Leadership & Management

Aicha Evans: “You Must Have the Irrational Belief That It Will Work Out”

The CEO of Zoox shares her thoughts on the company’s acquisition by Amazon, the keys to building a strong team, and the future of transportation.

December 15, 2023

| by Jenny Luna

“My first piece of advice is only take the role if you are really interested in it. Startups are hard,” says Aicha Evans, CEO of Zoox. “And when it’s tough, you find a way, you make a way, you back up the boat, you reassess, you pivot. And so if you don’t have that irrational belief and pull, don’t do it.”

Aicha Evans took the role of CEO at autonomous vehicle company Zoox in 2019. And in 2020, she led the company’s acquisition by Amazon for $1.3B.

Evans visited Stanford GSB for View From The Top and was interviewed by Katie Harris, MBA ’24. In their conversation, Evans addressed the challenges of leading in a highly dynamic industry, the nuances of navigating corporate transitions and acquisitions, and the principles guiding her leadership in a future-focused company.

Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund.

During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.

Full Transcript

Aicha Evans: The idea is rarely the problem. Execution is sometimes the problem determination. You just literally have to have irrational belief and be determined that it’s going to work out.

Katie Harris: Welcome to View From The Top, the podcast. That was Aisha Evans, CEO of Zoox. Aicha visited Stanford Graduate School of Business as a part of you from the top, A speaker series where students like me sit down to interview leaders from around the world. I’m Katie Harris, MBA student of the class of 2024. In our conversation, we discussed the evolving landscape of the autonomous vehicle industry, Aicha’s vision for Zoox and journey to CEO, the nuances of navigating corporate transitions and acquisitions and principles guiding her leadership in a future focused company. I hope you enjoy the interview. Aicha, welcome to Stanford GSB.

Aicha Evans: Thank you for having me. I can’t believe I’m sitting here. I’m not sure what you think you’re all going to be hearing, but I’ll try my best.

Katie Harris: Our View From The Top theme this year is Redefining Tomorrow, and we could not thank of a more fitting guest than the CEO of Zoox, a company that’s re-imagining transportation, how we move in this world, and so thank you for being here.

Aicha Evans: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. I’m blessed and really privileged to be working in this space.

Katie Harris: We have a lot to get to today. So let’s dive in. I want to start at the very beginning. You have a really unique upbringing. You grew up both in Senegal and in France and started traveling back and forth between the two. From a very young age. How did these diverse experiences influence you?

Aicha Evans: Well, several things. First of all, there is an element of luck. I really thank my parents, my dad, for being in the telecommunication space and seeing from the very beginning what technology could do because believe it or not, those companies back then were laying cable under the ocean and connecting the world, but also seeing differences. You’re in Paris and you see what’s possible and then you’re in Senegal and you see what’s less possible back then at least. And technology played a major part in that. And then my mom for reminding me that even though I like to tinker with things, I like math, I love philosophy. There’s a reason some of the best or most known philosophers are mathematicians, or at least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. She reminded me, it’s all about people. Technology is in service of people and it’s also developed by people.

So you also need to learn about people and what makes them tick and how do you get things done and how do you seek to understand. Now, the interesting thing with my dad is from a very young age, he pushed me towards stem and he wanted me to be an engineer, which I became. But I think from a social standpoint, he had different expectations. He wanted me to essentially compartmentalize being super sort of critical in my thinking and my reasoning. But except when it comes to the social aspect of things, right? You marry a Senegalese guy, he’s going to tell you what to do and you’d be a good girl. And that’s not what ended up happening.

What ended up happening is that it also shapes just how you live your life in general. And around right after the baccalaureate, we started having a falling out a little bit because he wanted that little girl that he wanted and she was gone and she saw everything through the lens of engineering and technology, which is in a way how I ended up in the US to get away, but in a loving way from him. And that took a little bit of negotiation, but we finally got there except that I didn’t realize school in the US was so expensive. So you kind of needed to agree with him on some things. And one of the things we agreed upon was that I would go to DC because he felt that what he failed at doing while I was in France, he was going to correct by me being in DC and around the World Bank and IMF are in DC and lot of, he had a lot of friends and he felt that they would keep me in line basically. But it didn’t quite work out because I met this American boy and I ended up getting married and we’re still married and we have two kids together.

Katie Harris: That is beautiful. And then the rest is history.

Aicha Evans: The rest is history. He passed away during Covid actually, but we did make peace. I mean, he’s proud of me. I know he’s up there smiling at this point.

Katie Harris: I know he is very proud of you, and I know he was very influential in that decision to moving over to George Washington University and studying computer engineering there. And after studying computer engineering, you then started your career as a full-time engineer, first in Austin, Texas, and then later taking several roles in the Bay Area and then Intel. Would it be okay if we go there?

Aicha Evans: Of course, let’s go.

Katie Harris: So I know once you got to Intel, you very quickly rose the ranks of management up to chief strategy officer. That’s a lot I want to learn. What did you learn about yourself and about leadership in that time?

