By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
The race to build the “ultimate” electric car is heating up. Every month, it seems another electric car company joins the fray to offer a car stylish enough to attract the Tesla crowd, and affordable enough to meet the growing demand from China, the United States and Europe.
NextEV stands out from the crowd for two reasons:
- It has solid backing, from a broad range of top venture capital and Internet companies like Sequoia and Tencent.
2. Its Silicon Valley R&D facility is led by Padmasree Warrior, “The Queen of the Electric Car” and she’s rapidly attracting top tech talent from the likes of Tesla and Apple.
Last month, I attended the grand opening of NextEV Silicon Valley and interviewed its founder, William Li. He shared his “Blue Sky” ambition (he means it literally) and how his grandfather inspired him to go from cattle herder to Internet multi-millionaire. It was the first interview he’d ever done in English. I filed this report for the BBC World Service’s Tech Program, Click.
Here’s a transcript from today’s program, with some great insights from host Gareth Mitchell and BBC contributor, Bill Thompson. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity:
BBC Host, Gareth Mitchell: One event that did happen was the recent launch of yet another electric vehicle outfit in California. This is the Silicon Valley division of a Chinese startup called NextEV. The champagne flowed and the ribbon was cut – the digital ribbon – but our reporter Alison van Diggelen was most interested in the economics of it all. You don’t need to be an investor to know just how risky these ventures are as the technology gradually matures. In California and China state funding and tax breaks are all part of getting these businesses off the ground. Alison tracked down NextEV founder, former cattle herder and now big time entrepreneur, William Li.
Alison van Diggelen: At NextEV’s Silicon Valley launch, William Li confirmed that on November 21st, NextEV will reveal its first supercar in London. The electric car is expected to offer a 0-60 acceleration in under three seconds. Its Formula E racing team has used a dual-motor setup on its race car, and it’s likely to be a feature of the supercar. (The top speed of the sleek two-seater will be over 180 mph, and its price is likely to be equally extravagant!)
NextEV is late join to the electric car race. So how does Li intend to challenge Tesla and the dozens of electric car companies popping up worldwide?
William Li: Tesla is a great company, I respect them. But Tesla was founded 2003. Lots changed. It’s a mobile internet era. We can do better to communicate with our users, give our users a much better holistic user experience.
He aims to do for the car what Apple did for the smart phone.
He learned a lot about user experience from Bit Auto, a popular web portal in China and his first business success. He’s now built a global startup – with facilities in Beijing, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, London and Munich. The global workforce is 2000.
In Silicon Valley, its 250-strong team of auto and software experts is growing rapidly. U.S. CEO Padmasree Warrior – former CTO at Cisco – is hiring experts in artificial intelligence, voice interaction and user interface from the likes of Tesla, Apple and Dropbox. Warrior says they’re already working on affordable cars for China’s burgeoning demand.
Padmasree Warrior: In China, There’s a large shift happening … Environment issues are driving the government to look at electric vehicles as part of the solution… It’s healthier for the environment to drive an electric vehicle.
China is offering generous tax incentives to electric carmakers and consumers, driving a flood of companies into the space. NextEV recently signed an agreement with the Nanjing Municipal Government in China, to build a $500 million factory to build electric motors.
Similarly in Silicon Valley, a fleet of electric car companies has chosen to locate here, thanks to state tax incentives and the strong talent base. These include Tesla, Atieva, and Le Eco.
I spoke with California’s Director of Economic Development, Panorea Avdis. She explained how state policy is helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by focusing on the tech industry…
Panorea Avdis: The goal is to have 1 million electric zero emission vehicles on the road by 2020.
(Today, California has about 300,000 electric cars, about half of the nation’s total.)
Alison: NextEV secured $10M in tax credits. Tell me why that’s cost effective for the people of California.
Panorea Avdis: The return on investment…nearly 1000 jobs in the next 5 years, speaks for itself. California is leading the way, there’s no other state in the union that has this type of aggressive polices and it’s really inspiring this innovation in technology to come forward.
But making cars is notoriously hard. News broke this month that Apple is shelving its electric car plans to focus on self-driving software.
