Business

The Latest Driverless Car Startup Aims to Make Women Half Its Workforce

The CEO of NextEV’s U.S. operations, Padmasree Warrior, sees opportunity in a crowded field.

The electric vehicle business is crowded with upstarts, chief among them Tesla, as well as traditional carmakers like General Motors and Ford trying to remake themselves for a new era. It’s also littered with the shells of failed startups. Yet Padmasree Warrior, one of the most successful women executives in technology, former CTO of Cisco, and a member of the Microsoft board, chose this world to “jump into with my eyes wide open” when she left corporate America and joined NextEV last December.

“I think it’s good that it’s crowded,” Warrior said Wednesday at EmTech MIT 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “That means people see this as an opportunity.”

NextEV aims to be, according to a phrase used by founder William Li, a “global startup.” Launched in China in 2014, the company has raised more than $500 million and is reportedly building a factory in Nanjing capable of producing 280,000 electric cars a year. Its first mass-market vehicle will be available in early 2018.

Padmasree Warrior speaking with Jason Pontin at EmTech MIT 2016.

Its next market will be the U.S., and Warrior is in charge of building that business, which she says will differ from the Chinese operations because consumers and their needs are so different from one place to the next. She also oversees NextEV’s software development globally.

Warrior expects a shakeout in the crowded auto industry over time. “There will be a lot of consolidation. Some of the big companies will not be able to make the shift,” she says.

She has lived through industry upheaval before. Prior to becoming CTO of Cisco, Warrior had the same role at Motorola, where she oversaw a team of 26,000 engineers in 50 countries. Motorola, which in many ways invented the mobile phone, didn’t survive the iPhone era. In 2014 what remained of the business was bought by Lenovo.

This time Warrior is looking to be one of those disrupting the establishment. She’s hired 270 people to staff NextEV’s U.S. operations, about one-third of her eventual goal. Early hires include people with expertise in data, user experiences, audio, video, vehicle engineering, and electrical engineering, she says. She aims to have 50 percent of the company female in time, though at the moment they are 26 percent.

Warrior’s taken a hands-on approach, even interviewing the woman who greets visitors in NextEV’s San Jose offices. She focuses on people who are curious, creative, and willing to work hard, she says. “The first 100 people will hire the next 1,000 people.”

Warrior declines to disclose details of how NextEV will build its U.S. business, but Warrior says she’s considering a variety of manufacturing options, including the possibility of making cars in China or using manufacturing partners in the U.S. Revenue is likely to come not just from selling cars but also from the services that may be associated with the type of car she envisions, a space that’s more like a moving living room than a traditional car.

Starting a decade after Tesla and years behind Google, NextEV doesn’t have the kind of driving data and experience those companies do, which could be a problem, and Warrior is hoping something, like digital mapping, becomes a public utility over time. Her advantage, Warrior says, is not having to invent many of the systems those early players did, and being able to focus on the consumer, creating an electric, autonomous vehicle that is good for the environment, makes commuting time more productive, and generally gives consumers more pleasure in making one of their biggest purchases.

“The car is becoming a computer and a robot,” says Warrior. “I tell my team, we’re not building a car, we’re building a robot that looks like a car.”

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