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Rusty Robertson of Stand Up To Cancer: “A true leader makes everyone an important part of the success you are trying to create; You can’t make significant change by yourself”

A true leader makes everyone an important part of the success you are trying to create. A true leader knows that you can’t make significant change by yourself. You must be strong and determined. Anyone who’s willing to stand up for their passion, who dreams of making a positive difference in the world, and who’s […]


A true leader makes everyone an important part of the success you are trying to create. A true leader knows that you can’t make significant change by yourself. You must be strong and determined. Anyone who’s willing to stand up for their passion, who dreams of making a positive difference in the world, and who’s willing to be bold and take action, is a leader in my eyes. Leaders are willing to be innovative and collaborative. You don’t have to run a global corporation to be a leader, you can lead by example wherever you are in your life, just be bold and take action. Every single person can make a difference, and be a leader, and together we can make this world a better place.

As part of my series about social impact heroes, I had the pleasure to interview Rusty Robertson the Co-Founder of Stand Up To Cancer and SU2C Council of Founders and Advisors. Named as one of the Top 100 Marketers by Advertising Age magazine and as one of the most entrepreneurial women in the United States, Rusty Robertson is a founding partner in Robertson Schwartz Agency and the founder of RPR & Associates, which was featured in Success magazine as one of America’s Super 8 companies. She is also a literary agent and award-winning brand marketer, branding hundreds of major corporations and generating over $500 million for her clients and their companies. Rusty and her colleagues at RSA spearhead the marketing, branding, and promotional initiatives for Stand Up To Cancer. She is also a fundraiser and executive leader of the organization. She helped create the Margaret Thatcher Foundation and was instrumental in the launch of the Susan G. Komen Foundation with Nancy Brinker. Rusty lost her mother to lung cancer.

I also had the pleasure to interview Melanie LeGrande. Melanie is the VP of Social Responsibility for Major League Baseball. As the vice president of social responsibility for MLB, Melanie develops and enhances the initiatives that support the league’s position in the community, collaborates with internal departments and key external stakeholders to integrate social considerations into core decision and planning, and provides oversight for MLB’s community investments, nonprofit/NGO partnerships, large-scale disaster relief and employee volunteer engagement. Prior to joining MLB, Melanie was the senior director of corporate responsibility at Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the largest in the country with more than $13 billion in assets under management. In that role, she was responsible for managing strategic community grantmaking, social responsibility programs and employee engagement for a portfolio of corporate partners, in addition to serving as project lead on events on corporate citizenship for clients and other stakeholders. She previously directed the community relations department and charitable foundation of the Baltimore Ravens (National Football League) as well. Melanie earned her B.S. in marketing from Morgan State University and M.S. in Sports Administration from Georgia State University. She is an avid sports fan, enjoys the outdoors, volunteer service and traveling.


Thank you so much for joining us Rusty! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my marketing agency RPR and Associates, in 1988, and it’s been the Robertson Schwartz Agency since 2004. I have always searched to work on things that have a purpose. Helping companies find the right cause, whether it’s fighting cancer, or helping women and how they feel about themselves, has become a calling card for me and my company. And I credit a lot of my success to having a “good gut” about important causes that have value and good opportunity for success.

Over the course of my career, I have worn many hats — teacher, actor, producer and business woman. From being a founding member of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation and helping to develop the Race for the Cure, to discovering talent such as Susan Powter (author of “Stop the Insanity”), there has been a lot of serendipity along the way that ultimately led to becoming a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer.

I feel so fortunate to be a part of this group of extraordinary women who banded together to form SU2C in 2008. Though we all had careers related to the entertainment field, we were also connected by this terrible disease, most of us having lost a loved one to cancer, with several of us facing cancer ourselves. So, from the start, it’s been a very personal mission, for all of us. We knew we had to DO something.

