russell Simmons:

The things on the outside and not anything to do with his soul and his spirit, which is the same, does not change.


AARP Interviewer:

What about your best song, your favorite song?


Russell Simmons:

Favorite thing's kind of limiting because my favorite song could be the song on the radio at the moment. The present moment can be-


AARP Interviewer:

What about your least favorite song?


Russell Simmons:

My least favorite song, I don't have a song.


Dusty Weis:

And around the time that Russell's cell phone rang mid interview...


Russell Simmons:

Over and over and... I shouldn't play old records though. This is an old record.


Dusty Weis:

I imagine that this poor beleaguered interviewer was feeling very similar to how Justin Shriber felt in front of that room full of people at the LinkedIn Sales Leaders Summit.


Russell Simmons:

The unconscious behavior that society promotes, even though the book says dominion over the animals, we abuse 40 billion every year.


Justin Shriber:

What I realized at that point when I didn't have any control over the conversation, it was no longer the goal of simply to channel Russell. He was going to do whatever he was going to do. At that point, I had a responsibility as an executive at LinkedIn to separate the views of the company from Russell. And that was tricky too, because I couldn't make a scene. That would have just inflamed the situation.


Dusty Weis:

You didn't want to provoke him further and get cussed out in front of hundreds of people on stage.


Justin Shriber:

Who knows what would have happened, but I also needed to make it very clear that we are completely off script here. The views of this guest are not the views shared by LinkedIn. And so at that point, I shifted my questioning from trying to tee up discussion points that I thought would lead to a good place to challenging him a little bit on some of the statements that he made.


Justin Shriber:

Not an inflammatory way, but at the same time, I wasn't simply nodding and saying, yes, yes, I see what you're saying there. And while that provoked him a little bit, I was able to control the temperature. And coming out of that, I had a lot of conversations with people and they were like, the best part of that interview was watching you squirm up on the stage and just seeing how you would handle that.


Justin Shriber:

So I figured at that point it was mission accomplished because everybody knew this was a runaway train wreck and it was not what was planned. And fortunately I was able to mitigate the damage done to our company and our business.


Dusty Weis:

You mentioned though that people actually seemed to enjoy that aspect of the interview, and certainly celebrities behaving badly is a genre in and of its own right. Do you think that the entertainment value of that the people that were in attendance received out of having watched that presentation makes the discomfort and unpleasantness for you worthwhile in the end?


Justin Shriber:

Well, it was definitely a moment and I enjoy creating moments. I prefer to do them in other ways, but creating things that people talk about after is an accomplishment. Going back to that point though of you've got three different dimensions that you're juggling, it's the guest, it's yourself and it's the audience.


Justin Shriber:

The other thing I realized is that if I can't bring Russell into this, I can align myself with the guests. And the guests and I can be on the same team and that solidarity can also help me to control the dimension. So one of the things that Russell launched into at one point was a rant against corporate America and business people. And obviously, I've got all these business people out in the audience.


Justin Shriber:

And so I started to poke Russell a little bit and I said, "Russell, I want you to look at this audience. These are the people that you're talking about. And I also want to remind you that it is because of these good people that we were able to pay the bills that got you as a business person to come here from Los Angeles to San Francisco." And that quieted him down a little bit and it got a little bit of a chuckle from the audience.


Justin Shriber:

And at that point, as I felt the audience giving me energy and kind of laughing along with the things that I was saying, I all of a sudden felt like it wasn't me versus Russell. It was 400 of us having a little bit of fun in an uncomfortable situation with this wild card. It was like spontaneity theater back in high school where you're just waiting for the next line to come out and see how you deal with it.


Dusty Weis:

And you made it through the whole 45 minutes?


Justin Shriber:

Yeah, he took the opportunity to use all of his 45 minutes. And then we got towards the end and he said, "I've enjoyed the conversation. And I'd really like to conclude now with a live meditation." Because he'd just come out with his book, Meditation Through Stillness. And I'm thinking to myself, meditation, I don't know what to do.


Justin Shriber:

So I agreed to do it. And I said, "Yeah, let's do a meditation." At least Russell won't be talking during the meditation. So Russell kind of cues it up and it's a pretty standard meditation process. And for those that are used to meditation, this is a very San Francisco technology thing.


