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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.”
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.
[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.
[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.”
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.”
Mentioned in this episode:
Welcome to the automotive leaders podcast, where we help you prepare for the future by sharing stories, insights and skills from leading voices in the automotive world with a mission to transform this industry together. I'm your host, Jan Griffiths, that passionate, rebellious farmer's daughter from Wales, with over 35 years of experience in our beloved auto industry, and a commitment to empowering fellow leaders to be their best authentic selves. Stay true to yourself, be you and lead with Gravitas, the hallmark of authentic leadership. Let's dive in.Jan Griffiths:
Imagine starting your career as a tea taster. And then ending up as a founding partner and venture capitalist with the company assembly ventures. If you don't know assembly ventures, you really need to if you're in the automotive industry, they are partnering with the people that move the world they are shaping and transforming the world of mobility and yes, our beloved automotive industry. So let's dive right in and meet Jessica Robinson.Jan Griffiths:
Welcome to the show.Jessica:
Thanks, Jen. I am so glad to be here.Jan Griffiths:
It's great to have you. Now, from tea taster to venture capitalist and thought leader in the mobility space. There's a story in there somewhere. So let's take us right back to the beginning. Tea tasting what?Jessica:
Yeah, how on earth did I land there? It turns out, this goes all the way back to high school, believe it or not. So I was one of those kids that as soon as I could get a job. I did. And the only one that was available in my small town happened to be at a mail order company that sold Yes, of all things tea. So I started sweeping the floors and answering the phones. But along the way, we discovered that I had a pretty good knack for tea tasting. And that's what kicked me off and then industry. Wow, that's fascinating.Jan Griffiths:
Well, you know, I drink ridiculous amounts of tea every day with my Welsh heritage.Jessica:
As do I.Jan Griffiths:
Yeah, it's my drink of choice. After the tea, then what happened? Then you went into Zipcar. Right?Jessica:
I did. Yeah. And that was a also a kind of an unexpected transition. So in that industry as a tea taster, I really started to grow in my career. So I, as I said, started from the lowest of the lowest sweeping floors. But I managed to move across country. I changed a couple of jobs along the way. And when I left that world, I was actually Head of Sales and Marketing for a pretty well known company. You've seen their product in the grocery stores, I guarantee. But I was ready for a change, our company had been acquired. And my job had, of course changed drastically from where I started out. And so I took a road trip, cleared my head. And then this was back in 2007, when it was an interesting time to be without a job by choice. And this crazy startup called Zipcar was looking for a marketing manager. And so for me, it was of course a huge leap from industry to industry, but the fundamentals of the job, were a good bridge in terms of being able to build a brand and do outreach and start to build a customer base. So Zipcar is how I got started in the mobility industry. And it's been my love and passion ever since that start.Jan Griffiths:
I love how you call it mobility. And I call it automotive because I've been stuck in automotive for decades, let's educate our audience. Many of the people in our audience like me, maybe in the or traditional automotive industry for decades, and now we got this thing called mobility. And most of us sort of know what it is, but let's hear it from you define mobility for us.Jessica:
Yeah. So I think if you could be skeptical and say this is just a rebranding of the same industry and same old, same old, but I think there's something fundamentally different underneath. And so for us in the work that I do today, as an investor, we describe mobility as the physical and digital movement of people, but also goods, data and energy. So automotive to some degree is certainly part of that story. But it's not the only story in the sense that of course, there's all sorts of other personal mobility options but it really pushes that definition further to look at some of the systems around how we're moving. It's not just the one choice and one option. It's a much bigger story about how we move around the world.Jan Griffiths:
That's a great definition. Thank you. So, from Zipcar, then you went to TechStars, is that where you came to Detroit?Jessica:
It was with Zipcar. So we had been acquired by Avis Budget Group. And so I was leading market growth there. And Detroit was one of the cities that we put on the list to expand our footprint into and it did raise some eyebrows in headquarters in Boston, when we said, Hey, we should grow into Detroit, but we got the approval. And so we opened the market here. And unexpectedly, I ended up running the market here for a brief amount of time, and I fell in love with the city. And so it was Zipcar that brought me here. But it was the opportunity and everything that came after that really gave me a chance to stay. So TechStars was opening a mobility program here in the city. And they had a number of corporate partners behind that effort. And so I actually wanted to run that program. But it turns out by the time I found out about it, they'd already hired that person. But the TechStars team back in Boulder, Colorado really liked the implementation and growth work that I had done prior to our meeting. And so they said, Hey, we're trying to do these other programs with other corporates, and you seem to have a tolerance for working with them. But also a knack for standing up new things without a crisp and clear job description, let alone a playbook. Why don't you join our team. So that's how my start with Tech Stars happen. So I was based here in Detroit. I honestly wasn't here very much. I get to work on some very cool programs across the world. I worked in London with Virgin Media, we put Richard Branson on a plane with a bunch of entrepreneurs and did a podcast from the sky. That was a crazy moment in time. I worked in healthcare with Cedars Sinai, but I was still based here. As you know, my heart was still in mobility. So it was only a brief time that I was with TechStars before the next thing for me.Jan Griffiths:
