Be very clear about what you expect from people. Listen to everyone but give all equal credibility and equal amounts to doubt. Don’t allow your ideas to be squashed by one powerful voice. Don’t be afraid to advocate for a path you believe in. And try not to allow others to dictate your cadence.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Willard, Executive Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Imagination Technologies.
Alexandra started her professional career as a junior engineer at Ford Motor Company where she pioneered the development of NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) measurement of vehicle engines. She then moved into engineering consulting with Jaguar, where she was a certified track test driver, and quickly rose to be the leader of the Analytical Powertrain team for the original Jaguar F Type.
In 2005 Alexandra then built a highly successful startup telematics technology company, Lysanda, which pioneered on board diagnostics (OBD) for automotive breakdown analysis, driver behavior and fleet management. At Lysanda, Alexandra won major deals with TomTom, TNT and Sycada Green. She wrote UK 7 patents protecting her inventions in the area of OBD and telematics. Lysanda merged with Tracker Network in 2012 and was renamed Tantalum Corporation, whereupon Alexandra was able to participate in a partial exit for both her shares and other minority shareholders.
In 2013 Alexandra formed her own advisory company, Taurus Consulting, providing executive and senior advisory services to technology, automotive and insurance clients including Google, Accenture, Allianz Global Assistance, Admiral Insurance, Mondial, Investcorp and Arvento. Her clients are global, located in the UK, France, Israel, Turkey, China and Australia.
In 2018 Alexandra joined Tantalum Corporation as Head of Air.Car to commercialize her patented technology for on-board vehicle emissions. Air.car technology allows “pay as you pollute” costing and monitoring for individuals, commercial fleets and local governments.
She was appointed as CMO and CEO of the Tantalum Corporation in November 2018 and then February 2019 respectively. She then joined Imagination Technologies as the Executive Entrepreneur-in-Residence in June 2019 with a mandate to create new opportunities and ventures from within IMG. She will be launching the first new venture in Q1 2020.
Alexandra has a degree in Naval Architecture (Royal Navy sponsorship and early training) and a Masters in Systems Monitoring and Diagnosis from Southampton Solent University. She is the mother of a 10 year old son and is a very keen cyclist, mountain biker and sailor and also enjoys recreational snowboarding and skiing.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve been working in tech since about 2005 when I got funding for my connected car startup, Lysanda. I have an engineering and tech background, and my dad is an engineer. I’m a curious mix of entrepreneur, consultant and product professional.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I finally got how machine learning algorithms are trained and tested for edge compute. I ask a lot of questions and do a lot of reading around a subject but even then, unless you are an AI developer, it’s tough. I was having a workshop with our product team — they did a really great ‘drop the mic’ moment on me!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I got ‘tapped’ into running a workshop with our CEO in attendance. I had almost no time to prep but tried to run it as day one of a design sprint. Huge fail. They were very patient, but it was 90 minutes of pain and suffering where I pretty much had a credibility debt to pay off for the next three weeks. Thank goodness it happened so early. Never underestimate the value of prep!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Imagination is a world leader in ray tracing, neural network accelerators and graphics processing units. A large proportion of the most valued smartphones have made use of our technology. Our deep history even goes back to the days of the SEGA Dreamcast, a revolutionary video game console that ushered in a new era of interactive entertainment.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I am always working on new projects! I love the idea of reducing barriers to entry and democratizing AI. Unfortunately, it’s a little too early to go into specifics, but I hope to reveal more in the coming year.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
It’s always such an exception, isn’t it? Few enough women are in tech leadership roles. I fully support that people should be chosen for a leadership gig on merit only, but the level of unconscious bias is not insignificant. If we want to change things, then perhaps we need to tilt the tables in favor of women for a while.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The challenges are subliminal. Nobody would ever say, “You’re just a girl, you wouldn’t understand it,” or be patronizing, but there is the feeling that the boys have their own club. A secret code that they alone know. Even fun terms like ‘mansplaining’ are actually a little bit awkward as the term implies that women don’t understand tech.