Justin Shriber:

I'm probably reinforcing all the stereotypes, but Russell leads this guided meditation. I have no idea how long this is going to go on because he doesn't give us a lot of indicator. So I'm sitting there with my eyes closed. I'm not meditating by the way.


Dusty Weis:

Probably concentrating very, very strongly on how exactly uncomfortable you are in that moment.


Justin Shriber:

And how we're going to land this bird and minimize the damage that we're doing. So I'm sitting there with my eyes closed, all of these thoughts rushing through my head. And Russell's just cool as a cucumber, he's sitting over there and he's in his meditation zone. And eventually I hear a little beep on his phone, which I assume that the meditation was over.


Justin Shriber:

It did, thank goodness. And at that point we ended the interview. He exited the stage fairly innocuously, and that was it.


Dusty Weis:

And just like that, the 45 minute nightmare was over. Without so much as thanks and goodbye, Russell hopped into his limo and headed back to LA, and Justin was left to wonder what people were going to say about the performance.


Justin Shriber:

I actually got a lot of sympathy and I really appreciated that. People were laughing. They were asking what it was like to be up there. They were acknowledging that I was uncomfortable, that it was clear that Russell was coming from a completely different perspective than I was coming from. And I really appreciated that.


Justin Shriber:

I appreciated the support that people showed me, because it was a really hard experience for me. And I also learned that if you show a little bit of vulnerability in moments like that, you don't want to be completely scripted and polished and just roll with it and smile and grin and nod. You need to show some vulnerability.


Justin Shriber:

You need to signal to the audience, this isn't quite going the way that I thought it was going. And I think that humanity that came through is what allowed them to kind of connect and say, boy, I've been in a situation like that. And that's what people would do. I want to share an experience that I had that came to mind when I was watching you up there and in a strange sort of way, there was some good bonding that happened after.


Dusty Weis:

Sort of brothers and sisters in arms as it were.


Justin Shriber:

Exactly.


Dusty Weis:

I feel like very often too we develop an impression of a celebrity when we see them on TV or we follow them on social media, and almost come to feel like we know them personally. And it's easy to forget sometimes that your understanding of who a celebrity is, is really based on a carefully curated PR and branding operation.


Justin Shriber:

I think it's a good point. There is the public persona and then there's the real person. And while this was obviously a difficult situation, I want to acknowledge also that celebrities have a challenge that few of us can relate to. As they're in the public spotlight, they're constantly under scrutiny.


Justin Shriber:

The private moments that we enjoy with our significant others, with our friends, in many cases are destroyed if you're a celebrity. And living in that environment day after day, year after year, it can be taxing. And people deal with that pressure in different ways.


Justin Shriber:

And so I want to acknowledge that Russell and his life, is coming from a completely different background that I'm coming from. And again, that's where I think you've got to read the person and really understand their point of view, their perspective and work with them.


Dusty Weis:

Of course, in the moment, events like this feel like they're happening in a vacuum, but Justin's run-in with Russell Simmons played out against the larger backdrop of the Me Too movement that took off in 2017. It was a historical reckoning where powerful men in the worlds of entertainment and business were called to account for and abusive behavior against women.


Dusty Weis:

And within weeks of his appearance at LinkedIn Sales Leaders Summit Russell Simmons became one of those men. All tallied 20 women came out in the months that followed and accused Simmons of wrongdoing, including accusations of sexual harassment, assault and even rape. A number of the women say that they were under-aged when the incidents occurred.


Dusty Weis:

Russell Simmons stepped down from the leadership roles of his companies and promptly fled to Indonesia where he lives to this day and there is no extradition treaty with the US. He continues to deny any wrongdoing. And Justin Shriber, like a lot of us, was left dumbfounded. Having had this weird encounter with him yourself, how did you react when that news came out?


Justin Shriber:

Well, I'm a big believer in living your life according to a core set of values and those values are the constants that never change. And I have a tremendous amount of respect for someone who while they evolve, you can see a consistent thread running through their life. I think that that is really what sets the foundation for long-term success.


