April 2021

Chrysi Philalithes: The power of innovation

“Dialogue not monologue. Empowering not excluding. Participating not promoting. Inspiring not forcing. Innovating not following.”

These 140 characters are ones that marketing and digital entrepreneur, producer and storyteller Chrysi Philalithes (Economics & Politics with North American Studies) has chosen to live by all her professional life.

Recognised as one of The Guardian's 'Women To Watch' and on Dell's #Inspire100 list, we caught up with Chrysi ahead of her Leeds Alumni Voices event to find out more about her memories of Leeds, her passion for entrepreneurship and the digital sector, and how she is bringing together culture and innovation to build brands and movements with purpose at their core.

We gain insight into her time as Chief Digital Officer at (RED), partnering with the world’s most iconic brands and activating social media for good to raise millions for the Global Fund.

Thanks for joining us Chrysi. You studied Economics & Politics with North American Studies at Leeds. Take us back to your time studying in the city.

My time at Leeds was incredible and instrumental – seeds were sown that have permeated throughout my life.

I’ve lived in New York for the past 15 years and had the Leeds course not given me the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Toronto, I doubt I would have moved to America.

From learning about the human rights cases before the US Supreme Court to studying the segregated systems of South Africa and India to delving into the philosophical frameworks of Mills and Theroux, my degree seeded my political and purpose-driven work.

And thankfully, I’m still in touch with classmates and many of my closest friends I met at Leeds.

Shout out to my partner in crime on my course Sibi Cole – we bonded playing musical hangman while sitting in the back of a lecture hall in Leeds and during our year out in Toronto, we were London soul girls navigating a North American rock world.

You have consistently been entrepreneurial in your career, launching Internet company Espotting, Europe's first search marketing network, back in 2000. What is it that draws you to creating and establishing new ventures and how do you sustain the energy to repeatedly innovate?

I’m the proud product of immigrant parents. As a first-generation daughter I saw my parents' entrepreneurial endeavours first hand – my mum had her own fashion business – and as with many immigrant families, they came to London determined to build a better life for their family. That meant creating it. From nothing.

Innovation and creativity have been key threads in my career. I’m obsessed with the ever-changing ways people communicate and connect and what the next thing is to help them do that.

In the 90s I felt the Internet was where the future was at. That prompted me to be part of the founding team at Espotting. Even though we started it in the middle of the dot com crash and people thought I was crazy to leave my job in advertising, it was my belief that the Internet was the future that kept me on that path.

“Along with our partners at Nike, we took a crazy idea to Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone to do something that had never been done before and that hasn’t been done since.”

Chrysi Philalithes (Economics & Politics with North American Studies)
Former Chief Digital Office, (RED)

What are the key ingredients to ensuring a new business succeeds?

People. First and foremost. A good idea means nothing if you can’t execute. I believe in building the culture of a brand and business from the inside out. At the end of the day business – like life – is all about relationships.

Focus. Less is more.

Agility. It’s critical that you can pivot and adapt. And to do so with ease – even when it’s far from easy! Espotting was a different business model at first, and we pivoted early on. If we hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been the success it was.

Innovate. I work with artists and entrepreneurs. By their nature they not only see the white space, they create it. Curiosity is key.

Fail quickly. And most importantly, learn from it and keep going.

You spent nearly a decade at (RED) as their first Chief Digital Officer – tell us about your work there partnering with iconic global brands to raise millions for the Global Fund.

(RED)’s founders – Bono and Bobby Shriver – along with a phenomenal woman called Sheila Roche, created something truly magical when they launched (RED). Their intention in partnering with the most iconic brands in the world was, and to quote Bono, “to ask the most creative people in the world to work for the world’s poorest”.

The success of (RED) is down to every single person who buys (RED) and every CEO and brand who’s turned (RED). (RED) operates as a start-up – when I was there there were just 25 of us – and its success is testament to the power of collaborations. I feel very lucky I got the chance to be a small part of it.

