Once you meet Jordi Vila Hernández de Lorenzo, you may want to throw away any notions you have about career track predictability.
He grew up riding horses — his parents met while riding and started an international equestrian-travel business. He was just 10 years old when his father died in a horseback-riding accident, and suddenly Vila Hernández de Lorenzo and his older sister found themselves holding the reins to the family business. At age 16, he became CEO.
After selling that business, he enrolled in a French university to study aeronautical engineering, space communications, and space navigation systems. That educational experience led him to NASA in the U.S., where he helped develop what he calls “planet-hunting technology.”
But the entrepreneurial skills he learned early in his life eventually brought him to Stanford GSB, where he’s developing plans to launch a startup that will focus on space technology to meet pressing human needs, such as climate change.
Running a business is a lot for a 16-year-old. How did you manage?
When I started getting more involved, I decided to incorporate new providers into our portfolio. That’s when I started traveling to Tunisia, South Africa, and Botswana. By the end we were sending clients to about 80 destinations. We hired people and got some investments. I learned a lot from the investor partner on how to run a business. I also realized the horse business was very irregular and complicated with low margins and many unknowns when it comes to matching clients to horses around the world. I kept working on it even through my first two years of college, but then we sold it to the partners and I rerouted my life a bit. I was 20 and I was excited to focus on something else.
What was the pivot point for you in deciding to pursue space telecommunications?
That traces back to when I was in college. I always loved engineering and space. I was curious, like every kid is. Why are we here? Is anyone else around us? When I started studying engineering and telecommunications, I started to understand how science and technology can improve our lives. I took a course in radio astronomy as an elective, and that triggered a desire to know more about other planets and to keep exploring. I went to France to learn more about astronomy and telecommunications with the end goal of going to NASA. I started reaching out to researchers and reading their papers, finding what they were working on. And eventually I got a six-month internship at NASA, which turned into a nearly seven-year stint.
Explain how you want to combine the ideas of interplanetary exploration and entrepreneurship.
When I was at NASA, I was working in the astrophysics division, which is a very science-heavy department, the vast majority of employees having PhDs. I was the youngest person there when I joined at age 23. We were using pioneering technology for space exploration. One mission was looking for formation and clusters of new stars. On another project we were looking for signs of life across the galaxy — planets with water, carbon, or other life-supporting molecules. It was a great learning experience, and I enjoyed working with those very smart people, but I wanted to do something where I could bring a project from start to end and serve society.
It sounds like you already were helping society.
I was contributing my little grain of salt to the overall knowledge of astrophysics, but a private company or start-up would encompass more areas. I was focused on science and research, but in a private company you have to deal with marketing, monetizing, and providing value in some other way. That’s when the idea of going to business school sparked.
You’d been involved in private business and entrepreneurship while growing up, so what was your goal in going to business school?
Entrepreneurship has been a common thread throughout my life. But I came to business school to learn that in a more structured way. Since coming here I realized how narrowly focused my previous experience was. I thought maybe after business school I can apply this technology to an aerospace startup that instead of looking out to the galaxy looks down to Earth. We can use this incredible pioneering technology to uncover data on Earth, on things like climate change.
What’s tougher, guiding a bunch of backcountry newbies on horseback or tracking natural resources on other planets?
There’s more uncertainty when you’re dealing with people and behaviors than in dealing with science. I don’t know if one is tougher, but one can be planned better than the other. Animals also bring lots of uncertainty. I had to learn a lot about animal behavior. In Botswana, we regularly approached groups of elephants while on horse safaris. I had to learn that any time you see an elephant moving its leg in circles, especially if it has a calf, she’s nervous and can charge at any moment. Whereas when I was doing scientific research at NASA, it’s math, it’s numbers, and you can anticipate more than you can with animals, or clients for that matter.
What has surprised you most since coming to Stanford GSB?
I’m shocked by how much I didn’t know. For example, I didn’t know what venture capital was. I barely knew what consultants did, or had ever heard the term “product-market fit.” I was in a scientific environment previously. I didn’t know anyone who had done an MBA. But I’m happy I took that leap because I’m discovering a whole new world right now.
Have you had any specific experiences or professors at Stanford GSB that have proved particularly influential?
Last year I took a course called Hacking for Defense, which is led by Steve Blank. He’s been very influential for me. He uses a methodology that’s an intuitive process to find a product-market fit. Basically, you find a problem and iterate on it until you come up with a solution to solve that need. It’s so helpful to learn entrepreneurship with an organized structure. Professors Rob Siegel and Peter Kelly have also been great mentors to me.
How have you experienced the Stanford community?
All these people with amazing backgrounds have opened my mind to new problems. I still don’t know what a typical Stanford GSB student is or has done in the past. Each student is so different. Everyone is humble and a hidden gem; they have done extraordinary things I could never have imagined before. Discovering my classmates continues to be a great experience for me.
Also, the community at Stanford has been very welcoming. There’s an aura of being honest, being vulnerable, being yourself and embracing yourself through your wins and your losses. People accept you the way you are. That has propelled me in other aspects of my professional life, to not be afraid of failure. We all fail at some point, and that’s fine.
Photos by Kiefer Hickman