Justin Shriber:

I will say that with Russell, obviously he didn't share any of these things that came out later with me, but there was a lot of shape-shifting, a lot of incongruity with some of the things. And I read his books because I wanted to prepare for the interview. There was an incongruity between some of the things I was reading about in the books that he was sharing as formulas for success in my experience in actually engaging with him.


Justin Shriber:

And that's always a red flag when you've got that inconsistency. So it was, again, a reminder to me that you've got to practice what you preach. And as we've heard so many times, actions speak much louder than words. And in many cases, actions are all unique.


Dusty Weis:

Let's talk more broadly about your experience at LinkedIn. LinkedIn, of course, a major brand, a big player in both the worlds of social media and business. And you got to work there when its star was very much on the rise. How did this experience shape you as a professional?


Justin Shriber:

Linkedin is a phenomenal company on a number of different fronts. One of the things that inspired me most is that it's a very mission driven company. Their focus, and it's what people talk about every day is creating economic opportunity for the world's professionals. That's a lofty vision, but that's also a vision that can change the outcome of the entire planet.


Justin Shriber:

And the other thing that I loved is that there was a culture that was built around that, culture of humanity, of compassion. Not only were we trying to impact all of those professionals out there, but we were trying to run our business in a way that was consistent with that. And so I felt that there was an opportunity for me to take risks, but at the same time have support from the people that surrounded me.


Justin Shriber:

I grew tremendously just in terms of my appreciation for diversity. That's a big emphasis that LinkedIn invest heavily in. And as I got to know and came to understand more deeply the importance of diversity, I found that my professional experience was enriched. I mean, back in the early 2000's, DENI was not a conversation that companies were having, and I worked at some pretty intense companies.


Justin Shriber:

I started off at McKinsey and moved to Siebel and then Oracle. And these companies were very focused on excellence. They were focused on delivering great customer service and great value to customers, but you didn't really hear a lot of discussions around the how. How are we going to do that? What is the culture that we're going to build?


Justin Shriber:

So it was initially surprising for me to join LinkedIn and hear so much discussion, not about just the outcomes, but about how we were going to achieve those outcomes. And in the end, I really related to that. I appreciated that. And it made that time that I spent there, I was there for about five years, one of the great professional experiences that I've had.


Dusty Weis:

And you talked about the commitment to diversity and inclusion as well. And certainly as you've transitioned to your new role as chief marketing officer and people.ai, even just perusing that website, you can see how that company's commitment to diversity and inclusion is on full display. And so I only imagine that you played a role in helping push that as an objective there, but how has that transition to chief marketing officer at people.ai been for you?


Justin Shriber:

It's been a very natural transition. At LinkedIn I had a very large organization that I was responsible for and had the opportunity to see various facets of the marketing business. People.ai, what I love about People.ai, our CEO out of the gate had this vision that at the end of the day it's about unlocking human potential.


Justin Shriber:

At People.ai, our mission is to harness business activity to unlock growth. Unlock growth for our own employees, unlock growth for the customers that we serve, for the partners that we work with. He deliberately chose the name People.ai, because he knew that the key was to be able to focus on the people and somehow tap into the potential that in so many cases is neglected or locked away.


Justin Shriber:

So when I walked into this company and I started talking to the CEO and the CEO laid out this vision and why he named it, People.ai, and the decisions that he had made, I was like, this makes total sense. This is complete alignment with what I want to accomplish. We have a great group of executives that are all committed to bringing out the best in others.


Justin Shriber:

And as I said at LinkedIn, that starts with the way that you treat each other within the workplace, but then it expands to the way that you help your customers and your partners to interact with one another.


Dusty Weis:

One of the thought leadership initiatives that you've championed at People.ai right out the gate is the launch of the Legends in Sales and Marketing podcast. How did that come about? And how has that been for you a valuable tool for the brand?


Justin Shriber:

We were about a year ago starting to host a series of CMO and CRO round tables. These were small groups, 12 to 15 people facilitated by a noted CMO or CRO. And we got great feedback. We continue to run those today. But one of the comments that we heard consistently was, I really appreciated the perspective that the facilitator brought to the table.


