Following Your North Star

College alumnus and Disney CEO Bob Chapek discusses his working philosophy.

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For Disney CEO and IU alumnus Bob Chapek (B.S. ’81, Microbiology), it’s all about the North Star. Not Polaris: Chapek’s version is more figurative than the one fixed in the firmament. Still, during his nearly 30 years with The Walt Disney Company, Chapek’s “North Star” has been every bit as trusty a guide.

“Pick a North Star and make sure that’s the highest value you have,” the art and sciences alumnus advises.

As chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Company, Chapek continually must balance the needs of 200,000-plus employees, along with park visitors, Wall Street investors, general consumers, and change-resistant Super Fans.

“When the noise comes in and there’s a lot of different signals and inputs and you have to make a decision, you have to think about what your North Star is,” Chapek says.

Inside Disney’s parks, that means exceeding guest expectations and creating “magical memories that last a lifetime.” He continues, “With lots of different interference and competing priorities, [that being our North Star] really made things easy.”

Well, easier, anyway. Chapek’s held several positions within The Walt Disney Company over the years, including president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment and chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, among others. He officially became CEO in February 2020 — the same month the U.S. announced its first COVID-19 death.

“The first decision I had to make was about three days after I got the job, and that was essentially to close about 80 percent of our businesses, other than our TV networks,” Chapek recalls. “That was very difficult, because that was something that was unprecedented, unheard of.”

“A liberal arts education really prepares you for that elasticity that’s necessary for a career, particularly in media or the creative arts.”
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Grounded in science

At least one pandemic-related decision was a no-brainer: Disneyland Park in southern California would be a mass COVID-19 vaccination site. 

“If there’s one thing we do, it’s handle large numbers of people,” Chapek says. “We’ve got tens of thousands of industrial engineers whose job it is to make sure the flow of people is such that everyone has a good experience. And, if you think about the process that it takes to go through the various steps of getting a vaccination, maybe we can help. They certainly needed a place to distribute it, so we provided it. It was just the right thing to do.”

Chapek speaks to a class at Indiana University Bloomington in 2016, when he returned to campus to accept the College of Arts and Sciences' Distinguished Alumni Award.

Before earning an MBA from Michigan State University, Chapek set his sights on science. He completed his undergraduate degree in microbiology from the College of Arts and Sciences at IU, but the northwestern Indiana native admits he wasn’t as prepared for the rigors of college as he would’ve liked. 

He characterizes “the Region” as a no-nonsense, tough environment — one that indelibly shaped him. “You get what you earn in the Region, and you don’t expect anything beyond what it is that you work hard for,” he says. 

“I went to a high school where not a lot of the students went to college,” Chapek notes. “We had some basic science courses — entry-level physics, entry-level chemistry, biology. But, when I got to IU, I found out that the students that I was competing against were much better prepared.”

Chapek continues, “The idea that I thought I was well-prepared, but I got in and realized I was woefully behind the other students made me sort of suck it up and try to catch up on my own … That was one of my first lessons in grit and determination.”

Breaking away 

Aside from those hard-won lessons, Chapek also came away from IU with some particularly vivid memories — and his future wife. “I met [her] my second day on campus,” he says.

He was also on campus during the filming of Breaking Away. “I would, as I’m walking to and from class, stop and experience several scenes that they were shooting,” Chapek says. “I couldn’t believe what a big, complicated deal it was. Maybe in some ways that was what wet my whistle for what I eventually do now.”

Upon graduation, Chapek assumed he’d work in a technical position for a pharmaceutical company. “It turned out that the opportunity that was available to me was in environmental science at an oil company in Chicago,” he says.

Chapek adds, “When I got into the work environment, I’m like, ‘Well, there’s a whole range of things that are supported by science or touch science that aren’t actually just science.’ I always wanted to be a generalist — not a specialist. I know that’s weird with an undergraduate [degree] in microbiology, but I found it fascinating.”

After pursuing his business education, Chapek landed positions in brand management and advertising. Eventually, he found Disney.

“I started at Disney working in packaged media [marketing] when people were renting [VHS tapes],” he says. “And, so, packaged goods was my entrée into Disney and, you know, almost 30 years later, here we are.”

As it happens, Chapek’s transition from science to business — and, ultimately, to the business of Disney creativity — was a relatively smooth one. “While I didn’t realize it when I was in school, a liberal arts education really prepares you for that elasticity that’s necessary for a career, particularly in media or the creative arts,” he says. “And I think it really has shaped who I am and what I’ve been doing.”

In 2016, Chapek speaks with a group of IU students who will go on to serve in summer internships for The Walt Disney Company.

Shepherding a legacy

While Chapek keeps an eye on his company’s North Star, he also keeps Walt Disney’s spirit in mind.

“When you work at Disney, obviously, you have Walt sort of watching over everything you do, and you find out that the legacy of Disney is really important,” he says. “At the same time, Walt was always emphasizing the future and not becoming locked into a certain way of doing things.”

One of Chapek’s favorite Disney quotes? We keep moving forward, doing new things, because we’re curious, and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.

He adds, “The very DNA of what Walt has given us through quotes like that and his inspiration is that you’ve got to keep evolving or you’ll become a dinosaur.”

To that end, Chapek is taking a hard look at Disney’s potential role in advancing greater diversity. “When I got this job, not only [was] the pandemic upon us, but all the social unrest was happening at the same time,” he says. “Certainly, Disney writes big checks to good causes, but it’s not about the big checks. The biggest thing we can do is to make content that’s representative of the world around us.” 

That means seeking out new scripts — and filmmakers — with different points of view.

“We want to ensure that our content represents the world not as people saw it five, ten, 15, 20, or 50 years ago, but as people see the world — and should see the world — more broadly today,” Chapek says.

It also means rethinking certain aspects of the theme parks’ legacy attractions.This past year, for instance, Disney announced that it was remaking the famous Splash Mountain attraction, since the ride included characters and songs from the 1946 musical Song of the South, a film that contains racial stereotypes. The attraction will be replaced with the story of Tiana from The Princess and the Frog.

“The people working on the conversion of that to the Tiana story are very diverse,” Chapek says. “So, we’ll make sure that it’s not somehow lost in interpretation, in terms of how that story should be told in a very uplifting and accurate way.” 

He concludes, “You’ve got to stand strong and you’ve got to do what you believe is right and have the courage — knowing that no matter what you say in this divided world, you’re going to get criticized. It’s really about finding your element of truth and representing that truth in everything you do.”


The quotes in this article are transcribed from a February 2021 livestream interview with Chapek, conducted by the College of Arts and Sciences and alumnus Douglas Freeland (B.A. ’80, Telecommunications). See the interview at go.iu.edu/3TOe.

Susan M. Brackney

Susan M. Brackney holds a B.A. in English from Indiana University. A professional writer since 1995, she has written for Boy Scouts, stoners, interventional radiologists, would-be beekeepers, depressives, the one percent, and many other walks of life. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Discover, Organic Gardening, Hobby Farms, and Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, among others. Brackney is also a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and has published four nonfiction books, including Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet. Reach her at writer@susanbrackney.com.