Aicha Evans: A couple of things. First of all, the good jobs are already taken. Don’t go after the good jobs. They’re not available. And so look for, I entered Intel, and Intel was doing Wimax. By that time. I had sort of built my around wireless for us wireless technologists. The fact that you’re all sitting here and there’s an unimaginable number of bits that are moving around as we speak, and you’re all getting your right data, your right call, your right messages. Believe me, some 20 years ago, we were dreaming of this moment, but we weren’t sure we were going to be able to make it happen. And so I had already tasted what I call transformation, what I call working on technology that directly affects hundreds of millions and billions of people. So I go into Intel because I happened to live in Portland, Oregon. Back then Intel was looking at doing stuff in the wireless space via Wimax, which is why I was hired.

But when I went in, I was like, Hmm, I don’t think this is going to work. But it’s hard, right? You enter a corporation, I mean, there are brilliant people around you and you’re like, it’s not possible that, I mean, something’s not right here. And so how I a rose through management, and this is connecting to don’t take the good jobs, was I started asking questions about what exactly are we doing and why are we doing it? Because I really have some concerns about this and whether it can work. And that basically led to me getting in front of Sean Maloney daddy perimeter, basically the top of Intel saying, we hear you’re asking questions. I’m like, yeah, I’m asking questions. Now you also don’t go in there and say, well, I think your technology is bad and you’re confused. That doesn’t work very well. And so I started saying, look, I think the technology can work, but from an ecosystem standpoint, it’s a really tough hill to climb.

So let’s park the technology and tell me what you’re trying to do and why. Because then we can maybe back up the boat and talk about is there a different, more effective way to accomplish that goal. So asking a lot of questions and not shying away from what I call the problematic areas, knowing myself, well, I am not a steady state person. If you have a great business that’s running well and doing well, keep it as far away from me as you can. I’ll mess with it. I like to tinker. I like to go on the edges, I like to transform. I like to understand why I like to dream. And so that’s basically what happened. Then I had to rely on my mom’s advice, which is if you’re asking questions and you’re making people uncomfortable, find a way to make them comfortable. And then daddy was like, yeah, you talk good game and you’re making a lot of sense, but can you actually execute?

I said, I think so. And he said, well, we have an issue with wifi. Would you consider he and IV Malamed? Would you consider taking on that team? Maybe? Yes. Well, the team is in Israel, and I’m four months pregnant and I’m like, Israel, and I will never forget, IV Malamed goes, yeah, we deliver babies in Israel. That’s not a problem. And so I ended up moving to Israel, and that’s where I really was in a totally different environment with a brand new team who was like, why are you here? They find somebody else. But I was like, well, I’m here because something’s wrong, and I’m not doing Aaliyah, so meaning I’m not going to live in Israel my whole life, and so tell me what’s wrong. We fix it and I’m out of your hair. And that’s where really I had to learn to lead people.

I had to learn success. I had to learn failure. And I’m naming both because how you handle both is very different with success. It’s very important to remember that you don’t have a God-given right to it. It’s important to remain humble. It’s important to continue pushing yourself. And with failure, it’s important to be like, okay, I didn’t get here by mistake. So what exactly happened? Was it the wrong timing? Was it the wrong assumption? Did I make a mistake? Bottle the trigger so that next time you’re in the same situation, you can recognize it and do something about it. But yeah, that was basically the journey.

Katie Harris: It sounds like there was a lot of self-awareness that was involved as you’ve thought about both your career progression and also managing and coaching others.

Aicha Evans: Well, I just said you should be humble. So I should be humble too. It’s a journey of discovery around self-awareness. It wasn’t always easy, and I was super, super lucky. One of the things that Intel did was it’s very difficult for me to be several personalities. I mean, that’s just a lot of energy. I just want to be the same person all the time. Otherwise it’s hard to remember the facial expression. What do I say to him? I’m too lazy for that. And so Intel was like, well, you have a lot of potential. You’re doing well. We are even sending you out there, but you need a little bit of Polish. I’m like, lovely. We’re going to get you a coach. Okay. So I was like, oh, gosh. So the first few coaches they sent me, the good news is they let you interview the coach to see if there’s a connection.

And the first few, well, it didn’t go very well. They start with, what’s your five-year plan? I actually don’t have one, so I’m alive and happy. That’s a good start. Well, why aren’t you saying you want to be a CEO? I’m not saying I want or don’t want. That’s not what I’m focused on. So it was just like, and I felt like, what about you learn me? And then we go from there. So eventually somebody in HR who knew Marshall Goldsmith said, oh, I think he would be the right coach for you. I googled him and I was like, he’s got bigger fish to fry than me. But we met and fell in work love with each other, and he pushes me on the journey of self-discovery.

Katie Harris: In what way? What does that look like?

Aicha Evans: So I had a very difficult decision to make, at least in my head. Some years ago, I was hesitating between staying at Intel and going to do something else. It was at a very difficult time. Lots was going on, and I was really having trouble making that decision. I was driving my husband crazy. I was probably driving Intel crazy. And so Marshall, we were talking about it, doing the pros and cons, and I’m just whining and making it sound like all about, he calls it Don’t all about me, me, me. And so he calls me up and he’s like, do you have a mirror, a big mirror at your house? I’m like, yeah, actually, I’m standing in front of one. He’s like, go in front of a mirror. So I go in front of the mirror, he’s like, repeat after me? I’m like, yes, life is good.

