Lia Theodosiou-Pisanelli, 31
Director of Partner Product and Programs, Aurora Innovation
Location: Palo Alto, Calif.
Education: B.A., international affairs and economics, George Washington University
What drew you to the auto industry? I’ve had the auto industry in my periphery my whole life. First, growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Then, in my time in government, I worked a little bit on automotive issues and cross-border trade. So I’ve always had an understanding and deep respect for the auto industry. How did I get into autonomous vehicles? I’ve always been driven by impact, and I had this great opportunity to get into the transportation space, and look at what autonomous vehicles can bring. That’s what lured me in.
First automotive job: I got brought into Lyft through a friend who had an interesting prospect for me of figuring out how to build alliances with governments and large traditional institutions, including automotive companies. I was excited by the opportunity to think about, what could that world look like?
Big break: In the government space; it was being part of the negotiating team for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That was an incredible opportunity to work with an amazing team of both the United States government and all the other governments we negotiated against. Moving to Square, getting to launch a brand-new product that nobody had ever seen before. And where I’m at is a pretty awesome opportunity.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Time. There are so many things I’m passionate about that I would love to put 110 percent of my energy into, and figuring out what to focus on first has been the toughest.
You’ve been in the industry three years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The advent of autonomous vehicles. We have an opportunity to reimagine how we move people, how we move goods. What does that mean for our cities? For accessibility, efficiency and, of course, safety? If I think about what’s the most impactful and how I can put my skills to good use, it’s definitely in this space.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I’ve been the beneficiary of incredible mentors in my career, so I’m proud that I can take the time and focus I’ve placed on helping open the door a little bit wider for those that come behind me.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? It’s tough in any male-dominated industry to bring in people who are different, but I think the most important part is that people recognize there’s a need. It’s so important that the products we build and the services we deliver are built and delivered by people who look like those who are going to be beneficiaries of them. That realization is there. Now it’s about doing something about it. It’s all of our responsibilities.
How do you bring your best self to work? What I tend to do is focus on the fact that I’m a leader and people are looking to me as an example. If I bring my full self to work, then other people will feel comfortable bringing their full selves. Once you get over that hump, it can be a glide path from there because you’ve gotten comfortable with who you are and given others the space to do the same.
Tell us about your family. My family is Greek, Italian, and soon to be, through my partner, Guatemalan. You can imagine that combination of cultures is a pretty amazing one.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? Starting my career working as a political appointee in the White House, I grew up professionally in an environment of urgency. We had a certain amount of time to deliver. I took that with me throughout my career. That sense of urgency is pervasive in everything I do and can make it pretty difficult to balance the urgency on the work side and the personal side, but I make it work.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? I’m usually a big traveler. Now it’s usually cooking and thinking about traveling.
Where do you dream of going? Anytime I can get back to my family and be in Greece and Italy is a great way to recharge. This isn’t recent, but I spent a lot of time in Asia. I lived in China for a while, and when I was in government, I traveled in Southeast Asia quite a bit. I often reflect on my time there as a formative experience, and I’m hoping to get back there at some point.
— Pete Bigelow