Real Talk is a series of candid conversation with women leaders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Padmasree Warrior thrives on challenge. As an undergraduate studying chemical engineering, Warrior was one of five women in her class of about 250. She joined Motorola in 1984, eventually becoming vice president and CTO, and helping the company garner the National Medal of Technology. In 2007, she left Motorola to become the CTO at Cisco, and was soon handed responsibility for overseeing strategic partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, operational innovation, and investments in young companies.

Her position at Cisco made her one of the most visible women in technology, and one of the most visible Indian women in all of American business. In 2015, Warrior left Cisco intending to found her own startup. But a meeting with Nio founder William Li--popularly known as China's Elon Musk--persuaded her to become the founding CEO of the self-driving car company's U.S. operation. When she joined, Nio U.S. had 10 employees. It now has about 600, and its parent company went public in September.

Here, Warrior talks about women in technology, scaling a new company, and the future of driverless cars. 

What first attracted you to science?
I was always curious about how things work. When I was little, I would do all these experiments at home. I wanted to see what would happen if you burned plastic, so I set fire to a dish in my backyard. I would take something apart and try to figure out if I could put it back together and make it work again. 

As an undergraduate, you were one of five women in a class of about 250. What advice do you have for women who are working in overwhelmingly male environments?
Be confident. Cherish the fact that you are rare. The fact that you are the only woman in a meeting means people will probably remember you. Take advantage of that. And make people realize you are an expert in a particular domain. When I came to Nio I was an expert in cloud, and mobile, and technology. I wasn't an expert in the auto industry, but I came across as a domain expert.

Since you began your career, the percentage of U.S. women with STEM degrees has fallen precipitously. And women leave technical jobs at an alarming rate. Why do you think that is?
I think a lot of it has to do with the work environment. People feel that with a STEM degree they will go into a work environment that is mainly male-dominated, very chauvinistic, and that you won't have a life. It's considered unsexy compared to other fields. It's very sad.

What was it like to go from Cisco, a company with 75,000 employees, to Nio U.S., which had just 10?
It was scary the first week. I went from having 26,000 engineers to zero. At first we had two trailers in a parking lot, one street over from Cisco. We had no air conditioning, no Wi-Fi, no bank account. We were using personal credit cards to buy routers and phones and get set up. Former colleagues would call me and ask, "How's it going? Do you miss us?" I would say, "I don't miss you, but I miss the conference rooms with the air conditioning!"

Which have you enjoyed more: Being a leader at a big tech company or being a leader at a startup?
Both are hard in their own way. In a big company, what is hard is just motivating thousands of people, dealing with thousands of customers. You have to maintain the brand, so you feel like you're under a microscope. What you wear matters--everything matters. In a startup none of that matters. It's much more fun building something from scratch.

Now Nio U.S. has about 600 employees. What do you look for in a new hire?
Someone hungry to learn. If you're going to a startup, you need a willingness to learn and roll up your sleeves. We had to let a few people go who had a lot of experience, but when I showed them an empty room and asked them to make a lab out of it, they had no idea where to start. I tell job candidates that their experience doesn't help us, because we are doing something that hasn't been done before.

I'm a very direct person. Sometimes it's because I am pressed for time, but that is also my style. I need to know I'm working with other people who are direct, too.

What is your favorite interview question?
The question that gets the most fascinating answers is, "What is the toughest situation you have had in your life, and what did you do to overcome it?"

If Nio and other autonomous vehicle companies are successful, a lot of jobs will be eliminated. Do tech executives have some responsibility to make sure they're creating jobs, too?
In terms of automation, will driving jobs go away, such as taxi drivers? Yes, some of that will happen, but there will be other jobs created. Fleet management roles, for example. Somebody has to get these cars cleaned up and charged up. Jobs will shift. We'll still need people for a lot of infrastructure jobs.

When do you think we'll have a fully self-driving car that costs less than, say, $25,000?
A car that is fully autonomous, mainstream, cost-effective, and consumer-owned? 2030.

What are the biggest challenges in getting there? 
First, the technology still needs to be made robust and made safe. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done. Second is getting the users comfortable and feeling like they can let go. Many of us grew up learning to drive. It will take a generation. Third is the infrastructure. If we do get to where 30 or 50 percent of cars are self-driving, there is a whole city infrastructure that has to be laid out differently. You don't need to use premium real estate for parking.

Published on: Nov 13, 2018