Edward Kargbookorogie is a man of driving-related puns, so it makes sense to use a few when describing his road into the transportation business.
There were detours and false starts — from playing college football and basketball, an attempt at going pro in the former, working in policy and politics — before circling back to transportation, an industry he was born into. After serving as president of the Greater Austin Transportation Co., Kargbookorogie graduated from the GSB’s MSx program in 2018 and now works at Google implementing machine learning, racing full speed ahead into a still-nascent technology.
How exactly did you get into the business of transportation?
I was born into it. Both of my parents drove taxis while they were putting themselves through business school. After I graduated from Wake Forest, the first thing I tried to do was play professional football, but that didn’t work out. I spent a little bit of time in politics and decided that’s not where I wanted to be long term. I ended up connecting with an investor in the transportation space, and that’s how I got my start in that industry. I began in Houston at Greater Houston Transportation Co. and progressed quickly within the company, creating courses and starting a new division while another that I managed was sold, before moving to Austin. And, pardon the pun, that’s when the ride of my life began.
OK, so let’s take a step back: How did your parents get involved in transportation?
I was born in Houston. My mother’s from Lagos, Nigeria, and my dad is from Sierra Leone. They met at Rutgers University as undergraduates. They’d both come to the U.S. to study, then moved to Texas for graduate school. The taxi business is one that you can do as a student. You don’t have to own the car; you can lease it. So they would lease the car, drive, pay bills, pay rent, and then study.
It sounds a lot like what we see now with rideshare apps.
Uber and Lyft took that business model and put it on a mobile application. But my parents were in business for themselves. They liked the flexibility. My mother could go out, work an entire weekend, and make a month’s worth of rent and bills. To this day, she will tell me that she had a number she wanted to hit, and she would work until she hit that number and stop.
A lot of immigrants participate in this space. When my parents moved down there, they asked other immigrants about different opportunities, and that’s how they ended up driving taxis. After they graduated from business school, they took the taxi model and used it in the ice cream space. You can make a mint selling ice cream in Houston in the summer. You can make a year’s worth of earnings over four or five months. So they took a bunch of ice cream trucks, and they would stock them up, and then people would rent them and drive around different parts of town selling ice cream. They used the same independent-contractor model.
Is there something about transportation that attracts immigrant entrepreneurs?
The autonomy is what attracts people to that space — to be their own boss. That freedom, not having someone telling you what to do, when to do it, or how to do it. No one tells you what part of town to work in. You’re running a business, and as an entrepreneur, you have to figure things out. Immigrants who come to the United States, often their mentality is, “I’ll figure it out. I’m willing to take this risk to go solve for X.” And with the taxi-business model, someone with that mindset can be very successful.
When I started my career in Houston, a lot of drivers remembered my dad. They took me under their wing and really taught me the business. Not like the balance sheet and all of that, but how they operated, what the service was like, the experience they had, the challenges they were facing. At the end of the day, what makes me so passionate about the business — especially when you talk about on-demand transportation and taxis — is that whether it be Black, Latino, or Indian immigrant folks to the United States, it creates a space where you essentially get to start and run your own business. You work as hard as you need to, and make as much as you want to.
What did you want to be growing up?
My earliest predilections were business-management-related; I used to play Aerobiz as a kid and football, both soccer and American, video games in management mode. I like to think I was on the executive express until we moved to Nigeria and lived in Lagos for four years, where unfortunately during that time the family faced challenges and my parents split up. After Nigeria, we moved to Chicago — my mom’s brothers were there, and we had very trying times in Chicago. I’m one of four boys, and we lost one of our younger brothers during that time. Bounced around the city from a studio apartment on the North Side to a one-bedroom apartment on the South Side. Through all of that, the ground underneath shifted. I had been a straight-A student going to magnet schools, but when my brother died I began struggling academically, so my mom ended up sending me and my youngest brother to Texas to live with my dad. When I got to Texas, I was a teenager and I started playing sports. In sports, you get a lot of male role models. That’s where I started to find myself. Role models are kind of my process of learning; they drive my process for growth.
What made you want to become a leader?
The leadership, inspiring others — I think that comes from being a smart kid in an area where being smart wasn’t always celebrated. I was picked on a lot. They used to call me “African booty scratcher.”
“African booty scratcher” is one of those insults hurled by Black Americans toward African immigrants on schoolyards and playgrounds.
Yeah. And there are two ways you can react: You can fight back, or you can let it make you stronger and steel your resolve and learn how to help other people. For me it was the latter. I think my leadership grew from being picked on. I learned a lot about myself and people in general.
You grew up in Houston, which is known more for its Black American culture — think Beyoncé, Solange, UGK, and the like — than African culture. How did growing up African in a Black American culture shape your perspective?
