Meet Jessica Robinson, committed to the future of mobility

Meet Jessica Robinson, committed to the future of mobility

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Jessica Robinson is not your average venture capitalist. She started her career, not in finance or investing, but as a professional tea taster.

In fact, Jessica’s entire career path can be characterized by unconventional pivots. After that tea-tasting gig, she fell in love with the mobility industry and spent time working for tech startups like Zipcar and Techstars before moving on to one of the legacy automotive OEMs: the Ford Motor Company.

That’s when she realized where her true passion was in business, specifically the business of changing the way the world moves and improving the mobility industry while she’s at it. That’s why Jessica joined Chris Thomas to co-found, Assembly Ventures, to help uplift the companies moving the industry forward.

When it comes to taking big career leaps like hers, Jessica says it’s all about embracing the fear of failure — and using it to your advantage. 

“In embracing this idea of failure, what you're really looking to do is find better ways,” Jessica says. “In startup life, we call it finding product market fit. It's a little dry and clinical, but the idea here is, you’re really looking for something that makes your customers’ eyes light up.”

Themes discussed in this episode: 

  • Is ‘mobility’ more accurate than ‘automotive’ to describe our industry?
  • How the addition of EVs is changing the culture of traditional OEMs
  • How to tackle big career shifts and shake-ups
  • How to lead cultural changes within your automotive company 

Featured Guest: Jessica Robinson

What she does: Jessica is a co-founder and partner at Assembly Ventures, a venture capital fund helping move and transform the world of mobility in the West. She also co-founded the Detroit Mobility Lab, an organization dedicated to helping create a better future for the mobility industry through educational and networking opportunities. With over a decade in the mobility industry, Jessica is a rising global leader and sought-after speaker in her field.

On leadership: “Mindset, I really do believe, is linked to the change that we're talking about in this industry, in the sense that we have the power to choose what we want our companies to be, what the opportunities are that we're going to pursue. And that starts with the mindset of who do we want to be, and everything else follows from there.”

Episode Highlights

Timestamped inflection points from the show

[1:36] From tea taster to venture capitalist: How did one of Jessica Robinson’s first jobs as a professional tea taster kick-start her journey toward venture capitalist and automotive thought leader?

[4:02] An industry rebrand: Does the word “automotive” still accurately sum up our industry today? Jessica explains why the term “mobility” is becoming the norm and how it can take us into the future.

[7:10] Climbing the ladder: From her first auto industry job at Zipcar to a podcast in the sky with Richard Branson for Virgin Media, here’s how Jessica climbed the mobility ladder to a position at Ford’s Smart Mobility project and beyond.

[11:01] The big split: Ford recently announced that its electric vehicle business would be a venture separate from its legacy company. That split presents new opportunities as well as new challenges for workplace leadership and culture.

[13:39] The next chapter: How can the auto supply chain industry learn how to work in tandem with Silicon Valley startups to bring in new technology? Companies are still figuring it out, Jessica explains.

[18:17] A new beginning: Though Jessica enjoyed working for a big OEM like Ford, she soon found she was an entrepreneur at heart. That’s why she started the Detroit Mobility Lab with the goal of bettering the industry.

[23:40] Not your average venture capitalist: Jessica made multiple big career shake-ups — from working at startups to OEMs to starting a venture capital fund. She offers her best pieces of advice for those looking for the confidence to make similar career leaps.

[28:38] Don’t deny the fear: One of the biggest barriers to making a bold career shift and achieving success is overcoming the fear of failure. Jessica and Jan discuss how aspiring automotive leaders can embrace that fear and use it to their advantage.

[30:02] Advice for auto industry leaders: Many leaders have been conditioned to believe that controlling their team is the most important thing. But Jessica says listening to team members and customer needs is the key to culture change. 

[34:46] Changing the way the world moves: To Jessica, the mobility industry is about a lot more than making cars. She explains why changing the culture of the industry is so important to her. 

[36:49] 21 traits: For Jessica, mindset is the most important of Jan’s 21 traits of authentic leadership when it comes to creating change in the industry.

[41:15] Now is the time: It’s almost that time again — strategy planning meetings for the next year. How can teams make big cultural changes? “It starts with each of us,” Jessica says.

[46:14] Jessica’s big distraction: Checklist items. They keep her busy but get in the way of the work that will actually change the world. The Eisenhower Matrix helps keep her organized and focused.

[53:49] Closing comments: Jessica encourages everyone to check out the Henry Ford Museum, where she recently served as an entrepreneur-in-residence. “There’s a lot of inspiration right here in our backyard that we don't always take advantage of.” 

Top quotes

All quotes below are from Jessica Robinson:

[12:42] “I can see a world where people start to feel like they're in the old side of the business, or the new side of the business — the boring side of the business and the cool side of the business. And I think that would be really challenging to have success in both of those cultures and let them thrive and deliver the best that they can. So I think that will be the question of the day — does that split create that focus? Or does it start to create that fragmentation?”

[24:38] “The ability to move can really open people's access, and access to whatever their dreams are. That's been my guiding light for years now. At the end of the day, I think you still, to some degree, have to follow the money.” 

[27:50] “If you've got the vision and you want to make a run at it, you’ve got to put it out there in the world and let everyone else come along for the path as well.”

[33:02] “If you're a leader, and you see command and control behavior and that's not what you're trying to reinforce in your culture, you got to call it out. And I think this is part of the change, too, to say, is this who we are and who we want to be, or is there a different way? […] I think we're all accountable for those changes.”

[35:13] “What are we actually out to accomplish here? Are we just going to build and sell more vehicles of a certain kind? Or are we truly going to change the way the world moves? It's simple.”