Eric Gundersen, Mapbox
I thought if I could bring technology to some of these development agencies, it would really help them become more efficient and improve communication.
In 2009, Eric Gundersen flew to Kabul, Afghanistan, to work on a consulting project for the US State Department and quickly learned that getting around town would present more than the routine traffic challenges.
“I remember there was Jalalabad Road connected into the ring road and that was it,” he recalled. “You had the intersection of two highways, but there wasn’t any city. So here I am with some State Department folks trying to figure out what just went wrong in the presidential election and the map was blank.”
In Gundersen’s work as an international development expert, he regularly came across similar situations, where governments or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were handicapped by not having access to good mapping and location tools.
A year after his Kabul trip, Gundersen set out to fill that gap when he founded Mapbox, which provides development kits that anyone can use to design and publish custom maps. Its popular mapping tools are now featured in popular apps like Pinterest and Foursquare as well as publications such as National Geographic and the Financial Times.
For a small-town kid from southern New England, it has been an amazing journey, especially considering the personal obstacle that Gundersen had to hurdle early in his life. (More about that below.)
Q:You grew up in Warren, Connecticut. What was that like?
Warren was a “more cows than people” kind of place. We had one stoplight and it was usually blinking most of the time. My house was at the end of a dead-end road next to a ton of farmland and I spent lots of time outside. It was a great place to grow up and an even better place to leave when you got older.
Q: What did your parents do?
My dad was a nuclear engineer and my mom was a reporter for the local newspapers, The Litchfield County Times and the New Milford Times.
Q: What kind of student were you?
My education was interesting. I am dyslexic. I did not learn to read until the fourth grade and I really struggled with it through the sixth grade. But I was lucky — my parents gave me a lot of support.
Q: How did they discover you’re dyslexic?
It’s weird. They were like, “What the hell’s wrong with this kid? He can talk a mile a minute, but he can’t read?” So they took me to these different children’s hospitals where they ran all kinds of tests on me.
Q: Dealing with that couldn’t have been easy.
It was brutal every time I was called upon in class to read out loud. I still remember that as one of the more terrifying feelings that I’ve ever had. I remember in first grade getting screamed at, “This is a ‘B,’ this is a ‘D!’ Unquestionably, it was the most stressful challenge I’ve faced, but I put my head down and figured it out.
Q: How did you manage your dyslexia?
I came from a fortunate background and because my dad was an engineer, my parents had enough money to put me in a Montessori school. I started listening to books on tape that were recorded for the blind as part of a US government library project. Literally, tens of thousands of books were recorded on cassettes. You would order them and then listen to the tapes on a huge Fisher-Price braille recorder. I would listen along with a highlighter in hand. And bit by bit, I was able to start memorizing the words. One neat thing was that there was a speed adjustor on it, so when they started having me listen to books, I could adjust the speed slider. So, between fifth and seventh grade, I taught myself how to read. And from eigthth to tenth grade, I taught myself how to speed read.
Q: Looking back, what grabbed your interest?
I loved international history and thinking about far off places. When I got to high school, I began to read about globalization. That’s when I became interested in the economic side of things.
Q: Did technology excite any passion?
I was one of the first kids in my school to work on a computer — that was because I needed to use the spell checker because of my dyslexia. I’m not sure that I ever handed in a paper that my friends didn’t proof until I finished college.
Q: You finished with a master’s degree in international development from American University. Did you want to pursue a career in international development?
No, after I graduated I moved down to Peru and got a job in a bank working on micro finance. I was really interested in the lending dynamics and this notion of group lending that used social collateral in lieu of formalized credit systems. This was about 10 years after the war ended down there. I was working with some of the development agencies in the country and decided to quit working at the bank. In 2004, I started a strategy company with a friend from grad school, who I had convinced to drop out.
Q: That was when you started to scratch your entrepreneurial itch?
Yeah, exactly. I had taught myself how to code when I was younger and was getting really excited about what was going on back then with open source. I thought that if you could bring technology to some of these development agencies, it would really help them become a lot more efficient and improve communication. So I took some open-source tools and began building apps for NGOs to help them do their jobs better.
Q: How did mapping figure into what you were working on with international development?
We were doing data projects and a lot of the data was geo-related, so mapping and location became a critical lens for everything we were doing. We were working with organizations like the World Bank, the United Nations, and Doctors Without Borders and helped put all that data out in consumable, machine-readable fashion. We just kept improving our tools on every project we worked on. From deforestation work in the Congo, to public health mapping of clinics outside of Fallujah, and flood mapping in Pakistan. I needed tools to work with big data sets to take spreadsheets and databases and transform them into context. And I did that by putting them onto maps.
Q: Essentially, necessity was the mother of invention?
That’s it. We needed tools to do our jobs better, so we built them over time. We wanted to find a way to scale our impact — and that meant developing a product plan and building a platform. What we ultimately enabled was a way for people to make incredibly custom maps.
Q: Did your background in developmental aid offer any advantages over someone with a technical background when it came to conceiving Mapbox?
No. I never felt my professional background gave me any advantage. I always had a bit of self-doubt because I did not do computer science. When you are self-taught, you don’t have a curriculum to step through and you always wonder what you don’t know. It probably took me an extra couple of years to gain confidence through just sheer experience and showing success to feel comfortable and say, ‘Cool, I think I’ve learned a lot on my own.’ And once I felt that confidence, I started becoming a better team leader.
Q: If that didn’t account for your success, what did?
I’m just stubborn. It took me 10x longer than any normal human just to be able to do basic reading. Like hell was I going to let anything else stop me.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote you live by?
It’s a quote from Andy Warhol: “I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually the way things happen in life — that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television — you don’t feel anything.”
Q: Is there an individual you most admire?
Every day I respect Barack Obama more and more.
Q: What’s your favorite book?
“Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger. It’s a great explorer book about his experience going out into the desert after the war.
Q: Are you a movie buff?
If I was going to watch any movie this week, it would be “Inglorious Bastards.” It’s absurd in every way. Super-strong characters, super-strong imagery, and a fantastic angle. It’s just great.