William Li knows it’s a tough road ahead. He gives his company just over a 50% chance of success.
As a boy, Li was a cattle herder in China. He’s come a long way and credits his grandfather’s wisdom:
William Li: [Speaks first in Mandarin ] The journey is more important than the result. So follow your heart….your original wish. Don’t worry about failure.
Like Tesla’s Elon Musk, Li is concerned about climate change and also the dense smog in Beijing and Shanghai. He blames polluting gas-guzzling cars.
NextEV’s brand in China is called “Way-Lye”
William Li: It means blue sky coming. That’s my original wish.
It’s an ambitious goal that could be a very long way off, especially in China’s congested and polluted cities.
Gareth Mitchell: That’s Alison van Diggelen reporting from Silicon Valley. So Bill Thompson – the journey is more important that the result?
Bill Thompson: The result is much more important than the journey here, because unless we get much cleaner public and personal transport, then we’re in big trouble. It’s really good to see another serious entrant in this market. It’s not sewn up yet by anyone. As we heard there about Tesla, there’s no first mover advantage because the technology is developing so quickly.
We know Padmasree Warrior’s reputation for delivering. She’s been on the show a few years back. She was senior at Motorola, then went to Cisco. They’ve got really good people.
But the really interesting part of this is what happens in China. In China because they have much more control over what people can do. The government can actually mandate a move to electric vehicles much more easily than they ever could in California and that gives a great market. So NextEV may be getting money and expertise over in Silicon Valley, but it’s what happens in China that’s really interesting.
Gareth Mitchell: I was interested in the economics side of the piece: the reliance partly on state funding to get these businesses going.
Bill Thompson: Occasionally state funding helps. You might have heard of this little thing called the Internet, kicked off with defense department funding from the US. It did pretty well by being able to rely on that funding for a critical period while it developed and then was able to be used by the private sector. One or two of these examples of it actually working…
(Photo: Thanks to Breakthrough Silicon Valley, Nahom Zeratsion (left) got a scholarship for Bellarmine College Preparatory and will be attending San Jose State University this Fall)
In Silicon Valley, it’s easy to focus on the bright stars of tech and innovation. But what about those people who don’t feature on the home page of TechCrunch and can barely afford their rent? Today, Silicon Valley’s income inequality is jaw-dropping; average incomes of the top 5% of households are about 30 times higher than the average incomes of the bottom 20% ($500,000 vs $15,000). One startup has a long-term vision and is successfully breaking the cycle of poverty in some Silicon Valley neighborhoods by helping low income students get a college education.
Here are the stats from Breakthrough Silicon Valley:
80% of students are first in their family to attend college
62% of students live in gang-impacted neighborhoods
And yet, 96% of these students get into 4-year colleges, 4% into community colleges.
Earlier this year, I sat down with Melissa Johns, the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley to find out how she and her team achieve such impressive stats, and how their program has a ripple effect on the wider community. Although the majority of the nonprofit’s revenue comes from the tech community, its limited budget means the team can only reach a few hundred students every year. With a proven and successful platform like this, imagine what could be done if tech juggernauts like Google, Apple and Cisco stepped up to help scale this program?
The BBC World Service was curious to explore this less glamorous – and yet inspiring – side of Silicon Valley and aired my interview on Business Matters.
Here’s the podcast
And here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
The BBC’s Roger Hearing: Alison, you’ve been looking at the people who work in Silicon Valley…and income inequality in the area?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, there’s a growing gap between the rich and the poor in Silicon Valley. It’s quite stunning. Last week, I interviewed the Executive Director of Breakthrough Silicon Valley. It’s a nonprofit that’s helping low income students break out of poverty by getting a college education. That’s the ticket to success in Silicon Valley and beyond. Melissa Johns runs the six year program: tutoring, mentoring and college counseling and her team has impressive statistics (see above). I talked to Melissa about the many shortcomings of California’s public education system. She told me that on average there’s only one college counselor for every 700 students in California’s public high schools. That’s one thing she would like to fix.