In terms of solutions, it’s a matter of education and socialization. Not enough girls aspire to STEM in college, therefore not enough get into tech. More than that, it’s how kids are socialized to view roles at home. My mom still thinks I would be better getting a nice job working in a hotel chain or something ‘softer.’ In that respect we do ourselves no favors at all.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Do you work in marketing? If I hear that again, I will scream. I greatly respect my sisters in marketing. They are total pros! But for some reason they are regarded as being less valuable than the tech guys. In my last company, I was the Chief Marketing Officer before becoming the Chief Executive Officer. I wanted to be Chief Product Officer and was most definitely qualified to do that role. But because it was easier to put me in the marketing role — I know a bit about product and digital marketing — I became the CMO. Plus, one of the guys was going to quit if he didn’t get the CPO job.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
The first thing I learned is that we all have two ears but only one mouth. In other words, we should try to listen first and speak up later.
Second, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.
Third, it’s important to always keep the overview of your objectives clear. This is easier said than done, but if you lose sight of what it is you are trying to accomplish, it will be much harder to succeed.
Fourth, don’t fear change — embrace it. Be ready to pivot or perish at any time. If you think you are wrong and have evidence to support it, make a change. Whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to become a spinning top.
Lastly, be bold! Make mistakes and don’t be afraid to do things outside the norm. I love the expression, “Go break some eggs.” It’s all about that.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I would give female leaders the same advice that I would give a male leader. Be very clear about what you expect from people. Listen to everyone but give all equal credibility and equal amounts to doubt. Don’t allow your ideas to be squashed by one powerful voice. Don’t be afraid to advocate for a path you believe in. And try not to allow others to dictate your cadence.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
You must be visible and clear in your thinking. Learn to collaborate with and trust your team leaders — you will need them more than you know. Surround yourself with smarter people than you. Make sure that your ‘signal’ isn’t being distorted. You need to inspire people, which means they need to hear your message. Beware of middle management. Weak middle management is like a layer of clay — nothing permeates past it. Don’t be afraid to personally involve yourself in mission-critical matters. If the company is in trouble, then get stuck in and run the workshop or crisis meetings yourself. It’ll make everyone feel better!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have two (now three) real mentors; Alistair Crawford, my first Chairman, and Brad Corrodi, my first investor director; they put me through an entrepreneurial bootcamp when I did my series A funding for my first startup. I spent eight months being taken to school, which was harder than I ever anticipated. When I started, I was just an engineer with a good idea. By the time they had finished with me, I was a CEO. I rely on their teachings every day.
Ron Black, CEO of Imagination, is another mentor. Okay, he’s my boss — but every time I have a one-on-one with him, it’s like being back in one of my professor’s offices in college. The patience, intellect and willingness to teach is frankly amazing with someone who is so busy. When you are with him, he has that gift of making you feel like you are the most important person in the world. Ron was also the Chairman of the last company where I was CEO. People like him make the good, great.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
In my first startup, we created a tech which enabled commercial vehicle fleets to reduce their overall fuel consumption and CO2. We calculated that we had saved about 18,000 tons of CO2 in one 12-month period. I always like that.
I also try to support startups and founders who do things that do good. I’m not so free and easy with my time as I used to be, but if I can give someone genuine a leg up on the competition, I will. I also try and run a bit of ‘job-finding’ network for my contacts and ex-colleagues.
Finally, I wholeheartedly support the local economy and spend money locally whenever possible.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If we as technologists can learn to collaborate beyond our corporate and national boundaries, there is no end to what we can achieve. It has been said that science knows no national border, and I believe that we technologists, innovators and managers can truly help the human race. We need to look to the future, and not be dominated by petty nationalism and populism.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Si vis pacem, para bellum, which translates to, “If you seek peace, prepare for war.” One never should seek to fight but the business world can be very tough, and it isn’t fair. Always be ready. Try to play out the possibilities for the decisions you make and remember that you can’t control very much.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’m a huge fan of author Simon Sinek and Apple CEO Tim Cook. Both feature strongly in my professional belief system. Simon is the father of modern product innovation thinking. Tim is truly something else — an incredible leader in charge of one of the world’s largest tech empires. So many of us thought that a post-Jobs Apple wouldn’t thrive. Tim showed us that product innovation can be genetic in a company.