Meet the film studio executive combating homelessness in Los Angeles
Jim White balances his role as a film studio executive with a passion for helping business leaders understand how they can help address poverty.
Master of Education (Adult Education), 1996
Senior Vice President of Human Resources, Paramount Pictures
In 1994, after attending his first lecture at UTS, HR executive and social advocate Jim White was pulled aside by the faculty Dean, who said to him, “Why are you here? I don’t mean to offend you, but we don’t get many American students here.”
White’s reply? “That’s exactly why I’m here.”
He explains: “I could have applied for Cambridge or gone to Oxford; schools that everybody else goes to. But the fact is UTS has an amazing education program, particularly in terms of diversity and inclusion, and there aren’t many Americans who’ve done it, which means I have very unique, specialised experience.”
At the time, White was Vice President of Human Resources at Blockbuster. He’d been spending time in Australia, assisting with the chain’s local rollout.
In some ways, this was a return to the past for the senior executive, who’d worked behind the counter at a ‘mom and pop’ video store while completing his undergraduate degree in Nebraska in the 1980s.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was one of the few people on the planet who really understood video stores,” he says.
After agreeing to work for Blockbuster in Australia, White took the opportunity to further his education at UTS.
Only do the things you love. If that’s the only thing you look for, you’ll always be happy in your job, your life and everything else.
Some 35 years later, White is still in the entertainment industry. Today, he’s Senior Vice-President of Human Resources at Paramount Pictures, where a background in business — “I evolved my HR skills along the way” — makes him a unique hire.
White assists with restructures and sourcing executive talent, but also acts as a business counsellor, helping senior executives make operational decisions.
The role at Paramount brought him to Los Angeles and, in turn, set him on a mission to combat homelessness.
“I actually ended up living near Skid Row, an area of extreme poverty,” he says. “When I went out in the evening for the first time, there were roughly 2000 people sleeping on the street.”
Today, he represents the entertainment industry on the Business Leaders Task Force, a group that works with various sectors to come up with housing solutions.
Over the past decade, it’s helped house thousands of LA residents.
White sits on several boards and undertakes pro bono HR work, but he says the task force, with its unique take on poverty, has been the most effective.
“We look at how homelessness impacts businesses from a monetary perspective,” he says.
“We’re not saying the humanitarian part isn’t important, but we’re getting business leaders to understand that, as taxpayers, we pay for this anyway — and the way we’re currently spending that money isn’t smart.”
Jim White is the recipient of the 2019 UTS International Alumni Award.
ROLE MODEL: “My mother, Florence White. She was a Polish/American immigrant born in 1932. Even with all the challenges she went through, her whole outlook was about helping others.”
SECRET SKILL: Fitting it all in. “I don’t wear a watch. When you don’t worry about time, things just happen.”
Q&A: Jim on leading positive change
What’s your best career advice?
“I tell people, ‘Only do the things you love.’ If that’s the only thing you look for, you’ll always be happy in your job, your life and everything else.”
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career?
“Being able to communicate with people who are US-centric just how big, amazing and diverse the world is. People can be myopic in their thinking about the world, their job and their lives.”
Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self?
“I didn’t fully understand the potential of the skills I’d obtained at the video store. Everything we do in life is important, and we never know how what we’re learning today will be valuable in the future.”