Justin Shriber:

I'd love to understand their backstory. Tell me a little bit more about that. And we said, you know, we have access to these CROs and CMOs, let's start a podcast, but let's do it a little differently. Rather than just getting on and talking about the standard business topics, let's get into their past and understand what they were like as kids and teenagers, the experiences that they had that actually shaped who they are today and how they approach business.


Justin Shriber:

I think we all kind of appreciate executives as they exist today, but what I love is that journey. It's inspiration because it persuades us that we all have a unique story to tell. And as we tap into what makes us unique, that becomes a superpower that allows us to achieve great things.


Dusty Weis:

As you dig into the backstory of some of these executives that you interview on the show, what has surprised you the most as you've learned about the lives that these people lived before they became executives?


Justin Shriber:

There is always something exceptional in the childhood of these people. It's different. It's not the same, but there is always something exceptional. I think Jim Steele, he's the president over at Salesforce. He had a paper out as a kid and he decided that just having a paper out wasn't enough.


Justin Shriber:

So he mobilized a whole group of paper delivery boys, and somehow figured out how to create a business around that. So you listen to these stories and you realize that that thing that's made them successful as an adult was actually manifesting itself when they were eight, nine, 10 years old.


Dusty Weis:

Well, speaking as the parent of a loud and precocious three-year-old, that scares the crap out of me to hear that he might be the executive of a major company someday. But tell me what was precocious about Justin Shriber when he was six or seven years old?


Justin Shriber:

As a kid, I had dyslexia. I didn't realize that, but elementary school was really hard for me. And I got used to being in uncomfortable situations. The teacher would ask me to read out loud. I couldn't do it, but I just figured that's what you were supposed to do, so I did it. And I realized that you just have to work hard and do things.


Justin Shriber:

I remember when I was a kid, I was probably about 12 years old maybe 14 years old, I got this device stuck into the top of my mouth because the top of my mouth was too narrow. And every week my mom would give this little device a turn and it would literally get wider and wider until it split the top of my mouth.


Justin Shriber:

It was excruciatingly painful, but I couldn't talk because the mouth cavity was restricted. Well, I had just launched a window washing business at the time. And I was like, I've got to get customers because if I don't get customers, I'm not going to make any money. And I had this device in my mouth, so I couldn't really do the pitch, but I was like, I've got to do it anyway.


Justin Shriber:

So I remember going out on my bike, I had all my window washing gear hooked on my bike. I figured out how to strap it on with bungee cords and inner tubes. And I would go door to door and I would knock on the door and the homeowner would answer. And I would say, "I'm washing windows. I'm in your neighborhood today. Can I wash your windows?"


Justin Shriber:

Well, what it sounded like was [inaudible 00:39:27] I would like to help you with your... Because I couldn't talk. And usually the people would say, "Can you say that again?" And I would say it again. And many of them felt so bad for me that they would just hire me because they were like, man, this guy has a lot of guts to get up and do this. And I wasn't honestly trying to play the sympathy card.


Justin Shriber:

I was thinking I've got to get some jobs. And so regardless if I can't talk, I've got to do it. I think that lesson in many lessons like it though helped me to realize that if you do the very best you can with what you have and you put yourself out there, people will respect that and they will be on your side. And that's kind of what happened with Russell.


Justin Shriber:

I was doing the best I could. I put myself out there. I made myself a little bit vulnerable and maybe there was a little bit of that window washing kid in me that came out on that stage and won the audience over.


Dusty Weis:

I think that's one of the sweetest things that I've heard in a long time. And I like to think that we all carry that little kid around inside us still to this day. And I pity the people that have lost it somehow. But Justin Shriber, the Chief Marketing Officer at People.ai, this has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for sharing your Russell Simmons encounter from earlier last decade. And thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Justin Shriber:

Dusty, I've had a great time. Thanks so much.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for us on this episode of Lead Balloon. Do me a favor, if you get a charge out of this show, pull up the podcast app and hit the share button. Email it to a colleague or friend who might get into it because word of mouth is still the best advertising that there is after.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website podcampmedia.com. Until the next time folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.

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