The combination of fierce determination, personal passion and singleness of purpose inspired all of us to take action, and I knew that by coming together, we could make a radical, profound and life-changing impact on how we treat and fight cancer. Creating a new way to engage businesses to support SU2C in the large and consistent numbers we’ve received, in such a short amount of time, was new for me. Not only was changing the culture of cancer research astounding but changing the culture of corporate giving created an extraordinarily impactful new model of philanthropy. It’s been the greatest privilege and experience of my life to be part of this. I look back at the movements I have helped create, and I can’t imagine a more fulfilling career.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned when you first came together with your fellow co-founders to start Stand Up To Cancer?

If you seriously believe in yourself and your mission, people will get the message, and take you seriously in return. You have to be able to keep trying, keep calling, and keep believing, even when you are frustrated and think maybe you can’t do it. That’s exactly when you must get up and keep going! When we started, we were nine women from the entertainment industry, with basically no science or medical background, even though most of us had been involved in cancer organizations. So what business did we have going around saying we were going to end cancer as we know it, right? But we all brought specific expertise and connections to the table. We were formidable because we supported each other. We had never worked with each other, but we had respect and faith in each other and never took our eyes off the mission.

Two of our cofounders were fighting the disease and that was a huge reason why we couldn’t let fear or personal feelings get in the way of succeeding. Famed Hollywood producer and fellow co-founder Laura Ziskin was my muse and my hero!

Can you describe how Stand Up To Cancer is making a significant social impact?

With our focus on innovation and collaboration, we wanted our impact to be nothing less than life-changing. We think it has been and continues to be just that. We’ve changed the way cancer research is done — making collaboration the norm, not the exception, and through our donor campaigns, we’ve also touched hearts and minds. For example, our collaboration with founding donor, Major League Baseball, has been a game-changer. The now iconic SU2C placard moment at the MLB All-Star and World Series games has reached millions of people. Each year, the sight of thousands of fans from all walks of life, standing together, holding signs in support and in memory of loved ones, is such a powerful and emotional moment. Moments like these have a profound social impact, because they’re universally human, and unforgettable. We are fortunate to be able to engage movie studios with our donor campaigns such a Marvel’s last two films with the Avengers, and that has brought us into pop culture and created a unique and new impact for new audiences.

Our impact is also significant in another important way — we’re making tremendous progress on cutting-edge cancer research and treatments, our research contributing to the development of six new cancer treatments approved by the FDA thus far in less than 10 years is history in the making. Not only are we supporting collaborative research in many types of cancer, we are pioneering new models of cancer research such as “cancer interception”… finding cancer at its earliest stages and finding ways to stop its formation or progression. Through these efforts, day by day, we are making the impossible possible.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

There are many fantastic stories about how Stand Up’s therapies have impacted and saved lives, but one woman, Karen Taphorn, has a remarkable story that ties into our MLB placard moment. Karen had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma, and her prognosis was extremely grim. She saw the All-Star game’s placard moment on TV but had never heard of Stand Up To Cancer. She noticed how MLB put Stand Up’s name and logo everywhere on the field during this game and that prompted her to find our website. She was treated on one of our clinical trials and to this day shows no sign of cancer!! It is still hard to believe that we — through a moment in a baseball game — have saved a life! Making everyone diagnosed a long-term survivor is what our mission is all about, but when you actually do this, it’s truly remarkable. And inspiring stories like Karen’s are a vivid reminder of why we’re so grateful for our founding donor, MLB.

Are there things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Cancer affects everyone. The statistics tell us that 1 in 3 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime and approximately 1 in 20 Americans are cancer survivors. Donations and support to help us make all cancer patients long-term survivors are critical, as is the collaboration of our top scientists and researchers so that together they can find new treatments and better yet, prevent cancer. Ultimately, it’s about people coming together as a community — and that means individuals, corporations, organizations, politicians, and anyone and everyone who has been impacted by cancer — to join in and help raise money for research so we have better treatment options and can make everyone a long-term cancer survivor.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A true leader makes everyone an important part of the success you are trying to create. A true leader knows that you can’t make significant change by yourself. You must be strong and determined. Anyone who’s willing to stand up for their passion, who dreams of making a positive difference in the world, and who’s willing to be bold and take action, is a leader in my eyes. Leaders are willing to be innovative and collaborative. You don’t have to run a global corporation to be a leader, you can lead by example wherever you are in your life, just be bold and take action. Every single person can make a difference, and be a leader, and together we can make this world a better place.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”?