I said, yes, life is good. In the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky in the grand scheme of things, I’m lucky there are no bad choices here. There are no bad choices here. Make a choice, stick with it and move. Make a choice, stick with it and move. Okay, let me know when you’ve done that and we can talk about the choice you’ve made and how do we make that work? That’s sort of like, oh, he makes me sometimes I’m just like, he’s get out of your own head, move on. So he’s very loving, very tough, but he does not allow you to hide from yourself.

Katie Harris: Wow. At the GSB, we actually place a lot of value on executive coaching. Some of us have coaches, others are taught to coach. What advice, as you think about the role executive coaching has played in your life, what advice do you have for us as GSB students as we think about how it could play in our development?

Aicha Evans: Look, my assumption is that just from a probability and statistic standpoint, you’re all going to be successful. And I am pleased asking you to trust that and to remember that stop panicking about it and driving yourself crazy about it. Just put it one foot in front of the other and go do, my biggest advice is because you’re going to be successful. It gets lonely, it gets confusing, it gets scary. There’s a little Aicha at night. She talks to you, and sometimes she talks to me and sometimes she’s not easy to deal with. And so find somebody who you can have intimacy with. Find somebody who, when they talk to you, whether you agree or disagree is not even the issue you will hear. You will listen. Find somebody who you feel comfortable talking about the worst part of yourself with, because that intimacy is really what is going to help you and the coach go after what matters to you. Otherwise, you are just getting a consultant and that’s not really going to lead to the greatest achieving the greatest potential possible.

Katie Harris: And I know Marshall is someone who continues to work with you today. He has been very powerful in coming along your career journey. And so I actually want to transition and talk about your next move, which was Zoox. As you were leaving Intel, you had options. There were several companies showing interest in you, and you also had very specific criteria for what you wanted out of your next role. Tell us why Zoox

Aicha Evans: First, I have to go back to that other moment. I disappointed a lot of people in making the decision that I made and guilt and regret is something you need to learn to handle, and it stayed with me. Now, I made other people also very happy to be fair. And I sort of had a one-on-one with myself. I said, okay, what just happened here and what conclusions do we draw? And one conclusion that I basically, I was like, I don’t think I’m going to go to another big company. At the end of the day, they are about all the same. They’re the script. There’s a script. They’re players agendas. I, so I was like, I just don’t want to do that anymore.

And then that led to, well then what do I want to do? And one of my good friends in the executive recruiting space said, well, I have you written it down? And then I said, Marshall asking me. He’s like, yeah, I think that’s a good idea. Let’s not go through that drama again. I said, okay, fair. And so first thing is I wanted to stay in the Bay Area because at that point I had moved my kids a lot. And it took me a while to understand that even when you’re moving neighborhoods, your kids count that as a move. If the soccer team changes or if the France change, that’s a move to them. And they had tabulated all the moves and they were done and they were teenagers, and I owed them that. That was thing one. Thing two, I did not want to go to the public sector to a public company because I can’t keep my mouth shut.

And so I knew if I went to a public company, it’s back to investor calls and go talk to this press and go to this big event and buy a lot of expensive outfits for the events. And I was just like, I want these next four to six years for my kids to be about them. And I just wanted that privacy and that intimacy. Then I was like, okay, if I’m going to a private company, I am not a founder, but I’m also not a classic corporate executive. I’m like that in between. And so I was like, I don’t want to go to a private company where the founders are being told they need somebody like me. I want to go to a private company where the founders have decided that they want somebody like me. Then I want it to be impactful technology. I mean nothing against this app or this thing, but that’s just not, I wanted to do something that was as big or as fulfilling as what I tasted during the wireless journey. I wanted it to be really societal and transformative. And then I wanted to make sure that when it happened, I had a work love feeling, like an excitement. And truth be told, when I heard about Zoox, my first reaction was, yeah, but no, sounds complicated.

Katie Harris: Why is that?

Aicha Evans: Well, first of all, I mean these days when they tell you about a company, you go do some research and there were some interesting things. There were some interesting things. One, co-founder wasn’t there anymore, so that only happens when things are complicated, let’s put it that way. The second thing was I was like, this is going to take a lot of time and capital. And then the third thing was I wasn’t sure that there’s a lot of tech for tech here. There’s a lot of chasing the valuation and chasing the headlines and hoping you’re going to be the next, the few names. And I wanted to do something really meaningful, and I didn’t know for sure if that company was embarking on that complicated, that expensive and that critical of a technology and product. I wanted to make sure people were serious about it. And I didn’t know because I had not met the people. And so again, back to Marshall, he was like, well, it tick all the boxes. There are some things you’re not sure about. Why don’t we go talk to them? So talk to a few board members. And then met Jesse Levinson, and I met him actually, we walked around Zoox that day. So I got to see the energy and people were working on the vehicle and everything, and within about 15, 20 minutes I was like, wow, I got the feeling and the tingle. And I was like, let’s go. Let’s do this.

