Neil Braun, '77: Entertainment Executive Goes Green

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2008

You might say that Neil Braun, ‘77, didn’t let any grass grow under his feet during his exceptional career in the entertainment industry, during which, among other things, he was head of Viacom Entertainment and president of NBC Television Network. You might also say that today he is doing his part to make our world a greener place as chairman and CEO of GreenLife, a company he launched last year that helps businesses and individuals analyze, reduce, and redress their carbon footprints.

After he graduated from the Law School, Braun headed back to his native New York, where he worked at Paul, Weiss for a while; then joined International Film Investors; and not long afterward went to HBO as its film financing and distribution specialist.

In 1986, when Ron Howard and Brian Grazer decided to start the film production company Imagine Entertainment, they brought Braun on board as president and chief operating officer. He remained there for several years, until it became clear that he would have to move to the West Coast to further his career at Imagine. “It’s possible that I might have accomplished more in the entertainment business if I had been willing to live in LA,” he recounts, “but my family, my friends—my life—are all in and around New York.”

So he joined New York–based Viacom and became chairman and CEO of its entertainment division . . . and then that fateful choice came up again. Viacom bought Paramount Pictures and Braun was asked to relocate to Hollywood. Again—no dice. He landed instead as president of NBC Television Network, where he served during the tempestuous years when Fox launched a fourth network and began competing with the other networks for the top broadcast stations in each market.

In 1998 he started two Internet-based companies, including one that would host user-generated video—“A lot like YouTube, just a bit too far ahead of its time,” he says. More recently, he formed Vanguard Animation with the producer of Shrek and also joined the board of directors of IMAX.

Now he has focused his entrepreneurial energies and leadership experience on GreenLife, where he is chairman and CEO. GreenLife helps companies analyze their carbon footprints (their greenhouse gas emissions) and then develop plans to reduce them. Since no organization can reduce its footprint to zero through internal measures alone, GreenLife also helps each client offset its global-warming impact by funding emission-reducing projects outside the company. With improved internal practices and offsets, a company can approach “carbon neutrality” so that, overall, it has virtually no deleterious impact. “The criteria for a legitimate offset are quite strict,” Braun explains. “Among other things, there have to be benchmarks showing that the project actually results in less emitted carbon dioxide than an alternative, and the specific outcomes must be independently verified. The projects also must be beyond business as usual and they must provide a long-term reduction, not just a temporary one. Because such projects often are not economically feasible in conventional terms, it’s the funding from GreenLife’s clients that makes them possible.”

“We intend to be the industry leader in helping companies use less and offset the rest,” Braun observes. At the time of this writing, he was actively exploring merger possibilities that would make GreenLife a global presence in its growing field.

How has he made the transition from his lengthy entertainment career to his new field? “The University of Chicago Law School gave me the confidence to believe that, even if I am not the smartest guy in the room, I can bring a valuable perspective to solving problems,” he says. “Great professors like Walter Blum and Richard Epstein taught me that most complicated things can be broken down into simpler pieces and understood or even mastered. That’s what I’ve always done, and so far it has served me well.”