Melissa Johns: I don’t know how we’re going to do the things we need to – to fill the STEM pipeline of future engineers or Silicon Valley is going to crumble. We need to find more women for leadership positions in our Fortune 500 companies. How are we going to achieve all that when the vast majority of our population is left behind because they’re attending schools that are under resourced and they have college dreams with no real connection to a college counselor who can help them walk through the very complex process?
Roger Hearing: But Alison, I gather that there’s a huge number of dropouts there in Silicon Valley high schools?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, there’s a lot of talk here about the dropout crisis. East San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley has dropout rates as high as 30% in some communities and the majority of that are students who complete high school but don’t meet the minimum level of credits to graduate. But the good news is: there are a number of nonprofits working to have an impact, and these Breakthrough students are having an enormous impact on their communities. It’s like the multiplier effect in economics. Here’s Melissa Johns (below) explaining The Ripple Effect.
Melissa Johns: When I look at the tremendous obstacles a student has to overcome to become the first in their family to graduate from college. There’s a huge amount of culture shock… but also there’s a lot of fighting that impostor syndrome…I’m so impressed by students who can fight all of that inner talk that tells them they can’t do it and persevere. So they can then have an economic future that they can be proud of and excited about because they get to choose a career and not just a job. They start a positive ripple effect for any younger siblings, any neighbors, any cousins, who look at what their achievement is and say: well if she did it, I can do it too! The expectations that change in a family, in a community are amazingly impressive.
Roger Hearing: Alison, what’s interesting about this is the area we’re talking about, Silicon Valley: massive high tech businesses. Are they willing, interested in employing people from these kind of communities and trying to take advantage of the education they’ve got?
Keep listening to hear more about:
Diversity in Silicon Valley
How the Singapore education system compares
The challenge of social mobility: How Breakthrough kids are choosing careers, not just jobs, and breaking out of the cycle of poverty.
Find out more about Silicon Valley nonprofits bridging the college gap:
City Year (uses Americorps, a government funded program to work in schools),
College Track (largely funded by Laurene Powell, the widow of Steve Jobs)
KIPP (a national charter school network)
Downtown College Prep school in San Jose, and in Palo Alto
Broadway High School – continuation school for at risk youth – with vocational focus
SV Community Foundation – assembles donations from many sources, gives ~$2M annually to education programs/schools.
Read more from Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series
Please Note: Links to all my BBC contributions on Fresh Dialogues are to my personal portfolio of audio and text. Copyright of my BBC broadcast works remain with the BBC.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Sometimes I wonder if anyone is actually listening to my late night conversations with London on the BBC World Service. Well, I just found out that, YES they are. And some listeners are even sharing these conversation with influential people.
This summer, my producer told me that my conversation with the BBC’s Fergus Nicoll was used for “training purposes” at the BBC’s headquarters in London. We were discussing my interview with Instagram’s COO Marne Levine and how male champions can really help women succeed in business.
Curious? I was too.
Here’s a link to the featured clip at the BBC and a shorter (90 second) version below:
From the BBC’s Business Matters feature:
Instagram’s Chief Operating Officer Marne Levine is mentored by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg – a beneficial relationship given their similar career paths. Alison van Diggelen, from the Fresh Dialogues initiative that focuses on inspirational women and business innovation, describes how women can really benefit when they have male champions too and challenges Mark Zuckerberg to ‘step up.’
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity):
Alison van Diggelen: One thing that female entrepreneurs in positions of leadership have told me that will help, is for women to have male champions. People like Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai have to step up and be champions of women and make it easy for their teams to not just attract, but retain women. Offering childcare on-site is a large part of that…
Fergus Nicoll: So making sure that the onus is not always on female executives to have female mentees?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, absolutely. It has to be shared. One of the things that was repeated time and time again at the Bay Area Women’s Summit, where I interviewed Marne Levine (COO of Instagram), is that the United States doesn’t have universal paid family leave. Quite a few companies in Silicon Valley are offering it (often in paltry amounts, by European standards), but it needs to be federally mandated in order for the U.S. to remain globally competitive. That was one of the messages that came over loud and clear.