Katie Harris: Well, you talked a little bit about some of the dynamics there with the co-founders. I want to touch on that a little bit more. Joining Zoox as the first CEO after a co-founder, you did navigate what many would consider a challenging transition for GSB students in the audience who may step into leadership roles at existing companies. How did you establish your place and set expectations at Zoox?

Aicha Evans: Well, first, in my mind, you do that before you join the company. And so once I started thinking, yeah, Zoox, is it probably, I spent a lot of time with Jesse. We had lunch, we talked, I must have sent him, I don’t know, hundreds of, well, maybe tens of emails anytime. I had a question we texted and I really wanted to understand what this person was made of, what their value system is, why they were in it, why they thought that I was a fit, but in their own words. But I also wanted to understand what’s important to them and could I bring that to the table for them? And so we spent a lot of time and I was like, outside of my husband and kids, this is the person I’m going to spend the most time with. And so we talked about life, we talked about technology, we talked about the challenges ahead, and we talked about also, okay, we’re dating right now.

We’re dating, but what happens when we don’t agree and what happens when we annoy each other? And so we covered a lot of ground, and I don’t know, it made a lot of sense. So my first piece of advice is only take the role if you are really interested in it, startups are hard. The idea is rarely the problem. Execution is sometimes the problem determination. You just literally have to have irrational belief and be determined that it’s going to work out. And when it’s tough, you find a way, you make a way, you back up the boat, you reassess, you pivot. And so if you don’t have that irrational belief and pull, don’t do it. But if you do now in the conversation, understand what type of founder you are dealing with, ask some of these questions that I’ve just gone through and ask yourself very, very honestly, can you provide that?

And will you have the generosity too? Does that make sense? That makes sense. And if you do that, then you can do anything, if anything. Now, Jesse and I have the opposite problem, which is like people are, oh, you guys agree all the time, or it’s intimidating because it’s impossible to convince you of once the two of you start going. And I’m like, yeah, but that wasn’t built overnight. That was built over a certain period of time and working together, having generosity, because look at it, from my standpoint, it is probably not wise to walk into Zoox and alienate the person who knows the most about it because they’re partying over in the corner because some lady showed up and she’s like, hi, I’m the boss now that doesn’t work, right? You have to create that partnership. You have to create that give and get. And we have codes. Like if he says, I don’t feel strongly, or if one of us says, I don’t feel strongly, why pick a fight? Just pick one way over the other. Or if one says, I feel strongly talk about it. There are times I think we’ve talked, I mean for hours and hours, and I think genuinely we’ve annoyed each other maybe a couple times in five years.

Katie Harris: Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Just a couple of times in five years. Well, I know you talked about determination, and that is a theme that definitely came up after you spent those first few months really establishing that partnership. In your first year as CEO, you helped sell the company to Amazon for 1.3 billion. How did you approach this major deal, and why was Amazon the right fit for Zoox?

Aicha Evans: So first of all, I’m neither confirming nor denying $1.3 billion.

Katie Harris: Noted.

Aicha Evans: So we’re clear noted. Good. Thank you. Second, there were a bunch of us. I mean, I played a role, but others did too. Look, we are at Zoox. I don’t want to turn this into a marketing pitch because it isn’t. We are in love with what we do. We are committed to what we do. We are committed to each other in getting it done. It’s one of these products where it’s not about which team got an A, it’s about collectively making sure that no teams gets an F because it’s a vertically integrated, safely safety critical product where you’re always as good as your last release. It’s also from the ground up. So you have a diversity of skills background. One day you’re talking to somebody about brakes and powertrain and battery, and the next day you’re talking to somebody about perception and planning and control and ai and start counting how many times I say AI, I’ll try to keep it low.

And so at the end of the day, it’s really about we’re just in love with what we do. So we’re committed to getting to market. We don’t want to be a demo. We really dream of this world, and I might not be there at that time, but this is a legacy role where we dream of this day when a service that people already like today, it’s just we will provide it in a better way for the customer, for society, for cities, we dream of that day where it’s just going to be ubiquitous with the term Uber, but Uber will no longer exist. So now in doing that, it also takes a lot of capital. It’s safety critical. So schedules are very, they’re very deterministic because the trigger to launch or to do anything is rooted on not just the functionality, but on the safety case and proving it out.

And so at the end of the day when we looked at all this, we said, it’d be good to have a great partner with us. It’d be good to focus just on doing that as opposed to always having this pressure of, I call it like investors don’t pay for plumbing. No, they don’t pay for making sure you have the right processes, the right methodologies. They only pay for outputs. And if you’re in a situation where you have to tin up on a yearly basis, big amounts of money, yet you’re building something that really builds on each other, there can be a conflict. And we could see that some of our fellow travelers had great parents, and we were like, well, why not us? And then Amazon. Amazon, it’s a great company. It’s patient, it’s innovative. Obviously from a growth standpoint, we’re an interesting bet. I think that’s what Andy called us publicly, and it’s also obvious that once we’re successful, the technology we’re bringing to bear might be useful in other areas. And so it’s been a great, great, great, great partnership. It’s been three years now. I would give it an 8.59 out of 10, which coming out of Aisha’s mouth, that’s pretty good. That’s pretty

Katie Harris: Good. Yeah.

