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Zeda Stone: RYOT’s CEO works to inspire action through creative content

Story by SAMANTHA WASHER

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Zeda Stone was obediently tracking lizards in his backyard the day we met. The RYOT CEO was gamely helping his two-and-a-half-year-old son Sterling find and count the bountiful supply of lizards that darted around the family’s bucolic Laguna Beach compound. It wasn’t exactly “Dadderday” (Sterling’s word for the time on Saturdays he gets Dad all to himself), but because of Stone’s intensive work and travel schedule, father and son time is clearly a cherished event – regardless of what day it is.

There’s no place like home

Lizard hunting with an adorable toddler is special enough. However, hunting lizards with an adorable toddler at the house Stone and wife Lea Abel-Stone share is nothing short of magical. On a truly majestic property in the heart of Laguna, three generations live together in a charming, eclectic house built in 1928. It is a special arrangement that Stone greatly appreciates.

As RYOT CEO a lot of time is spent on the road, literally

His work life, however, presents a more intense arrangement. Stone took over as CEO in October of last year. The company’s offices are in Los Angeles which means when he’s home, he has the pleasure of navigating the 405 on a daily basis. When he’s not home, he’s either visiting the company’s home office in New York or the satellite offices all around the world in places like France, Taiwan, and Brazil, to name just a few. It makes lizard hunting seem particularly well-earned. 

Zeda Stone close up

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Zeda Stone, RYOT CEO and Laguna Beach local

“As much as it’s a hassle to commute, when I’m here, it’s paradise,” he says of home. “When I’m home, I’m home.” Stone explains that finding that ever-challenging life/work balance was not easy. “I’m a bit of a workaholic,” he admits.

Work trumped college

His commitment to work started young. Stone says he “did a little bit of college,” but decided he wanted to start his career instead. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he explains. “Higher education wasn’t a priority in my household. By the time I realized college may have been good for me, I’d already moved on.”

And he did move on. He started with a greeting card company then went into investment banking and then biofuels and video overlay technology. “I had to feel it out,” he explains. “I was always really jealous of people who knew exactly what they wanted to do from a young age. That just wasn’t me. But, it’s a double-edged sword. It allowed me to transition and grow, but I never had that drive for that one thing.”

It all started with a website

Stone first became involved with RYOT when he and his partner at the time created the company’s website. RYOT was founded by Bryn Mooser and David Darg who are, as Stone describes them, “humanitarians by trade.” 

Mooser and Darg met in Haiti while working for different aid groups. They developed a friendship over shared interests in helping others and making films. The company refined their mission when, after being given GoPros in a 3D printed case, they made a four-and-a-half minute video about the devastating earthquake in Nepal. The transformative effect that took place when people put on the virtual reality headsets and were then promptly plunged into the disaster in Nepal convinced Mooser to set the company’s course firmly in that direction. “Bryn decided to go all in on these immersive formats (after that),” says Stone. 

Small yet innovative and inspirational

The company, founded in 2012, was purchased by Verizon’s AOL Huffington Post in 2016. They make both immersive and traditional documentaries, winning a number or prestigious awards. Their film Body Team 12 about the Red Cross workers in Liberia was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016.

Before joining the company full time in 2015, Stone acted as an advisor for a year and a half. However, the headset also had a transformative effect on him. “I went to visit them and put the (VR) headset on and said, ‘I’ll see you on Monday,’” he says with a laugh. “I started as CTO (Chief Technology Officer).”

Zeda Stone family

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Zeda with son Sterling and wife Lea Abel-Stone at the family’s magical home in Laguna Beach

Now that he’s CEO, Stone is obviously less involved in the day-to-day creative aspects of the company. However, he has great faith in his team. “I have an amazing team,” says Stone. “Everyone checks their egos at the door.”   

Lil Dicky’s “Earth” makes an impact

A recent project is a Lil Dicky video titled “Earth.” It started out simply as a music video where celebrities are animated animals. It still is that (there are 30 special guests like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber who make appearances as animals), but “Lil Dicky realized he had a voice for a generation that was basically ignoring climate change,” explains Stone. This video became a call to action – with animated animals. 

Since its launch on April 18, “Earth” has amassed over 66 million views, has motivated 200,000 people to sign its petition, and registered 2,000 new voters. It has also spawned a partnership with the DiCaprio Foundation, a group “dedicated to the protection and wellbeing of all Earth’s inhabitants,” according to its website. In one project, “Earth” kind of sums up what RYOT does: creative content that inspires action.

5G presents a bounty of creative opportunities

“It has been a fun journey. It’s an amazing place. I have an amazing team. We are the tip of the spear for creative content on this 5G network,” says Stone. It is at this point in our conversation where I have to expose my technological limitations. “What is 5G, exactly?” I have to ask. Stone (patiently) does his best to explain it to me. 

Zeda Stone lizard hunting

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Sterling leads his dad, Zeda Stone, on a lizard hunting expedition in their backyard

He mentions dedicated channels and gigs and device density. Then he says, undoubtedly sensing it was all going over my head, “It will allow for us to create a real time animated character. Picture an  ‘Ask me anything’ with Shrek where kids can talk to Shrek and he would answer back. That’s only possible with a 5G network.” Got it.

Another future project that is, perhaps, more RYOT-esque involves making an audience feel they are actually next to a historical figure during that historical figure’s seminal moment. Rather than just watch an historic clip of footage of an event, you can actually feel like you’re part of that historic event. “You get to take a piece of history and really experience that moment. It’s a very different outcome that we hope inspires the next generation of leaders,” says Stone.

Media is such a powerful force. For Stone, if that power can be used to inspire action as opposed to ambivalence, RYOT is doing their job. “There are a lot of ways to do this wrong, but if you do it right, it’s very powerful.” Almost as powerful as hunting lizards.