You’ll hear a lot of people praise Robin Chase for her accomplishments as a “businesswoman” – her official occupation on Wikipedia. Her resume is pretty stunning; Co-Founder and former CEO of Zipcar (purchased by Avis for $491 million); Co-Founder and former CEO of Buzzcar (purchased last year, along with their 7,000 cars and 100,000 users, by Drivy for an undisclosed amount); Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board for Veniam (they’re “delivering the internet of moving things” and they just raised $25 million in Series B funding to do it); on the Board of Directors for Tucows and on the Advisory Board for the World Resources Institute; and obviously she has published a book – it’s called, Peers Inc: How People and Platforms Are Inventing the Collaborative Economy and Reinventing Capitalism. Did I mention that she graduated from MIT and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009?
In short, nothing Robin Chase has ever done has been easy or insignificant. Sure, you could couple her praise with a gender story – an instinct many have these days – and applaud her advancement of female entrepreneurs and women in business. Realistically though, when you’ve done what Robin Chase has done, and continues to do, you’ve just crushed it as a human; one who not only has a knack for bottom lines but a fetish for fixing the world. In every sense of the word, she is inspiring, whether you look at it through a lens of commerce or pure existentialism.
This week she was a keynote speaker at the Discovery conference hosted by The Ontario Centres of Excellence and before she got mic’d up for thousands of eager attendees, I was lucky enough to get ten minutes of her time.
There’s a lot describing Robin Chase out there in the world; MIT grad, entrepreneur, businesswoman. But how does Robin Chase describe Robin Chase? Who are you and what do you represent out there?
These days I feel like I’m a very practical person who sees problems and really wants to improve them and really wants to get things done. Right now, in the last six months, I’ve got a new personal mission statement…”I’m trying to speed the pace of evolution in companies, governments and world economies to avoid revolution.”
I feel like we are right now in a sense of deep malaise and disturbance around the future with respect to climate change, the future of capitalism, the future of work – things are moving really really fast and people are feeling a deep sense of anxiety. Existing companies and existing governments are doing a really poor job I think responding to the urgency of a lot of those things.
Revolution is ugly, so I’m trying to shake everybody up, including entrepreneurs, and saying, “Wow. Are you paying attention to this unbelievably fast-paced transition that we’re going through right now? Wake up because it could go in a direction in which we really really don’t want it to go.”
We have to be very proactive. If we go to the sharing economy, a lot of people want to say is really disrupting labor, people are not having any benefits, we’re going to be pushing wages all the way down to the bottom, I think, all that is true – it’s possible. Or you could wake up and talk about separating social safety nets and workplace rules from fulltime labor because the future is not a “fulltime job”. Or we can lok at what’s going to happen around the environment and start knuckling down on getting things done instead of continuing to drag our heels.
In any case, I see that we need to transition really really quickly and I want to do what I can to facilitate that and that might be that status quo wants to hang on so tightly that it doesn’t want to enable change. So we need to figure out – and this is part of my book – we need to make status quo companies say, “Ya, I want that future, I want to be part of that future, and I want to get there before some startup does.” And startups, wow, this is an amazing time and opportunity for you because everything is in such deep transition that all of our systems are about to be reinvented, so go be the one to do the reinventing.
For governments we know it’s a challenge that the regulations, they’re not fast-moving – we know they are not fast-moving. So when I’ve been talking to governments around regulation, I like to remind them that government’s job is to protect the common good, the public good, and not the status quo – not protect the status quo companies because they have lobbyists yelling at them, but protecting the public good and what’s best for people.
That ties in nicely to my second question. I speak to a lot of entrepreneurs and the way they describe how they came across their business and their path varies. Rodney Rice started Home Advisor and he says it was a very unemotional analysis of where the gaps in the market were – they sat down and looked at every market and every industry, saw where all the holes were, and they picked one that seemed to make sense. Another founder, Justin Key who is in the entertainment space and he told me that he picked a space that he just liked being in. You are defined as a “Transportation Entrepreneur”. Why Transportation? How did that all start?
I stumbled into transportation because my co-founder saw this car sharing service happening in Berlin and she said, “Hey, what do you think about this?” If I think about that decision moment, what I knew is that I saw a huge business opportunity with the internet and wireless existing, and it was well applied to that. What I will also say is that I was not personally interested in spending 100 hours a week for the next 3 years that didn’t have a social upside.
So, you wouldn’t find me doing…Groupon. I would never be doing Groupon. No matter how much money it’s going to make, I’m never going to do that company. So it had to have this social benefit. Once I got into Zipcar and came out the other side, what I knew, what I had learnt during that time, was that everyone’s quality of life, their access to opportunity totally revolves around the quality of their transportation. Which we don’t mouth overtly, but when you get to work pissed off, it’s because the bus didn’t come or the train, or there was traffic. Or why could you not take that job? Because you couldn’t get there. It’s a fundamentally central part of glue to our lives that I hadn’t appreciated before and most of us kind of don’t pay attention to.
The second piece is, from a climate perspective, transportation is 25% of world CO2 emissions. So it had this nice dovetail of these two things: I could impact the quality of people’s lives in a profound way as well as address the biggest issue of our time. I now am psyched about it. But before (laughs), I didn’t…I’d say my value system brought me to that place.
What keeps you sane?
Right now, I’m honestly travelling 85% of the time. I did 40 days straight, home two nights, out for another bit. What keeps me sane is, lucky me – it’s such a standard answer but it’s true – I have an unbelievable family that I really enjoy. What I enjoy about it is the routineness of it, the family-ness of it, the small tiny detail of those things as well as seeing their fabulous personal values grow up and go out into the world.
The other reason why I’m working at this pace is because I feel like we don’t have a lot of time and when I get positive feedback from my work, I feel like, “Ok, it’s worth you doing this at that crazy pace, because it’s making a difference.”
What should people be really excited about? What innovation should we be really excited about that’s going to really hit us and that’s importance is going to become very evident in the next five years or so?
What has the potential to be unbelievably phenomenal, if we execute correctly, is the advent of self-driving cars. But it also has the potential to make our lives way worse if we don’t do it right. If we do it wrong, we’re just going to have hell everywhere; more congestion, lost jobs, no transportation infrastructure revenue…everything will be worse. If we do it in the right way, people will be buying seats in shared cars, which means we only need 10% of the cars we have today. Which means for cities no on-street parking, no parking garages – and all of that can be repurposed to correct the ills of cities.
You can create more green space, wider sidewalks, more trees, bike lines, more affordable housing – all the things you want to have – and it delivers, in terms of this access to opportunity, you can offer point to point transportation at the speed of a car trip at the price of a bus ticket. So that is really transformative…
And with this autonomous vehicle, how it plays out from a policy and execution perspective has enormous implications around this idea of what is the biggest social gain. So we’re sharing assets; what does that mean? We have incredible productivity gains without the labor, so what are we going to do with these productivity gains? It’s teeing up major economic questions that we’re going to be seeing increasingly as we move towards a future of greater automations. This autonomous vehicle is going to be the head-to-head, worldwide discussion around “what do we want more: no traffic deaths, livable cities, cleanliness, or, jobs?” It’s going to be interesting.
Feature image courtesy of blognonian.com
Ben is a Toronto-based writer and public speaker with more than a soft spot for 90s hip hop. He has spent over 10 years in business & tech, more than 20 in the arts, and an entire lifetime in a state of perpetual judgment (highly recommended). He is the author of the blogs This Is Your Brain on Dating and Love Gone Cray and can be found pontificating on Thought Catalog, Notable.ca, The Toronto Standard, Offline Magazine, Gasm.org and Huffington Post.
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