1. Be bold!

2. Be nimble. Be ready to change lanes if you need to.

3. Trust your gut and believe in yourself.

4. Surround yourself with people you not only trust but prove to be good at what they do.

5. Don’t just chase a dream, know that you can catch it! Know that there will be days you doubt yourself in every way, but don’t give up, reach for strength and reach out for guidance from those you respect. Persistence is a characteristic to which success invariably surrenders.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I have been fortunate to have helped create three movements in my career that have not only changed behavior but also culture. Having said that, nothing I have ever done is as big and important as Stand Up To Cancer. Being a part of this movement to end cancer is vital to humanity, as it is a scourge that impacts far too many people. We can stop cancer, we must stop cancer.

Ten years ago, I along with 8 other women launched SU2C as a ground-breaking movement to accelerate cancer research. Fueled by non-stop innovation and a never-ending passion to end cancer as we know it, SU2C has changed the way scientists and clinicians work together and collaborate to understand and treat this disease. We have also changed the culture of corporate giving forever as our Stand Up To Cancer donors with their campaigns can, as Ajay Banga, CEO of Mastercard, has said, “do good and do well.” There is still more work to be done, on all fronts, and we won’t stop driving forward until we can make every cancer patient a long-term cancer survivor.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I think about all I have accomplished in my career, this is the quote that continues to be true for me: “You are only as successful as the people you surround yourself with.” With Stand Up To Cancer, which I am the most proud of, these people include our phenomenal inaugural Scientific Leadership, Dr. Phil Sharp, Dr. Arnold Levine and Dr. Bill Nelson, along with our CEO, Dr. Sung Poblete, as well as all of the talented employees at SU2C and RSA, and last but not least, my terrific cofounders. Sue Schwartz, who is also my business partner, Sherry Lansing, Pam Williams, Ellen Ziffren, Lisa Paulsen, Katie Couric, Kathleen Lobb and the late Laura Ziskin and Noreen Fraser. I am so lucky to be surrounded by these wonderful teams of people. They are not only relevant but necessary to our future success.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

As I think of all of the great womenand men that I read about and listen to, I honestly can tell you that there is no one anywhere that I would want to meet who is better than two women I have not only met but who became and are my friends. I have been in awe of Sherry Lansing for so many years, long before Stand Up. To have Sherry as a co-founder is one of the greatest personal gifts I could ever have. To be able to say Sherry Lansing is a friend of mine and one of the best I will ever have is a dream for me. Her guidance, her experiences in business, entertainment, philanthropy, is unrivaled. She is an anchor for SU2C .

Laura Ziskin taught me so much about life, dogged determination, perseverance, creativity, and why we were and are doing this every day. It is what keeps me going with energy and stamina. She passed in 2011 but I hear her voice every day. It keeps me centered. She is still our leader, sometimes even more now than ever before.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

https://www.facebook.com/SU2C

https://twitter.com/SU2C

https://www.instagram.com/su2c

Thank you for joining us Melanie! There are so many causes to support. Can you tell us a bit why MLB decided to support cancer research and SU2C? 

Cancer has affected so many in the Baseball family, from our leadership to our players, staff and fans. Major League Baseball saw the vision and passion of a few amazing women and we were eager to jump on board the movement to bring the best team possible together, across different medical institutions and organizations, in a collaborative way to change lives and realize groundbreaking results.

What specifically has MLB done to make a social impact? 

We saw an opportunity to utilize our sport’s biggest platforms to amplify the Stand Up To Cancer message and to raise awareness in the fight against cancer through the placard moments at the All-Star Game and World Series. It never ceases to amaze how the fans in the ballpark and at home, as well as our players and on-field personnel, are so present and engaged in pausing to honor loved ones who have been affected by this disease. It’s meaningful that we’ve been able to create the space for such a tremendous moment.

Thank you both for your insights! 

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