I joined (RED) in 2009. The iPhone had been around for less than two years, Twitter and Facebook for around three, so social was still up and coming. Coming from Espotting, I felt social was going to be the next big thing the way search had just been, and I made the strategic decision to put all our chips in social, having never done a social campaign in my life!

Snapchat's first Global Filter for Good after partnering with (RED) - designed by Jimmy Kimmel, Jared Leto and Tiesto

(RED)’s spirit from before I joined was to create unexpected collaborations and never been done before moments. I drew on that spirit to create ‘digital firsts’, and my first big digital partnership was with Twitter.

Along with our partners at Nike, we took a crazy idea to Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone to do something that had never been done before and that hasn’t been done since. On World AIDS Day – 1 December 2009 – when you used #RED the colour of your Tweet changed to red. Over half a million Tweets turned (RED) that day and at the time we had the most retweeted Tweet they’d ever had.

By saying ‘yes’ to our idea, they helped put (RED) on the digital map and it set our path to building and innovating our brand by creating more digital first moments.

We were the first non-profit to reach over 1 million on both Facebook and Twitter, we partnered with Snapchat and created the first Global Filter For Good (pictured above) raising $3 million in one day, thanks to the Gates Foundation, and we turned the Apple App Store (RED) in over 155 countries – twice.

Apple retail stores turn (RED) around the world for World AIDS Day

You mention turning the Apple App Store (RED) – that must have been a real career highlight?

That's an understatement! It was so special for all involved. It’s thanks to Apple and the incredible app developers; their commitment was untrue, giving 100% of the revenue to (RED).

Apple’s creativity, generosity and dedication to (RED) and to the AIDS fight is breath-taking. Apple’s partnership with (RED) began in 2006 and in the last 14 years has led to almost $250 million in donations to fund HIV/AIDS treatment programmes.

When the App Store turned (RED) it was a powerful, first-of-its-kind initiative that built on an already long-standing partnership.

And we had the opportunity to do it – twice! First in 2014 with APPS FOR (RED) and then in 2016 with GAMES FOR (RED) raising millions, reaching millions and introducing (RED) to a whole new generation. Leeds Alumni were in full force with GAMES FOR (RED) – one of the participating games, Best Fiends Forever, was founded by Andrew Stalbow (International History & Politics).

GAMES FOR (RED) in 2016 (left) and the (NIKE)RED partnership (right)

What are some of the projects you’ve been focused on since leaving (RED) that you are really proud of?

I love taking complex subjects – some new to the world, some existing – and finding a way to communicate them clearly to as many people as possible.

To connect it has to be relevant and it has to resonate. At its core, it has to speak truth – I’m always joking that my surname means love of truth so it’s in my DNA! My work is about shifting perspectives and using creativity, culture and innovation to do so.

Since leaving (RED) I’ve worked on a range of projects. From a theatre story-telling tour across eight cities in America for Laurene Powell Jobs’ XQ (whose mission is to transform high schools), to a photography project for Gloria Steinem, to helping create a Tik Tok house to get the Gen Z vote out for the 2020 Presidential election.

I love sitting at that intersection of media, culture, tech and purpose and drawing on all those elements to build brands and bring large-scale projects to life.

I’ve often been told throughout my career that I need to pick a lane and stick to it. I’m refusing to! As people, each and every one of us is multi-faceted. As a society, we are richer creatively when we draw on all those facets.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the digital sector currently?

Trust and truth. In information. In who holds our information. And in one another.

The de-fragmentation of media – that has proliferated with social media – has led to a loss of common touch-points that used to bond us. Across religions. Across political lines.

Now, it’s too easy to demarcate people into groups and to live in those echo chambers that confirm one’s existing views.

As we move and develop in the fields of AI and beyond, we need to build with intention and awareness of how tech is being used both to bring people together and tear them apart.

What advice would you give to our Leeds students looking to pursue a career in the digital sector?

Jump in.

Go with your gut. And trust it.

To hear more insights from Chrysi, join us at her upcoming her Leeds Alumni Voices event ‘The power of innovation and digital firsts: Using creativity, media and tech for good’.