So your heart is in mobility. You found your passion. And you were these leading edge companies, Zipcar, TechStars, and then you go to Ford, what?Jessica:
That's right. That's very good. It's a funny story there, too. So I was introduced to John kissa, which folks may remember was here. He was leading corporate strategy for Mark Fields, and had a meeting with John and he said, Hey, I think there's a place here for you at this company. I want to introduce you to a couple other people on my team. And so I met a small group of folks that were working on what Ford called at the time, its mobility strategy ultimately became Ford Smart Mobility. And I remember walking around the halls of Ford world headquarters, and thinking that this was not the place for me. It was beige, and the cubicles everywhere. And I said, Oh, no, no, no, no, I can't do this. But the office where we had our interview person that became my manager, when I hired into the company, he introduced himself and sat down and a colleague of his came in, and we were just talking, getting to know one another. And at some point, one of us said, you know, so. So why are we here? Is this really even a fit? And he said, Why don't you turn around and look behind you. And on the whiteboard behind him, was the whole kind of strategy and sketch for how Ford would start to explore new business opportunities in the mobility space. But what was funny about that is that office did not come equipped with a standard set of whiteboards. That was not the thing. You did not get whiteboards in your office. But this team had gone out to Home Depot or somewhere and bought plastic, white plastic and came in one weekend and screwed the plastic into the wall. And they built their own whiteboards. So it was not just the strategy and the team, but it was the fact that they said, You know what, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it our own way. That showed me that there was a place for me in a company like that. So yeah, so I went from startups and working directly with startups to the world of corporate auto life.Jan Griffiths:
And what did you learn at Ford Motor Company? Positive and perhaps opportunities for improvement, as we like to say in the corporate world?Jessica:
Yeah, it was honestly, it was a tremendous opportunity for someone like me to, you know, be in World Headquarters working alongside the executives at the company. A truly special moment in time there. I learned a lot about how to sell your ideas and when support for a new idea and who the decision makers really are. I learned about how decisions are made in the first place and where it fits among any vast list of priorities. I also learned that in the world that I came from software and services based businesses, one of the things that we were always very proud of was the margins in our business far better than anything you'll ever see in traditional automotive or the world of suppliers. But it turns out that margins only part of the story when the number one product in the company is the Ford F 150. And that's a volume story. Going back to the comment about priorities, I learned that it's challenging to try and build a new business inside a company that has been perfecting the art of designing, manufacturing and selling a certain set of products for decades and decades. And I think to some degree in the industry, we're still learning at today. But I have still a number of great friends there and cheer the company on as they pursue their next chapter.Jan Griffiths:
And their next chapter, they've made a statement in a move to separate the EV business away from the traditional blue oval. So what challenges do you think they'll face, Jessica from a leadership and culture perspective, this idea that the team you came into, didn't have a whiteboard went out and made it happen, that's great. But that's sort of a special little team that sits inside of a major OEM where command and control was the leadership style of the day. So given that, he has this glimpse, right, of excitement and inspiration and doing things differently. But now that the split is announced, what are some of the challenges you think they face?Jessica:
Yeah, I think for Ford, but frankly, for any of the OEMs. In this space, the challenge right now is focus and execution. I think we've seen lots of investment into a whole new set of technologies. And Wall Street is expecting results. And so focus is really the name of the day. And so the opportunity in that split is it lets both businesses focus on what they do, well, the electric vehicle side of things, kind of push the envelope forward and get to market with products and services that a new set of customers will really be interested in, while also letting I'd say maybe not distracting the other parts of the business to continue to do what they do. I do think from a people perspective, it will be challenging. 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 is, does that split create that focus? Or does it start to create that fragmentation. I also wonder a lot in terms of any of these large companies, there's power and volume. And if the purchasing teams and the rest aren't actually working together, they're leaving power off the table, in terms of working with their suppliers to have a reliable supply chain and good pricing and good joint innovation. So that's, I think, still a puzzle for me as well, if they'll be able to do that.Jan Griffiths:
You've got experience with startups, you got experienced that on an OEM. And let's go a little deeper into the supply chain aspect of this. If you're a purchasing person at Ford or any OEM, you've now got to deal with a totally different type of ecosystem. You might have startups and new technology. That looks fantastic. Maybe they've been to an event in Detroit, and they've seen this great new technology and they want to bring it on board. If those purchasing guys throw a 35 page Terms and Conditions document at that startup, they're going to run away screaming. What advice would you give supply chain leaders not just at the OEM, but at tier ones dealing with startup businesses? How can they embrace a new way of bringing this technology on board?Jessica:
That I think is still one of the questions of the day and I absolutely have seen both sides of this. I've inflicted it on startups and I've seen some of the companies I've worked with tried to deal with this. I think that for purchasing or anybody involved in in contracting with the startups because it goes to the contract itself to there. I think there has to be a level of rigor around where you're engaging. So this technology is going on program and It affects safety, oh my god, let's keep you know the highest standards possible and make sure we have rigor. But if we're just starting to test out a piece of software, let's be realistic about what the risks are there and the expectations with that startup and create tears or safe places for our company, find the OEM or the supplier, to engage with the startup. And I think you're seeing that you're seeing innovation teams get a little bit more freedom, you're seeing multiple companies have these venture type groups where they've done the structural work internally, to create some of those frameworks to say, we're not going to throw the 35 page T's and C's, after the startup right now, we just want to do a little bit of work. We're not going to ask for exclusivity forever and ever and onward. Because we don't even know if we're gonna buy this. Yeah, it's taking a look at those trade offs, I think, in partnership with their business leaders to say, what are we really out to do here? Are we trying to get to know a startup or learn in this space? Or are we making some big, huge, very important strategic decision that we really need to have all of the rigor around, and it's a process the startups I mean, are also getting much savvier in terms of how and where they engage, we joke in the startup side of the world, but it's true, that fast No, is much better than death by 1000 meetings, where you never actually know if anybody is gonna, gonna support your technology. So quick, no, is actually a gift in terms of time and letting you focus on other areas. So it goes it goes from contracting, purchasing all the way through just the general behaviors.Jan Griffiths:
I think it requires a total rethink. I mean, this the whole transition, and transformation that's happening right now in the space requires a whole rethink of just about every process out there and supply chain and purchasing, I think is a big one, because purchasing those T's and C's are built up. It's based on mistrust. And it's based on trying to capture the potential outcome and position yourself into the best possible position for every eventuality that could occur. Really? Do you really think that there's anybody in the planet that could that could create a document that could do that 100%? Of course not. So what, what's next? and I can't wait to get to the supply chain leader, the purchasing leader that really cracks that one, and knows exactly how and when to bring startups and new technology into the business. What that contract looks like?Jessica:
Systematically, I think that's that's the next chapter. For us, as you see multiple examples of successes now with startups or startups working with the supplier to integrate into the OEM, that that's a great path. But they can do it systematically. So that flywheel starts to go, that's what's exciting for me.Jan Griffiths:
If you find the person that's cracked that one, let me know because I'd love to get them on the podcast.Jessica:
Good. Okay, I've got I've got a few spots of light that we can definitely talk about.Jan Griffiths:
So, after Ford Motor Company, you were the co-founder of the Detroit mobility lab. Tell us about that.Jessica:
My skepticism for joining an OEM prove to in the sense that I'm an entrepreneur at heart. And so while I love working alongside some of these larger entities inside them, turns out wasn't exactly for me. So I left to truly start my own entrepreneurial journey. So the Detroit mobility lab and its sister organization, which spun out of it, the Michigan mobility Institute, were a way for me to, I'd say, spend some additional time and energy thinking about this question of what are both the mindsets, but also the technical skills that we need in this industry at this moment in time, and to some degree was a combination of all of that experience up to this point to say, the industry is here, but we want to go off over there into the horizon? How do we take the steps necessary to get there, the lab and the Institute were a way to pay back into the ecosystem and try to do some of those things. The lab was born at an interesting moment in time just before COVID And all of the lock downs. But our hope was to create an environment where startups and corporates could actually get together and trade ideas and get to know one another. Start to build trust and think about how they might work together. We did do some of that virtually, but COVID slowed us down in terms of being able to do that in person. But the work of the institute actually continued on and continues forward to this day. In the sense that there is an opportunity for new training for our engineers in this industry, there's an opportunity to attract new people to this industry as they come out of school, but also to assist folks that might be transitioning in their careers. Maybe they studied electrical engineering, and they've been working on some portion of the vehicle for 10 years now. And now they're being pulled to work on a new side of the architecture or write software, again for the first time, and they haven't done that in undergrad. So we created a set of programs that really our purpose built to help those transitioning workers and those new folks that might be auto curious, see what's out there in the world. And one of the things that I'm frankly most proud of is the course that we built called mobility fundamentals, which is not a technical training course, I'm not an engineer, you don't actually want me teaching engineering. But it goes to some of those concepts that you hit on, as we started the conversation about what is mobility, really? What are we doing that's fundamentally different from automotive, and we've had a couple couple classes run through now. And the feedback from some of our suppliers whose teams have taken the course has been very encouraging. So there'll be more to come on that as the institute continues to grow.Jan Griffiths:
Now you've got to look at the car in a totally different way, right? You can't look at it as Okay, I need a mechanical engineer to design this. And I need an electrical engineer for this bit over here. And some magic happens. And it all comes together. Not only do you have to look at the entire vehicle architecture, but you've got to look at how the vehicle talks to other systems outside the vehicle. And that's new to us in the industry.Jessica:
Absolutely. And then that systems, that systems thinking, I believe is going to be critical for the future. It's within the vehicle. It's the ecosystem around it, whether we're talking about connected car, or even frankly, the way vehicles are used with so many different services based businesses. Now, there's all sorts of expectations about awareness of the performance and utilization of a vehicle that you can't do. If you think about it just as a mechanical piece on wheels. We're far past that point.Jan Griffiths:
Yes, that's the challenge for leaders in automotive today. It's to think about not only the vehicle and the technology differently, but to think about the people and the education that they need, let alone the leadership model. We'll talk about that later. But the education system, the way that you recruit people, all of that is changing. And I was thrilled when I first met you and you were launching the Detroit mobility lab. And I believe at the time you were partnering with Wayne State. We actually worked with the professors and the dean of engineering to create a new degree, which is not necessarily new in the world, but was new locally. It's a Masters of robotics. And I mean, robotics is an industry, we know is going to be a fundamental part of vehicles, but also all sorts of parts of manufacturing itself for generations to come. And to have a degree like that now in our backyard is a pretty cool accomplishment. And they'll be graduating their first masters of robotics students this December, actually. So right around the corner.Jan Griffiths:
Oh, that's great. I want to come to the graduation ceremony.Jessica:
Yeah. And I will I will be there will be in the front row cheering them on together.Jan Griffiths:
What a huge, huge milestone. It's not just a graduating class. This is something very significant to the industry in the way we lead in the way we recruit people and train people. So hell yes, I want to be there.Jessica:
Okay, so that brings us to today, and you are now the co founder and partner at assembly ventures, and you are indeed a venture capitalist. Now, I have to tell you, when I think of venture capitalists, I tend to think of some typical white guy in a slick suit, smooth talk and kind of kind of dude and that's not you. So how's that working?Jessica:
It turns out when we expand the seats at the table, you get all sorts of different backgrounds. But for me, it is I thought about my career and where I wanted to spend, frankly, the rest of my working days, but I knew that it was mobility. I mean, we've already talked about this idea that 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 you have to follow the money. And one of the biggest levers that we can pull in this industry is that the teams the technologies and the problems that we choose to run after. And funding is a huge piece of that. So I was lucky enough to have a great friend and now business partner here in Detroit, who co founded the fund with me, Chris Thomas, and then a guy named Felix Choi Flynn over in Berlin that we met, as we were starting to stand up the fund. Fundamentally, for me, it came down to, if I'm going to be spending all this time with the startups providing advice and resources and introductions, I want to pull the biggest lever that there is, which is choosing who we fund, and bringing capital to the table alongside that advice and everything else. I am not a New York banker, and I'm not a Silicon Valley tech guy. But I would argue that makes me a truly special investor. And I see all sorts of problems in different ways than you would if you were just kind of looking at the status quo for an investing team.Jan Griffiths:
I love, anybody that's breaking a mold, anywhere. I'm all about that. Even, you know, quite a non traditional career. And I think sometimes people think that they need to stay in a lane or maybe not move across too many lanes. Seriously, we started this out with tea taster to venture capitalist. What advice would you have to people who are thinking about making a dramatic switch in their career?Jessica:
I would say, man, so much advice. I think you'd have to do it with open eyes, but also an open heart. It's not necessarily going to be an easy thing. But I also don't believe it's impossible. Now am I going to go become an engineer and design a vehicle? Probably not. Because one is, it's not my passion, but also the journey from here to there is going to be quite long. But at the same time, if someone were motivated to I believe that is is truly possible. We live in an amazing time in place where access to education is open for many, if not most of us. And so there is a path. So that would be one is is you can do it. But do it with eyes wide open, I'm very lucky to have not made any of these transitions alone. I think that's the other piece is there's a community around you whether you have it today. Or if you are still working on building it that is part of that journey. Let them be part of that journey, whether it's family, friends, industry, let them know where you want to go. And let them know how they can help you get there. Whether it's introductions. I mean, every job that I've had for at least 15 years now has been through an introduction, it was an ad looking online for a job posting. So if you've got the vision and you're want to make a run at it, you got to put it out there in the world and let everyone else come along for the path as well. And then to some degree thick skin is the other part of it. It's one I'm still working on. For sure. Being an investor, you think you might think my day is a lot of fancy meetings and Shark Tank type pitches. It's true. But we've also had to build the fund. And that meant we heard a lot of nose along the way. And that's just that's not a fit. It doesn't mean what you're doing is dumb or stupid or not going to work out. It's just not a fit for that conversation in that moment in time. So thick skin is definitely something that will serve anybody Well, who's thinking about making a big leap.Jan Griffiths:
Yeah. And you have to overcome the fear of failure.Jessica:
Absolutely. And I think for me, what what overcoming that fear of failure looks like is not denying the fear. It's, I think, a fundamental part of many of the transitions I've made, but living to sit with that fear and go on anyway. And again, having resources and folks around you to support that journey. But fear is absolutely part of it. When you're doing something completely unknown or very different.Jan Griffiths:
Yeah, you're right. And you can't deny it. You can't try to push it back. You just you got to feel it. You gotta let it come in, feel it and say yes, okay, I'm terrified of this right now, but I'm going to do it anyway. And then what I always think about is what's the worst that could possibly happen? I mean, really, okay. You know, if I fail at it at a Keynote or something and I stumble, it's the worst that can happen. You know, okay, so I look like an idiot for a minute, but then we laugh about it and we move on.Jessica:
And then you get up and you move on.Jan Griffiths:
Yeah, you just gotta you just gotta go with it. Right, but it does. It takes a thick skin to be able to do that.Jessica:
Yeah, yeah. But I think practice and doing some of those things in small ways. First, it starts to build and you get, I'd say that I don't know the confidence in yourself. But that confidence if so what if I, I felt this time, I'm just gonna go at it again, when you realize that the world isn't necessarily going to come crashing down, if it doesn't work out exactly as you planned.Jan Griffiths:
This fear of failure, as we both know, is extremely prevalent in a command and control leadership style of which our beloved industry, I still gotta call it automotive. Sorry. But I've beloved automotive industry is actually the hallmark of command and control. And yet you think when you think of a startup, you think of leadership and culture in a startup. It's a startup, it's all about failure. It's all about trying it, try again, try it again. Try it again. Try it again. That's a huge switch in the leadership style. What advice would you have for leaders in the automotive industry, in trying to embrace this fear of failure and bring on board a more innovative style? And when I say innovation, I'm not just talking about technology? I'm talking about every single facet of the business.Jessica:
Yeah, that's I mean, to some degree, that is, that's the million dollar question. I think the first thing you have to I try to have empathy for the command and control world in the sense that we've groomed our leaders into those behaviors, they've been rewarded and programmed and reinforced over and over and over again. So I think the first piece is recognizing that that's a choice, it does not necessarily have to be kind of a It's not intrinsic to a person or to a culture, this is a choice. So if it's a choice, we can choose something else. So then the question comes to Why Why might we choose something else? And in embracing this idea of failure, what you're really looking to do is find better ways. In startup life, we call it finding product market fit. I mean, it's a little a little dry in and clinical. But the idea here, is you really looking for something that makes your customers eyes light up. And so I think that's the trade off, right? Are we going to take command and control and I know best, versus a whole team of really passionate people that are going to run really hard at asking that question of what's going to make our customers go insane for our service or product? And then you start to say, Well, why wouldn't we want that? And I'm not naive enough to think that that's perfect and easy and happens overnight when you've got big teams and big deliverables. But even just that orientation of what is your customer actually want here? Have I talked to my customer, and I don't mean, I commissioned a market study, and I read a lot of data, like how it actually talked to my customer, those I think little behaviors start to build into some of those bigger culture changes. And then to some degree, I mean, we've got all sorts of folks, I know that listen, listen to you, if you're a leader, and you know, you seek command and control behavior. And that's not where you're trying to reinforce 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. And, you know, I noticed that this happened, and this is what I saw in the room when it did, I think we're all accountable to those changes. That doesn't make it easy or fun. But I think that is a huge piece as well.Jan Griffiths:
And I get this question a lot people say to me, how can I be an authentic leader and lead the way I want to lead when my boss is all command and control? Well, I get that. I can't even tell you how many times I get that question. But one thing I've learned is this, you cannot control what other people think of you. You cannot, right, you can influence it, but you cannot control it. But you can control your actions. And what I found that often when I was in the boardroom, perhaps in a command and control environment, I might not like it, but I knew how to assimilate parts of me into it. But then when I was facing my team, I absolutely was not command and control. And what you find is that people then start to gravitate. When I ran a purchasing organization purchasing the lowest form of life, right? Nobody ever wanted to work in purchasing. And then all of a sudden, because the culture started to change because the leadership model changes. People all of a sudden wanted to work in purchasing. Wow, okay, that's a change now, still dealing with a command and control overall environment, but being able to impact my team and my little piece of it, and then if we get more people that feel comfortable in doing that, then it starts to spread.Jessica:
There's simple right?Jan Griffiths:
That easy. Come on, change the industry tomorrow. What's up? I'm gonna pull a quote from your very own document, the assembly ventures mobility 4.0 document and this is something that really resonated with me. And it's simple because it's simple stuff that sticks, right? It's not about doing more of the same any longer.Jessica:
Absolutely. I mean, we borrow that from what's much wiser folks in the sense of, you know, what are we actually out to accomplish here? Are we just going to build and sell more vehicles of a certain kind? Are we truly going to change the way the world moves? It's simple.Jan Griffiths:
And we are. We are changing the way the world moves. There it is. And I know that that's that's a bit of a bit of a tagline right for assembly ventures. Is that true?Jessica:
It's true. But as I mentioned, this is absolutely a personal mantra of mine. I mean, I'm I live in Detroit. And one of the things that is overwhelmingly special to me about Detroit is our neighbors and our friends have deep connections to this industry. And we take for granted that you drive down the freeway and you go by a plant and flat metal goes in one side and a car comes out the other side. I mean, no very few other places in the world. Do you have that? So the the the rich talent that we have here is unbelievable. But I also live in a community that is challenged by access and access to jobs. And transportation is a big piece of that. So when I moved here, I said, if I'm going to be part of this industry, for the long run, there needs to be a deeper why, for me, so yes, it's a tagline. But for me personally, this idea that access to transportation is intrinsically linked to the opportunities that you have. That is really my driving force.Jan Griffiths:
And that's what gets you up every morning.Jessica:
Absolutely. Even when the startup that you thought was going to be a roaring success. You can't get together in person. Yes.Jan Griffiths:
Yeah, that's right. That's right. So let's stay with your leadership for a moment. You've read my document that 21 traits of authentic leadership of all those traits, which one really, truly resonates with you?Jessica:
Yeah, it was a fun read to try and figure that out. Before joining you here today, I'll tell you to really stuck with me, resilience was one. But mindset really, is this the piece that came down to me, and I think I'm biased, in the sense that mindset has helped me get where I am. But 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 mindset of who do we want to be and everything else follows from there.Jan Griffiths:
Just like you said, it's not about doing more of the same to use your term, it is a seismic shift in the way the world moves, seismic. That's not incremental improvement, that's not improving your sales revenue by X percent, or your cost reduction by X percent, or when I was in purchasing it was increase your offshore sourcing content. Yeah, they're not so much of that going on these days. No, no, no. But that thinking is still the same. And it's about blowing up every process in your business. And looking at it from a different view and a different perspective. And it starts with how you view the industry, how you view mobility? Are you just producing a car? Because if you are, oh, I hate to say but you might not be around too long? Or are you really engaging with this massive ecosystem, which includes, and again, I'll use your term because I got the document in front of me, the actors. I love that the actors, startups, investors, corporates, government, and academia. It's about all of that all of those entities coming together. And I'm guessing they're not used to playing with each other all that much. And they play by different rules, and they have different ideas and different values. It's not as easy as just getting all these people in a room and saying, okay, and then what are we going to do?Jessica:
I agree, the landscape has fundamentally changed in the sense that I mean, we talk about automotive suppliers and the supply chain, and everyone's kind of had this nice neat place in the world, right? I'm going to tier two supplier I know who comes before and I know who comes after I know who to say Yes, sir. No, sir to and I have my little piece of the world and a feminine Oh, yeah, my control the whole thing, and I'm integrator and in all of that. But I actually think it was that way, first of all, because in the end, we were in service of a customer who had certain demands and we're only fulfilling one piece of maybe their mobility needs, but we are talking about an ecosystem and I know that word is thrown around a lot and it's very easy to say oh, we're talking about you ecosystem now. But when you truly say ecosystem, you recognize I think two things. One is, you're probably not at the center of the story anymore. And that's a very hard thing to accept if you have been the center of your world before, but also that those other people aren't necessarily or entities actors. They're not solely in service, if you they're in service have their own agenda and their own piece of the story. And you can work together, maybe not always in perfect harmony, but it's a fabric. And again, I know we talked about the stuff all the time, but that mindset of I'm in this world, in this environment, where I have to be aware of at a bare minimum aware of these other pieces. But what happens if I can actually unlock the power, the relationships, the business with those other actors? And that for me, again, fundamentally comes back to mindset of what am I doing when I get up every day? Am I trying to squeeze margin out? Fine, it's an important part of the story. But to what end? And how am I doing that maybe in different ways than I've done before.Jan Griffiths:
The time is now this isn't something that you can put on your agenda or a strategy meeting for 2023. I mean, I know 2023 is around the corner. But it's right here, right now, the need for change. And I know we don't like to use the word change, because people get an adverse reaction to that. We need to talk about transformation and transition, whatever term you want to use. It's right now, it is questioning how you think about the business, how you think about leadership, how you think about people, how you think about the product, immediately, right now, I don't know what else to say just what else do we say to people to say, Come on, let's do this.Jessica:
It starts with each of us. So I say hats off, and kudos to you. someone's listening to the show. You've got them in the door. So I think that this this challenge for leadership now is how do we permeate that through? Right? How do we be a role model for our peers? But how do we continue to create that opportunity for our teams? So you know, sticking with mindset, right? How do we go from today and say, Okay, I get it. It's kind of interesting to say, what what is mindset look like for my team? And for us moving forward? And that's probably a decent conversation over zoom or over coffee, in terms of those those next steps? Yeah.Jan Griffiths:
I think that's a great starter. Tell us about a success with assembly ventures. Is there something that you can share with us?Jessica:
There are many, I'm an entrepreneur, myself, and that sense that we're we're building this company, I think one of the more visible external successes is actually one of the first companies we invested in right here in Michigan company called our next energy, we met the team, when they were frankly, just starting out, they had a couple early investors. But we participated in their Series A, which, if you follow startups is pretty early in their journey, they certainly were not producing anything at scale yet, let alone driving a lot of revenue. But our next energy is working to double the range of electric vehicles, kind of a simple statement. But it turns out pretty complex thing to do between the battery chemistry and the engineering that comes along with it. But we're super excited for their progress. Super proud of the team that they've built right here in our backyard. And they actually just announced a couple weeks ago, a major investment from the state and their first manufacturing facility, which will be in Van Buren Township. So they're going to be producing battery cells and battery packs right here in Michigan, starting next year, getting to massive scale a few years after that. So we keep our fingers crossed for good things for them. You don't often see maybe your first investment as a venture capitalist grow as quickly as they have. So we will take a little walk along with the hard work that came with it for those guys.Jan Griffiths:
Yeah, that's a tremendous success. What do we know about the culture of our next energy? What do we know? I mean, it's not certainly not going to be your traditional command and control auto culture. What can you share with us about the culture?Jessica:
Yeah, that's a really cool question. The CEO actually started his career as an automotive engineer at one of the big three, but he spent some time at Apple. They also spent some time at another battery company that he learned a lot of lessons from about what not to do during that time. But Mujib, the CEO, or does I think a couple of things tremendously well, is he has the technical competency to be in every meeting and may Get all of the important decisions that you might expect. But he has been a tremendous delegator. In terms of building the team around him, he absolutely is involved when needed for those big decisions, but he is willing to let his team run and they run fast. And they run so hard, because they know they have this trust. And they also have to be experts in their, in their little piece of what they do there. They also know what they don't know. And they're using prototypes and other things to grow in and prove things out. But they also were, I say, sticking to that focus for where they need to be in terms of getting to commercialization for their batteries. And that's in their culture every day in terms of stand ups and the way they run all hands meetings, for transparency in the company. So everyone's on the same page, it really flows down from the CEO into every single person that works there. I love it. This could be the model of leadership and culture for the future in this industry. We're very proud of what they're doing. Yeah. Let's take a turn. Let's go into the personal stuff. You're ready. Sure. All right, ah, be afraid. So we know what gets you up in the morning. We got that right. The passion Villa from the mobility space.Jan Griffiths:
Got it. But we all fight distractions. We all have distractions. It's different for everybody. What's your distraction? And how do you keep it at bay?Jessica:
Oh, man, we put us to the wall here. I think for me, in this comes from how I got to this point in my career is I was always the person on the team that said, I got it, give it to me, I can do it, we'll get it done. It's you know, the old give a busy person, something to do. And a lot of that work historically, for me has been operational nature, let's make sure the bills are paid on time and get the reports done. And you know, all of those nasty little things that come along with running a business, and it feels really good. If you're a kind of a checklist person like me, it feels really good to knock all those things off, because you can see it like the lights are still on and our vendors still like us. But it turns out that that is a distraction, when you are trying to build something that aspires to be part of changing the way the world moves. I mean, we make no bones about that big vision. So distraction for me, looks like when I'm really stressed, I revert back to like, I'm just going to do the checklist things and I'm gonna like, send a few more emails and do the do some of those housekeeping items. Because it's comfortable. I know I got something done, but it doesn't actually move the ball forward. So I use the old I think is Eisenhower the four quadrants. So when I find myself in that mode of just like checklist, I say, wait a minute, okay, this is in my mind, I need to get it out of my mind. So that I can stay focused on what's actually important. And so I do lists first, but then I don't just go down the list, I actually go through the list again. And I put it in the quadrants and say, Okay, what is actually actually actually important here, and that nasty quadrant of what is important, but not urgent. Those are the ones that I stick on my wall and I say, okay, when am I going to do those? And I get checked, and I say, am I actually making progress there? And if I'm stressed and running around the answers, maybe not, I'm going back to this quadrant over here. And that's where I say, okay, Jessica, you got to delegate, this stuff is not for you, this has to go to somebody else, so that I can focus up here. So that is my practice, I guarantee you for the rest of my life. That is the tendency I'm going to have to continue to overcome when it comes to distractions.Jan Griffiths:
I had the exact same discussion with a client just last week, it's the dopamine hit that you get when you check something off the task list, right? So you get that dopamine hit, it feels good. So you want to do another little thing, because that feels good. And then do another little thing, and that feels good. And then before you know it, the big stuff is just the days gone, and you haven't touched it. So I think you're right. And I think a lot of us fight that. The Eisenhower matrix is a great way and I'll drop a link in the show notes so people can understand a bit more about it. But it's a great way to organize your day and your thoughts and then organizing your day to time blocking I find this very, very helpful. So that I actually put time on my schedule to work on the more strategic stuff. And a lot of people in our industry right now like oh, yeah, but but but but now okay, you just gonna have to deal with it.Jessica:
You got to do it. The meetings just keep going.Jan Griffiths:
That's, right. Now, you love Detroit. You love the city of Detroit. I do, too. was a long time since I actually lived in the city, it was it would be coming up on 30 years ago. An anniversary.. 30 years ago. Oh my gosh, where did the time go? What's What are your favorite things to do in the city?Jessica:
Oh, wow, that's a good question. So I do live right in the city and chose my home based on the places that I could walk to. So I can actually walk downtown which was was important for me in terms of a commute. But I can also walk to or bike to the Dequindre Cut or the Detroit River Front. So I don't get over there as often as they should, or I'd like to, but that is one of my absolute favorite things to do. If it's a beautiful fall day as summer day and evening. It's a constantly changing scene. It's great people watching you get a little exercise in the process. And we truly do have one of the best river friends I think in the world. And I'm so blessed that I can walk to it anytime that I have a minute and I choose to prioritize that.Jan Griffiths:
I agree when I lived in riverfront apartments right on the front. And it of course, the city wasn't anywhere near what it is today. But I used to rollerblade on a Sunday morning across the riverfront, but the riverfront wasn't fully built out. So you'd have to you know, I'd literally have to climb over fences and all these Rough pads to go along there. But it was still a fun thing. See was ahead of my time. Like I didn't even know that was going to be a thing.Jessica:
You are, same.Jan Griffiths:
And I don't rollerblade anymore, by the way.Jessica:
No, it's coming back. I see many rollerbladers out now, it's coming back.Jan Griffiths:
Is it? What is it? It's a roller skating in a in a rink, and they're all like really fierce. These women are really fierce at.Jessica:
Derby, roller derby.Jan Griffiths:
Yes. All I could always picture myself doing the roller derby but not anytime soon. So tell us about music. What's the last live performance you saw was the last one?Jessica:
What was the live performance? I think it was the Eagles when they came through Detroit not that long ago. That was a great show.Jan Griffiths:
Wow. Not what I would have expected for some reason.Jessica:
What was fascinating to me, there was no opening band. And they jumped right into a set and they they played for hours and hours. And here's these these guys that have been, you know, playing together for the better part of their lives. And they still gave it their all on stage. It didn't matter that they've played probably 1000s of concerts. They were there that night to put on a great show. And they did it was super fun. Yeah, place was sold out.Jan Griffiths:
That's great. Do you still drink tea? I gotta know.Jessica:
I do. I do. I have Earl Grey breakfast here and my tea cup. There Earl Grey tea for breakfast this morning. My tea cup? Yeah.Jan Griffiths:
Oh, I'm going in it. Oh, great person. It'll grace like drinking bloody flowers. I can't.Jessica:
This is soapy water.Jan Griffiths:
It's, I've I've come to this one a little bit later in life. But I actually when I was in the industry had a chance to travel to here's a very small part of Italy, where what makes Earl Grey tea is the bergamot oranges. And this is very, very tiny region in the tip of the toe in Calabria in Italy where they grow them. So I get to get to meet the farmers and have kind of been hooked ever since. But it is not not a taste for everyone. I will give you that.Jan Griffiths:
Where else can you go and listen to a conversation about tea? The Eagles, venture capitalist, Ford Motor Company the future of mobility and leadership all in one place. Right here today.Jessica:
It's with you, Jan.Jan Griffiths:
Jessica, closing thoughts for our audience as they listen to this and hopefully start to think a little differently about the industry. Closing thoughts from you?Jessica:
Oh, boy mindset. One of my more recent projects that I got to do was actually was an entrepreneur in residence with the Henry Ford Museum. I'm going to encourage everyone to go on a field trip. If you haven't been out to the museum and a little bit, I guess a shameless plug for them over there. Stop in, of course, they've got all the cars that we know and love. But there's been a lot of work that the museum team has done around this question of mindset and innovation. And they actually are trying to tell the stories of a whole set of innovators that have come from our industry and others. And it's not just the technical improvements around electrification or they're putting headlights on cars. It's about how they got there and some of the habits that they had in their daily lives. So that was one of the things I worked on with the museum when I was entrepreneur residences how to take some of those earnings and bring them to Detroit high school students. So go on a field trip and get curious because I think there's a lot of inspiration right here in our backyard that we don't always take advantage of.Jan Griffiths:
That's great advice. Well, Jessica Robinson, thank you so much for joining us today. Please keep doing what you're doing. keep breaking the mold, keep leading the charge for mobility. Change the world move the world. And let's change this town and an entire industry. Thank you.Jessica:
Thank you so much for the opportunity to chat today.Jan Griffiths:
Thank you for listening to the automotive leaders podcast. Click the Listen link in the show notes to subscribe for free on your platform of choice. And don't forget to download the 21 traits of authentic leadership PDF by clicking on the link below. And remember, stay true to yourself, be you and lead with Gravitas, the hallmark of authentic leadership.