Aicha Evans: Well, I mean, there’s always a tax, right? I mean, if anybody sells you that there’s a perfect journey where everybody’s perfect and the plan is perfect, please don’t go there or go there and change it, one of the two. And so that’s how we made the decision, and it was during the pandemic. And so there was a lot of clarity during the pandemic, right?

Katie Harris: Yes. Okay. I want to level set a little bit for the audience. So Zoox at the time was about fewer than 1000 people. Amazon in total has 1.5 million or so. Has the acquisition changed the culture at Zoox, and are there ways that you’ve had to adapt as a leader under the new partnership?

Aicha Evans: No. What I respect and love about Amazon is that it’s a very direct and consequential culture, and they’re like, look, we are buying this because we like the technology and the approach. You guys are the experts, and so we’re going to let you do your thing. Now we’re going to agree on governance, we’re going to agree on sort of your tenure year plan and your execution and your markers, but they have lots of things to do. They don’t really come in, they ask good questions. So no, it hasn’t changed the culture at all. We had actually a little bit of, I’m very big on the culture. Again, safety critical. You have to have a great culture where anybody can say, Hey, there’s a problem here. And so one of the things we had to do was more internal to Zoox, Hey, hang on a second.

We’re keeping our mentality, our mindset, our focus. We’re not like, oh, we just inherited some rich parents. We had to make sure that we made a collective pact with each other that we were going to be very disciplined, continue as if we were private and fight for rigor and for discipline. And so from that standpoint, there was a change, but it wasn’t really a change. It was more like, let’s continue the way we are then as a leader. Well, I had to dust off my Intel leadership skills, but that’s okay. It’s been great. Amazon is, again, very consequential, so I didn’t have to do, I mean, I think it’s good that I knew both worlds because I’m a good bridge between both worlds, but in general, there wasn’t anything major. I have to go to Seattle more. Okay.

Katie Harris: Okay. Yes.

Aicha Evans: Yeah. There’s SFO.

Katie Harris: Well, I want to transition and talk a little bit transition from culture and the acquisition and talk a little bit more about the industry more broadly. So Zoox is still a relatively new company. Where does it fit in the autonomous vehicle landscape and what makes it different?

Aicha Evans: Well, new. We’re nine years old. We had a big year. For those who are not familiar, it’s not a car. It’s a big robot. It’s really a computer on wheels, and it looks a little bit like a little moving living room in terms of the carriage ceiling, in terms of sliding doors to get in. It’s really optimized around riders, and so building that, testing it and then getting it on public roads was a big deal for us this year. That was one of our big, big goals. And if you move around or come visit us, you see it moving around. Some days it’s early morning, I’m getting to work and I’m thinking about, okay, the day, what do I need to think about and whatever. So I’m not really thinking about the vehicle or the robot or the robot taxi, and I’ll look up and see it whizz by me, and I’m like, oh, she’s so cute.

Katie Harris: It’s very cute.

Aicha Evans: Oh, by design, because we want you to feel an attraction as a customer. We want you to be transported by this vehicle. We want you to think, do I drive? No, I’m going to take a Zoox. And so relative to the industry, there are a few of us. It’s a small circle. We talk to each other, we understand each other. We have different approaches. Obviously for us, we started thinking what is the best way to deliver the best experience, or at least a better experience than people have today getting in a stranger’s car. We all do it, but that’s different. And we designed the vehicle and its experience relative to that. Then we said, okay, AI is going to do the driving via sensors and compute what is needed, how do you architect it? And we said it needs to be safe on all vectors in how it drives in terms of the passenger, in terms of the safety ratings, in terms of the crash performance, in terms of all these elements.

So we’re vertically integrated and optimized. A lot of people think, oh my gosh, they’re doing the app and they’re doing the service and they’re doing the vehicle or the robot and they’re doing the AI stack. It’s not, we’re doing everything. We are at the intersection of everything that matters, and we take that and apply it to that. Now, we have fellow travelers again, and some are doing very well, some are experiencing challenges right now. But what we’re committed to is that this is going to happen. It will take a little bit more time probably than people would like, but it’s always like that with a big disruptive technology.

Katie Harris: Autonomous vehicles have been a topic of conversation for many years, but they’re still not as common as we’d like on our roads. Help us understand why that is and what some of the major obstacles are.

Aicha Evans: So how many of you have heard of the, oh, there are 43,000 fatalities in the US due to car crashes? Yeah, so I would say a good 75%. How many of you have also heard that collectively in the United States, we human drivers drive a hundred million miles per single fatality?