It’s well accepted here (in Silicon Valley), the advantages of diversity: having males and females on the team can increase the bottom line, creativity, innovation and meeting the needs of this diverse clientele. That’s well proven, but these companies are having to step up and try harder to attract and retain these women.
Find out more about inspiring women in business:
TaskRabbit’s CEO, Stacy Brown Philpot is one of the few black, female CEOs in tech. What is she doing for women and diversity in tech?
Meet some of the top women in tech in our Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
What’s it like to be a black female CEO in Silicon Valley? How should you handle a powerful backlash when your company does a major pivot? I explored both issues with TaskRabbit CEO, Stacy Brown Philpot and my interview aired last night on the BBC World Service program Business Matters.
BBC host Roger Hearing, Seoul Bureau Chief for the Economist Stephanie Studer and I had a lively conversation about the gig economy, as well as fashion fumbles (like cargo shorts) and cool alternatives (like utility kilts).
Listen to the podcast at the BBC (Episode titled: Bank of England Lowers Interest Rates): TaskRabbit segment begins at 26:46
Or listen to the TaskRabbit segment below:
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity)
Roger Hearing: Alison, I know you’ve been looking into something that is a strange concept: the gig economy. Tell us, what is the gig economy?
Alison van Diggelen: It’s been borrowed from the music industry, Roger. Workers who work in the gig economy don’t have regular full time work, but work in “gigs” like at Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, Etsy, Upwork and TaskRabbit. I’ve been speaking with Stacy Brown-Philpot. She’s the CEO of TaskRabbit. It’s a website and app that matches job seekers with jobs – like house cleaning, shopping, delivery and handyman jobs.
It was founded in 2008 and was one of the first companies in the gig economy. Stacy told me how the company launched its international operation in London in 2012, and it did a pivot. It changed its “bidding for a job” model to a “direct hire” approach. This was a huge success in London but when they tried it back in the United States, they faced a severe backlash from contractors here. Yet, they stuck to their guns and last year the business grew 400%.
I first asked Stacy what advice she would give to other businesses about staying the course, when they try to pivot and face similar challenges.
Stacy Brown-Philpot: Know exactly what it is that you are focused on and don’t lose track of that. Stay laser-ly focused on what that goal is…despite the noise that comes into the market place, stay focused and believe more than anyone else and you can get there.
Alison van Diggelen: There are a lot of critics of the on-demand economy saying that it doesn’t offer a living wage, benefits to workers…this whole “Uber issue” of independent contractors not employees…Can you give me your perspective?
Stacy Brown-Philpot: Our Taskers are independent contractors – they can work in a flexible way and that is the No.1 reason why they stay. We have a very low churn: 10%. The flexibility that we’re able to offer our Taskers is unparalleled and necessary.
What needs to happen is that the regulations and policy has to change…to support the sharing economy. When you look at structures we’re working under…these were created in the 1900’s and they no longer apply…we need something that adapts to the technology-enabled businesses that we operate under today.
Alison van Diggelen: What specifically would you like to see as far as regulation change?
Stacy Brown-Philpot: One of the tradeoffs we face is the ability to offer training and more transferable skills to our taskers…We’d love to see regulations evolve to support that. We’d also love to see opportunities to access healthcare and retirement.
We empowered this community to create a social safety net for Taskers who really want the flexibility to work in a meaningful way, so we have a responsibility to also partner with them to do other things like have health care and retirement savings.
Alison van Diggelen: Let’s talk about diversity – you’re a rare person, you’re black… you’re a female CEO in Silicon Valley. Talk about the pros and cons of that.
Stacy Brown-Philpot: The pro is that I stand out…whenever I walk into a room and try to meet somebody…I say: trust me, you’ll find me…you’ll see who I am. (laughter)
But the con is that I stand out. Sometimes I look around and wish there were more people who look like me. At TaskRabbit over 58% of our staff are women, we have 11% African Americans – It’s a stated goal to increase those numbers. I feel a responsibility – just to feel more welcome wherever I go – to increase those numbers, and encourage everybody in our industry – not just for the sharing economy – but the tech industry overall to do the same.
Alison van Diggelen: What specifically do you do?
