This article is supplemented with a video interview, accessible here.
When Reggie Fils-Aimé ’83 was applying to be the head of marketing and sales at Nintendo in 2003, he did something unusual. Although he was at this point an experienced executive, he refused to take a job at Nintendo before having a video conference with the global president to see if their visions for the company aligned.
“I learned that my request really had created quite a stir within Nintendo. Who’s this brash American asking to speak with our global president? He’s not even an employee,” Fils-Aimé said. “But my mentality was that I needed to make sure that I could partner with a global president. I needed to make sure that I understood his vision and could support it. Because if I couldn’t do those things, I was not going to be successful.”
Luckily for Fils-Aimé, the connection with the president was there. Fils-Aimé would go on to become president and chief operating officer of Nintendo himself, crediting his time at Cornell and his aggressive spirit for success.
Passing those lessons on to the next generation, Fils-Aimé has written a book, “Disrupting the Game: From the Bronx to the Top of Nintendo,” in which he writes about overcoming obstacles, showing resilience and leadership under pressure. The book is part of his participation in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series for the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. Dean of the Dyson School Jinhua Zhao selected the book to be read by incoming Dyson freshman and sophomore transfer students and to serve as a thematic guide for those students’ education.
But Fils-Aimé wasn’t always an industry legend. He worked his way up, starting off as a child of Haitian immigrants, born in the Bronx before moving to Brentwood, New York where he attended middle and high school.
”It really did shape me as a first generation American,” Fils-Aimé said. “Someone who, really early in life, was hearing all of these stories and things about Haiti and all the challenges and strife… that shaped a mentality of focus on education and a mentality to really envision being able to overcome obstacles, having a sense of resilience and grit to drive my life forward.”
Fils-Aimé knew he wanted to go to college, but he was alone in navigating the college admissions process and paying for his education. He was accepted to Cornell with an ROTC scholarship for his first two years and then continued to work on campus to fund his tuition.
While at Cornell, Fils-Aimé was president of his fraternity, Phi Sigma Kappa, which served as both his social network and favorite pastime. He said he remembers Cornell fondly for the lifelong friends he met while on campus.
Fils-Aimé graduated in 1983 from the Dyson School with a job lined up at Procter and Gamble, a multinational consumer goods corporation.
“[I] really made the pivot from a pure finance banking pathway to more general management [at Procter and Gamble],” Fils-Aimé said. “From there, it was continuing to hone my business skills running bigger and bigger businesses, having greater responsibility for people and leading teams.”
After around six years at the company, Procter and Gamble was in decline, according to Fils-Aimé. He authorized an overspending of the budget — the exact thing he was told not to do when he first started.
“I was aggressive. I was impatient. And we put in place these programs and the programs worked,” Fils-Aimé said. “But because I had overspent my budget, my career was over at Procter and Gamble.”
This experience taught Fils-Aimé more about himself and his need for a fast-paced work environment.
“I don’t have a lot of patience. I want to grow things. I want to drive things,” Fils-Aimé said.
After Procter and Gamble, Fils-Aimé started working in the restaurant industry, first at Pizza Hut as the senior director of national marketing, then as senior vice president of Panda Management Company and later the head of marketing for Guinness. Then in 2003, Fils-Aimé switched industries again and joined Japanese video game company Nintendo as their head of sales and marketing.
“It was a combination of experience and turning around businesses. An ability to perform in high-paced visible businesses, a demonstrated ability to lead teams and to really put in place plans that would overcome the business challenges,” Fils-Aimé said. “Those were all the things that led me to join Nintendo.”
According to Fils-Aimé, when he joined Nintendo in 2003, the company was in a difficult position. Sony’s PlayStation 2 was dominating the market, while Nintendo’s GameCube was underperforming in comparison. It was around this time that Microsoft also entered the video game industry.
“Nintendo needed to think through how it would differentiate itself, how they would be able to compete against these other massive players, and find a way to win on their terms,” Fils-Aimé said. “That was the situation that I walked into.”
The first product Fils-Aimé worked on at Nintendo was the Nintendo DS, a two-screen handheld device that, according to Fils-Aimé, was one of the first products with a touchscreen on the market. Typically, Nintendo launches products first in Japan and then expands to other international markets, such as the market that Fils-Aimé had jurisdiction over — the United States, Canada and Latin America.
“I advocated that my marketplace needed to launch this device first in the world, in order for us to create momentum and to be successful,” Fils-Aimé said. “This market… is the largest contained video game opportunity market in the world. And so having strong success here would lead us to have success in other markets.”
Fils-Aimé also said he convinced the company to include a demo of a compatible Nintendo DS game with the first few million units of hardware.
“Nintendo hates giving away content for free, I mean, it’s just not what they believe in,” Fils-Aimé said. “But I was able to convince them that… this system is so different that we need to give the player just a little taste of what it could be and how it could perform in the market.”
In part due to the success of Nintendo DS, Fils-Aimé was promoted to president of Nintendo over the course of two and a half years.
After retiring from Nintendo in 2019, Fils-Aimé now spends his time holding positions on various boards, including Brunswick Corporation and Spin Master. He was also previously on the board for GameStop.
“It’s just a way for me to provide the benefits of my knowledge, perspective, experience in a better way than being tied to one particular company,” Fils-Aimé said.
As a member of the Dyson School advisory board, Leader in Residence at Dyson during the 2019-2020 academic year and participant in the Dean’s Distinguished Lecture Series, Fils-Aimé returns to the Cornell campus frequently. Part of the joy of this work is the ability to help Cornellians like himself.
“It is overwhelming to see my story, my journey, being used to help the current Cornell student population,” Fils-Aimé said.
After such a diverse career, Fils-Aimé advises students to be open to new opportunities, be open minded and have as many experiences as possible during their college years.
“Be a little bit more open and consider a range of possibilities. You don’t have to have your complete life set as a 21, 22 year-old,” Fils-Aimé said. “Think about the range of different options you can do, learn and think about the different things you can do. Now is the opportunity to do that.”
Correction, Sept. 29, 1:55 p.m.: A previous version of this story implied that Reggie Fils-Aimé was currently on the board for GameStop. He is no longer on the board. The story also implied that he was currently the Dyson School Leader in Residence, but that was during the 2019-2022 academic year. These errors have been clarified.