Yeah, don’t worry. You’ll get your a know you did your research and therein lies the problem. The part about the 43,000, meaning respecting the rules, not being drunk, not being sleepy, not being distracted. That part, computers and ai, they’re just good at that. The part about a hundred million miles, I mean, think about it. For those of you who have engineering backgrounds, you cannot test through a hundred million miles. You have to have a quantifiable safety case based and rooted in math, in probability and statistics in falsies, the system engineering discipline of aviation, and you are only as good as your last software release. Second of all, there are so many scenarios and a tail end of it. So yes, we use simulation, but there’s always potentially some scenario that do. It’s almost like it’s more important to know not just you know how to handle, but do you know what you don’t know how to handle and how you would handle it?

And that is what makes it extremely hard. And second element is yes, we probably over time we’ll have more regulation. I mean, there’s a reason FA exists, right? We all get on planes because in the FAA, we trust at the end of the day, but at the end of the day, when you look at trust of consumers, consumers are not going to adopt these as a mode of transportation if they don’t trust the safety and not just because the company said so, but because there are other environmental elements that almost implicitly say it is, and that’s why it’s hard.

Katie Harris: I want to talk about safety in more detail as cruise, one of Zoox competitors has recently faced significant safety issues, which has led to the suspension of their operations and a recall in their vehicles. In light of these industry challenges, how is Zoox really working to ensure the safety and reliability of its own autonomous vehicles?

Aicha Evans: I hope you’ll respect that. I won’t comment on cruise. I wish them the best. It’s a very small circle. We all know each other or somebody who knows each other, and as they’ve publicly stated, I am sure they are internally in their figuring things out and preparing to reset, and we wish them the absolute best. Most of the time, I call them again, fellow travelers as far as safety at Zoox, it’s foundational and it’s in everything we do. A lot of people, we had actually maybe about a year ago, a company come in and who are, they were sort of looking at our safety and they asked me, how come you don’t have a single owner of single, what do they call it, like neck to choke or whatever the expression, throat to choke or whatever for safety. I’m like, I don’t want that safety to be in the hands of a single person at Zoox.

I want safety to be in the hands of all of us. I want people to have a multitude of channels, whatever’s available to them, whatever’s most comfortable to them so that they can report or discuss or ask questions about safety. Second, at Zoox, we will not put a robot on the road unless our very rigorous, strictly quantified and quantifiable safety case gives us the metric via road driving, via simulation, via analysis, via fault three, both by the way, what I call direct simulation, but also scenario-based and adversarial simulation. And so we’re very rigorous around that, and we have five different executives that have to sign off before Jesse and I even sign off. And any single one of those say No go. We don’t go. Then there’s what I call the sort of more subtle stuff. If you tell people safety is really important, report everything, and the first time somebody reports something that’s going to delay your mouth on, you’re like, do you think people will report?

No, they won’t. That’s not the way people are wired. And so we try and be very open around that and we encourage, and we’re on public roads. Sometimes a couple things have happened where we’re like, Hey, somebody said we need to pause and analyze what happened, replace simulation, look at the scenario, look at the code, look at the results. And so that’s really, it permeates through everything we do. Now, in addition, there is all of the safety that we’ve, because again, we think about the rider, we think about the vehicle or the robot, our airbag system. So we have over a hundred safety innovations that are specifically for this robot taxi because we know what’s at stake, the amount of redundancy we’ve thought about. A lot of people say you have a lot of sensors. Yeah, we do. We want to give ourselves all the chances on perceiving the environment around us and the interactions and also having redundancy around that, but also being fail operational and fail safe. And so hopefully I’m giving you a glimpse. It’s really at the foundation of everything we do.

Katie Harris: Yeah, I can tell, and I told you earlier this week, I actually had the opportunity to sit in a ax and I felt quite safe, if I may say so myself. Felt like

Aicha Evans: A little cocoon. Yes.

Katie Harris: Just snug. Right on. Yeah. Well, I want to transition and talk a little bit about the future. One of the big concerns with the autonomous vehicle industry is job security. So as you know, nearly 5 million people drive for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, some other delivery service, nonetheless, Amazon drivers. How is Zoox thinking about the potential impacts on society as it relates to job displacement? Okay,

Aicha Evans: So I’m going to take it again, back to telecommunication. I hope some of you know that it wasn’t that long ago that to make a phone call, there needed to be a human that plugged in some things and then another human receive something and then finally click. You could talk and then lots of generations of that. So here we are today. There’s no human in all of your communication. Correct. Okay, good. Now, I think there will be a transition. I’m not going to shy away from that, but when you study history, every time there’s been a big disruption like this, there’s a period of transition. But on the other side of that transition is also a new ecosystem where new jobs are created and where societies move up. We expect that to happen here too. This robot, believe it or not, does not know how it to charge itself, does not know how to clean itself, does not know how to do a lot of things that it’ll need humans to help basically accomplish those things.

There will also be an ecosystem. You can imagine when you look, we take a lot of things for granted relative to the automobile ecosystem today, gas stations, lots of different things. All that will also happen. So I want to be honest, there will be a transition, but in the end, we think that there will be benefits and new jobs will be created. And the thing with autonomous vehicles and the industry at large is the transitions actually is much slower than everybody anticipated. And so our hope and our wish is that that transition also is proportional and goes at the same time and then flips at some point.