Stacy Brown-Philpot: We have goals around targets that we measure in hiring, so whenever we bring someone in that we want to hire, we want to make sure that population of people we’re interviewing is a diverse population of people. We also do things culturally in terms of our off-sites and events to make sure everybody can bring their whole selves to work because many of our new hires come from referrals….if you feel you can bring your whole self to work and bring someone who’s different and they be a great candidate for the company. (Brown Philpot also told me TaskRabbit has teamed with the Congressional Black Caucus to help increase the company’s diversity.)
Alison van Diggelen: Talk about your wildest dreams for where TaskRabbit can be in 5-10 years?
Stacy Brown-Philpot: Task Rabbit should exist everywhere in the world. We’re creating everyday work for everyday people – this is a phenomenon that is global and so I want to be global as a company. Millions of families are time starved, countless people are looking to find work, and they’re looking for an opportunity for growth and creating a meaningful income. That’s an economic responsibility that we take seriously. We’re shaping the future of work.
Roger Hearing: Does it change the future of work? These kinds of companies: Uber, Etsy etc?
Alison van Diggelen: There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence… and according to the US Census, the gig economy was the fastest growing employment sector last year. A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40% of American workers will be these independent contractors – it’s currently about 30% – and this will have knock-on effects. Here in the U.S. we don’t have a national health service so these people working these gig economy jobs don’t have health benefits through their employment, so there are things that will have to change.
Roger Hearing: It hasn’t all been roses, as you alluded to in the interview. There was a revolt against TaskRabbit. Tell us more about that…
Alison van Diggelen: They originally had a bidding process and the Taskers felt they had more control that way. After trying out this new on-demand service they got a huge backlash. They learned a lot of lessons -one of which was: you can’t overdo the communications. A lot of people didn’t understand the changes. Stacy Brown Philpot worked previously at Google for almost 10 years and she used her product experience there to stay the course. She recalled when a new version of Gmail came out, people hated it and hated Google for introducing it…People are opposed to change she found.
In the end, they’re saying the Taskers benefited and TaskRabbit benefited and it was a win win. It was a vocal minority who opposed the change.
Continue listening for more discussion…
The Economist’s Stephanie Studer explains why Uber was effectively banned in South Korea and why gig economy companies like TaskRabbit may face cultural and other challenges if they try to launch in the region. We also discussed trust and safety issues; and what TaskRabbit is doing to ensure Taskers are trustworthy and reliable.
And finally, Roger Hearing explored the business fashion trends in London, Silicon Valley and Seoul and was surprised to learn about the popularity of the utility kilt here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Find out more
Meet more strong female leaders like Instagram COO Marne Levine and Wholly H2O’s Elizabeth Dougherty from our Fresh Dialogues Inspiring Women Series
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
“Making the world a better place.” This popular mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is regularly ridiculed by HBO’s popular series, Silicon Valley. For sure, the valley is full of hyperbole and idealistic exuberance, and to many outsiders that may seem completely irrational, insane even, but perhaps it’s a necessary mindset for this innovative region? Are there some entrepreneurs who genuinely want to make the world a better place, not for PR reasons, or to boost their social media following; but just for the sake of it? I attended the 19th annual SVForum Visionary Awards to explore the question.
This is my first report for the BBC World Service tech program, Click.
Listen at the BBC Click podcast (Silicon Valley segment starts at @13:33)
Here’s a transcript of the segment, edited for length and clarity:
Click Radio host, Gareth Mitchell: This is Click from the BBC in London. We talk about technology every week and Silicon Valley is often on the agenda. It’s the kind of place where if you’re a company CEO, and you clock up, say a billion users, most people would say, ‘well that’s incredible,’ but in Silicon Valley, people are likely to say, ‘Oh really?’ It’s almost like a billion seems like a small number, such is the ambition about that place. But Silicon Valley likes to tell us it does have a beating heart through its Visionary Awards and this is where the valley recognizes CEOs and developers who really do want to make the world a better place. From the awards, we have this report from Alison van Diggelen.