I just read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and her new book that just came out, Caste. The Great Migration from the South to the North of Black people — the African American community’s experience — is not removed from or dissimilar to the journey that Africans experienced through the slave trade. We are all the same people; we are not dissimilar. At the end of the day, Black, white, African, African American, Indian, Asian … we’re all the same people. We’re 99.999999% genetically the same. But as a byproduct of how we operate in our own self-interests and survival, and how we divide up into these communities, we end up “othering” other people. People become outsiders. But I’ve always been an outsider. I was an African in Black America, and when I went to Nigeria, I was an American in Africa.
Here’s another thing about being the ultimate outsider: I went to a different school every year from kindergarten until my freshman year of high school. Having gone through that experience and trying to work my way in drives me to help other people work their way in.
I will say, though, it is particularly hurtful when people look like you and you’re still “othered” by them. As kids we don’t know any better — it’s how people work. But it’s something that grown-ups do, too. For me, having gone through it and being able to pull through — not without my warts, not without my wounds — as much as it had its negatives, it had its positives.
After Wake Forest and trying out for the NFL, when did you go full time into transportation?
After I worked in politics, I understood as a Black American the unwritten rule of “wait your turn” for an opportunity to present itself in leadership. I’d taken the LSAT and planned to go to law school, but I decided to do something different. While coaching peewee football I met an investor at a local venture firm, who’d invested in a company called Texas Taxi. He was bringing people on for leadership and management training, and I was thinking, “OK, I know that space because my parents participated in it, and now I have an opportunity to grow at an accelerated pace.”
“Waiting your turn” is something often told to Black professionals who want to advance.
Especially if you’re Black and young. But I think the world is changing, especially in tech, where you have young entrepreneurs who have great ideas and they’re able to grow rapidly. In the industries that are older, there’s more biding your time. It’s not about what you know or what you’ve accomplished, it’s “this person has been here longer than you, and you have to wait until that person’s gone.” Often, Black folks definitely have to wait, or it takes longer for people to notice their abilities.
What brought you to Stanford GSB?
Google brought its autonomous vehicle program to Austin in 2014, and the first ride ever given in one of their vehicles was in Austin in 2015. Because of my good fortune of being in that space, I got to see that. I asked myself, “If this is what this looks like today, what does tomorrow look like?” And I started thinking, “How do I get on that side?” But getting into a tech company with a non-tech background is really hard to do. You have to map everything out and think strategically. I realized that business school would be a good way to get there, and there’s no better school for transitioning into tech, especially from a business perspective, than Stanford GSB.
Tell us more about the transition into tech. What hurdles did you have to overcome?
I leveraged and expanded my network to get a detailed understanding of the road ahead and gained support along the path I’d need to take to get there. It took a good bit of sweat equity, a financial investment, and sacrifices by my wife and kids to get to business school. I took a step back from a high-profile job knowing it was necessary in advance of leaping forward. In short order I went from my work being covered by the local media to a grad student and intern, exploring the development of my own autonomous vehicle mapping startup, and then repotted first as a manager at an autonomous mobility startup and subsequently a portfolio lead and senior consultant with a lot of runway at Google.
The biggest personal hurdle along the way was staying confident and continuing to believe in myself; my wife helped me overcome doubt when it crept in. The biggest professional or logistical hurdle was having to turn down offers from and negotiate with various powerful tech companies; thanks to preparation and practice in Professor Maggie Neale’s negotiation class and intelligence from the Career Management Center (CMC) and my expanded network, I was able to negotiate successfully every time.
How did you end up at Google?
I interned there and worked in financial operations while I was in business school. Then I went to a company called Zoox to get some startup experience. It’s a full-stack autonomous mobility company. They’re building the car and the software and intending to provide transportation service once they have the vehicle ready to go. Of all the players in the autonomous car space, they have the biggest portfolio for trying to do everything. I was managing strategic partnerships and procurement for distributed infrastructure. But I decided to go back to Google, and now I’m a portfolio lead, senior solutions consultant. I’m not allowed to talk specifics, but within Google Cloud I’m working on machine learning implementation and some innovative stuff related to video.
You’ve got a running theme of networking and being a “people person.” Did you get this from your parents? The business? Where did it manifest for you?
There’s nature and then there’s nurture. We’re all born with a certain personality. But yes, it is not lost on me that when my mom tells me about my dad, she always describes him as the life of the party. Gregarious, outstanding, nice to people. My mom is currently a deaconess in her church — these are people at their core who want to participate in the social structure. They want to give, and they thrive off of the energy that’s shared between people. I am an extension of them.
Where do you go from here?
The arc that’s important to me — and is the reason I went to Stanford — is that I think about what I did in Austin and how it’s something I could scale. My time at Stanford and my time at Google will allow me to build a business that’s big and beneficial to society. I’m also driven by role models. Robert Johnson built a billion-dollar Black business in media. Robert Smith built a billion-dollar Black-owned business in finance. My goal is to build a billion-dollar Black-owned business in tech. That’s what I’m working toward and — again, pardon the pun — that’s what drives me.