Katie Harris: Okay, great. Well, I have so many more questions for you, but I want to save time for our audience to ask questions as well. Before I do, I have one final question from me, which is something we’re asking all of our speakers in line with our theme, Aisha as the CEO of Zoox. If there’s one change that you could make to redefine tomorrow, what would it be?

Aicha Evans: It’s not realistic, but you asked if I wish we could take a pause and clean up the internet before we embark on this wave of AI we’re on. That’s irreversible. I know that’s probably not possible, or maybe it is, I don’t know, but I wish we could do just a quick sweep and clean up before we let things loose.

Katie Harris: Interesting. What are some of your concerns?

Aicha Evans: Because I don’t want to get in trouble. I will use a different transition. When we went from sort of the physical analog world to the digital world, you used to have to go to the library and read books and all the beginning of the dataset was a lot cleaner. The megaphones were a lot smaller. And right now we’ve, in that transition plus with other technologies that have come in, we have a lot of clutter out there that is borderline dangerous. And again, I’m not talking about sensor here for all opinions and views. We were talking in the green room about Plato and Socrates. They are the foundation for me. When I sometimes get confused, I reread the republic just to kind of ground me, but we have a lot of mess out there that to the uneducated or to the unaware, there’s a potential for trouble. And unfortunately, we’re not going to clean it up, but at some point we’ll have to pause in some way or form and clean it up again. Because over our history as a human species, eventually at inflection points, we do do the right thing, which is why we’ve survived this long. But I wish we could just pause just a couple of weeks, clean some things up. Yeah.

Katie Harris: Well, thank you for that answer. We’ll now open it up to questions for our audience.

Student: I just wanted to pick your brains on autonomous vehicles, and do you think this is a solution to a US problem, or do you see this also transferring to Europe where cities are much more connected with public transportation or to Africa and emerging markets where the roads look very different in the US and in terms of also its afforded divinity there?

Aicha Evans: Of course, I’m going to say I don’t think that it’s a solution in search of a problem because I value my time. So I’m sure you expected that answer. Look, I think that it depends on where you are. The one thing I know is that in general, it’s a very inefficient system today. It’s not a very connected system today. I mean transportation, and it hasn’t really seen a revolution or transformation for a while. And at scale, meaning as more people come up societal levels in terms of buying power, there just aren’t enough roads. We’re going to fry this planet, all of the things that you hear. So I think that it’s inevitable, but it will look different in different places. And so Americans love their cars if we get to a point over a few decades, no, it’s part of the fabric of this country.

Let’s face it. If we get to a certain point over the next few decades where we go from two point x cars to one point x car, that’s good. More good things will happen from that. Whereas countries, for example, like China, China’s already very organized. A lot of people don’t realize, for example, in Beijing, you have rings and your driver’s license doesn’t allow you necessarily to go through all rings. So you can see that there’s already thinking around how do you tier transportation in Africa while there’s opportunity for actually greenfield for autonomous only lanes. So I think that it will look different in different places, but in all cases, it will connect with the current transportation system and be one of the modalities. It’s just in here. It’ll be more like freeform, whereas in some countries it’ll be greenfield, whereas in some countries it’ll be mandated.

Student: Hi, Aisha. Thank you. My name is Rob. That shirt is amazing. I just have to say that. It’s very incredible. Thank you. Yes, I’m a first year in the school of business and Education, and you mentioned that with the wave of digitization and automation, that there will be new jobs created. But I’m curious your thoughts on job dislocation as that transition is happening and what role does Zoox or any other companies play in forwarding drivers who lose their jobs and re-skilling into more different opportunities in that regard?

Aicha Evans: Yeah, so thank you and thank you for that compliment. I much appreciated I don’t look like this every day. Normally it’s a hoodie and jeans and boots. So look, we’re already creating a lot of jobs. I mean, we have all kinds of jobs. I mean, like I said, one day you’re talking to the AI like guru the other day, you’re talking to, okay, what’s happening with the brake systems and what have you. We also do a lot of testing. We call it level three testing, but basically we’re driving in autonomy, but there’s a safety driver behind the wheel through some agencies. We bring that in a lot. We have dreams of, oh, we have also all of the support system. Now that we’re starting to head towards commercialization, we have to have depots, we have to have tele guidance systems, and so we consider it our responsibilities. Those are not jobs that necessarily exist today, per se, as a clear profile. But we have training. We have our own internal certification, so we are already doing that. I don’t want to take too much credit because we need to be able to do this at scale, but that movement is already happening. Name,

Student: So my name is Putti. I am a dual degree electrical engineering and MBA student here at Stanford final year. Let’s go. So my question is, there’ve been a couple of failures within the autonomous vehicle space and billions and billion dollars kind of lost. So what is it that Zoox is doing so well compared to some of the other ones? And I guess what do you think are some of the things they didn’t do so well that you’re kind of course correcting for?