Alison van Diggelen: Talk of revolution was in the air in Silicon Valley last week at SVForum’s Visionary Awards. With past recipients like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Esther Dyson, these awards have earned a reputation as the Oscars of Silicon Valley. Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, welcomed guests…
Liccardo: In Silicon Valley we do a great job of innovating; we do a terrible job of celebrating. And it’s important that we stop every once in a while and recognize those who’ve been leading the way and perhaps allow them to inspire us.
van Diggelen: Jennifer Palka is one of this year’s visionary award winners and wants to inspire a revolution by transforming the relationship of the American people with their government. She’s founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that leverages the innovative power of SV technology to help make government work more efficiently, cheaply and openly.
Pahlka: We’ve been trying to make the guts of government… as sexy as making Facebook. People are buying it… by coming into government, they can change the world.
van Diggelen: Remarkably, Code for America has managed to attract many top techies from companies like Apple, Adobe and Google who apply the SV playbook to government.
Pahlka: We believe that government can work better “for the people and by the people” in the 21st Century…the thing we are doing is bringing the practices of SV – user centered, iterative and data-driven approaches to solving problems – into government…by asking people to come and do a year of service.
van Diggelen: Code for America “fellows” make open source apps to address local issues. These are being scaled from local to national level. It’s now easier to apply for food stamps, connect with city hall via text, and get access to public records online. In San Jose, it helped inspire a (waste no food) app that helps hotels and restaurants redirect excess food to feed SV’s homeless. Pahlka’s innovative model has even been adopted by governments around the world. There’s a Code for Japan, Germany, South Africa, and Pakistan. But what really animates Pahlka is how it’s helping redefine SV’s role in the world.
Pahlka: Silicon Valley gets bad rap – we’ve transformed the world, but increased the inequality in our country.
Silicon Valley isn’t just about wealth creation; it’s about bringing people into our institutions in a profoundly valuable way that connects to the history of our country.
van Diggelen: The history of the United States and the need for an open Internet was also top of visionary award winner Tom Wheeler’s mind. A former tech entrepreneur and VC, Wheeler is now Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which regulates US phone and cable companies; and fights for net neutrality on behalf of consumers and innovators. Wheeler describes broadband as a major driver of economic growth and likens it to coal during the industrial revolution.
Wheeler: Broadband, high speed Internet is the essential “commodity” of the 21st Century… You can’t be in a situation where you’ve got gatekeepers deciding which innovators get on…
van Diggelen: The European Union is in the process of following a similar model.
But like many tech innovators, Wheeler has a long list of ambitions, including the fight for consumer privacy.
Wheeler: A network gets to see every place you go on the Internet, everything you do. In the phone world, they couldn’t sell that information without your permission. That doesn’t exist today for networks in the high speed Internet, so we’re proposing that it should. The consumer has right to say whether that information can be productized and sold by their network provider.
van Diggelen: As the celebrations come to a close, I asked serial entrepreneur, Kevin Surace to reflect on the evening.
Surace: We’re living in a time when the innovations are coming faster than we’ve ever seen – in the history of ever – we’re now seeing inventions as powerful as the fire or the wheel every month…the pace of innovation is unbelievable.
van Diggelen: A fitting end to an exuberant Silicon Valley evening, where everyone was pumped by the same revolutionary fervor: to make the world a better place.
Ambi –audience exuberance…fade out
Gareth Mitchell: Not that I want to bring the party down, but do they really want to make the world a better place? They might be nice people, but they’re running businesses, they’re pretty hard hearted entrepreneurs at the end of the day, aren’t they?
LJ Rich: There’s something called corporate social responsibility…it’s nice in a way that some companies would like to give back to the community, but it can’t hurt their social reputation, to be seen to be good, especially when you look at how a company’s social behavior is analyzed online and people will suffer if they’re behaving badly or in a way people aren’t impressed by. So yes, I think it’s very nice and altruistic, but there are always pluses to behaving in a responsible manner and some of these will definitely be impacting the bottom line.
Listen to the whole Click program, featuring reports on the future of the Internet; Wonderlab at London’s Science Museum; and a new virtual reality film called Valen’s Reef (about climate change’s impact on our oceans)