Aicha Evans, 51
Location: Foster City, Calif.
Education: B.S., computer engineering, George Washington University
What drew you to the auto industry? Every industry has inflection points and you can see that in the auto industry there’s an inflection point right now around mobility on demand. It’s one of those times where you get to catch the wave during the transformation and reinvention.
First automotive job: February 2019. I was at Intel having a lot of fun; dabbled a little bit with new mobility because Intel acquired Mobileye. As people look at me, when they see me, they see a Black woman in high-tech, so I get a lot of calls. I got tired of it, and it forced me to have a one-on-one with myself — what am I going to do going forward? A good executive recruiter friend of mine said, what can we call you for? I said, if it’s something that’s high impact from a technology standpoint; if it’s a private company; if it’s a founder or a set of founders that, in order to get to market and to scale, they need somebody with my experience; if it’s a team that I fall in work-love with; and it’s in Silicon Valley and I don’t go too far down the ladder. They called me about Zoox. I looked at the story from the inside and said, this ticks all the boxes.
Big break: Not going for the easy, popular roles. When there’s honey, there are a lot of bees. I don’t want to be one of the bees. It’s important to know yourself. If you have something that’s really important and impactful and you want somebody who is not afraid of taking risk, doing the unconventional, then that’s what makes me tick. You can see this throughout my career.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Making sure that I don’t get angry. There are a lot of opportunities when you’re a woman in high-tech to get irritated, to get angry. I think a lot of people have this view that you move up the ladder and all of a sudden you don’t face all the little things. No, I’ve had people walk into a conference room and ask me if I was fetching the coffee as a senior executive. One of my favorite quotes is from Buddha: “Getting angry is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
You’ve been in the industry two years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? I do believe that there’s an understanding in traditional automotive that safety, ADAS (advance driver-assistance systems), etc., is not a luxury item. We’re all headed to EV. AI is going to drive. I’ve seen a mindset shift. What we’re waiting for next is the action that comes with that.
What do you struggle with? Keeping my cool and staying happy. The other thing that I’m working on is patience, rhythm and cadence. Mobility, especially autonomy, is going to be a long journey. Walking into Zoox, we say it’s a startup but it’s 1,000 people-plus. I’m not going to be able to create the infrastructure of operation overnight. The rhythm and the cadence at which those happen and get supplanted and implemented is something that I’m learning to be very patient about.
Describe your leadership style. My natural inkling is command and control, but I learned very early in my management career I had to go from doer to enabler. I had to start thinking about rewards for myself in terms of, did I enable the team to be the best it can be? Did I turn it into a high-performing team?
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? First of all, resiliency. Second of all, managing the pace. That includes mental wellness and understanding everybody is in the same situation. I think I had a little bit of a denial moment around March. I thought we were dead. We’re building a fleet of autonomous, purpose-built vehicles. One of my mentors once said that bad companies during a crisis, they die. Good companies, they survive. Great companies, they thrive. I can be grateful for the fact that, if this had happened a few years ago, we actually could not function. In the grand scheme of things, I’m still in wonderful circumstances relative to others.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We need to talk more about the transformation and the revolution that’s happening because if you put it in terms of what this is going to make possible, it will change the dynamics. More women will see it from a purposeful-type endeavor as opposed to an established industry. The automotive industry is about mobility. It’s about, how do you move people, services and goods? Portraying the opportunity that way so that women can see what they bring to the table is key.
— Alexa St. John