Aicha Evans: You’re not going to get me to comment on others. That’s just not what I do because I don’t like it when people comment on us, so I don’t comment on houses. What I can tell you Zoox is very focused on is it’s actually a thing at Zoox, we use a lot of analogies and common language, and I promise you that if you meet somebody from Zoox and you ask them, what is tiny, small, medium, large scale, rinse and repeat, they will tell you, oh, yeah, that’s something we use. We really try and be slow, careful, measured. We think this is a long game by now. You’ve heard all my spiel around history and philosophy, and sometimes I, now I’m going to go on my soapbox. Sometimes I have to remind myself that, okay, we’re special, but we’re not so special. Okay. This world, I mean, folks have been doing incredible things for society, humanity, advancement for a while.

If you could wake up somebody who passed away 2000 years ago and drop them in the middle here right now, they wouldn’t even, I mean, they’d be like, we probably would have to take them to a psychiatric hospital. They’d be like, whoa. So I trust humanity. I am optimistic. Big things though, aviation to go out, lots of billions of dollars. Even the current passenger automobile took a while. I mean, go look at some of the articles about New York and the infrastructure of New York and the horses and the carriage and the jobs and the stables. At the end of the day, you have to be measured. You do have to have irrational belief. Otherwise, you don’t start sometimes at Zoox, I’ll run into somebody who’s been there for a long time and be like, oh, I’m really sorry that we didn’t do X, Y, Z. I’m like, well, if you had thought of doing X, Y, Z, you wouldn’t have started Zoox or you wouldn’t have been that early. Because there are phases, and I think what Zoox is doing really well is slowing down, understanding the weight of what we’re doing and being very measured along the way, knowing that this is a long game and still very early.

Student: Hi, I’m Tiffany. I’m part of the Trailblazer cohort of the LEADS program. Thank you for your thoughts on the ai. It’s really hit home on, I think the Pandora’s box might’ve been already open. My question is on, you mentioned you were only irritated with your partner a few times. I’m wondering, as someone coming up in the ranks, how much should you allow irritation or one-sided generosity before you move to something else?

Aicha Evans: She’s so elegant in the way she asked her question. She’s, look, first of all, I want to make sure we’ve irritated each other, so just so we’re clear. Yes, I get mad. I think that’s what you’re asking. I get annoyed. I’m on a journey. I try very hard. I also know my triggers. Everybody at Zoox who interacts with me will tell you that Friday 5:00 PM is not the best time to be having a difficult meeting with me. Or if you’re going to have it, then I have to really prepare myself because by that time, I’m exhausted. And I’m also thinking about, okay, it’s the weekend and your kids, I mean, now they’re teenagers, they don’t care. But there’s that middle period where they’re like, oh, that’s kind of interesting how you only have energy for work. So literally, I think about Friday as, okay, glass of wine. That part is good. The that’s not good. It’s like Showtime at home on Saturday. But in general, I try really hard to treat people how I want to be treated an extra point. If I understand how they want to be treated.

I have a rule of three after three, come on, it’s not working. I try and encourage with saying, I’m not afraid of mistakes, but let’s look for new mistakes, which is code for old mistake learning. What do we do about it? But occasionally I will lose it if I lost it in a way that I am really mad at myself for, and I usually know, because my best performance review is essentially every night. If I can’t sleep, I’ll go apologize. There was somebody at Zoox who very early on caught me in a moment. I was tired, I was stressed, and I was not proud of how I acted. I went and found that person. You can imagine when they saw me coming, they’re like, oh, gosh. But I said, look, I’m really sorry I lost it. I will try to do better. I can’t promise, promise, perfection. But there are also times where people are like, wow, you are ruthless. And I’m like, yeah, it was needed. I felt like unless I did that, we were not going to have the conversation. Oops, sorry. The conversation we needed to have. What I can promise you though is I’m loving because I do think that’s another thing from Marshall and Alan Mulally in particular, to do what we do. We have to love what we do, but we also have to love each other. So it’s a loving environment. And the same way, if you could talk to my kids, they would tell you some things that I’m not proud of. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m perfect. I go on a journey of discovery and a journey of continuous improvement.

Katie Harris: Awesome. Aisha, it’s viewed from the top tradition that we end every single interview with the series of rapid fire questions. Okay. So I’m going to make a statement and then you’ll fill in the blank with the first thing that comes to mind and we’ll go really quickly.

My number one role model in the field of science and innovation is

Aicha Evans: Marie Curie.

Katie Harris: My favorite way to spend time outside of work

Aicha Evans: Be a bum.

Katie Harris: My dream, robo Taxi, co passenger,

Aicha Evans: Nelson Mandela

Katie Harris: And one piece of advice I wish I knew earlier in my career.

Aicha Evans: Take a chill pill. It’s going to be okay.

Katie Harris: Aisha, thank you so much for joining us at View From The Top.

Aicha Evans: Thank you.

Katie Harris: You’ve been listening to View From The Top, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This interview was conducted by me, Katie Harris of the MBA class of 2024. Lily Sloan composed our theme music. Michael Reilly and Jenny Luna produce this episode. You can find more episodes of this podcast at our website, gsb.stanford.edu. Follow us on social media @StanfordGSB.

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