Robo-taxi developer Zoox isn’t the biggest or best-funded player in the self-driving vehicle space and hasn’t logged the most test miles. But when a new CEO joins the Silicon Valley startup next month, it will leapfrog competitors in one important way: It will be the only autonomous vehicle tech firm led by a woman.
The Foster City, California-based company announced last week that Aicha Evans, formerly Intel’s chief strategy officer, will become its CEO on February 26. Her background as a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Senegal distinguishes her as one of the few African-Americans running a tech startup. She will also be the only woman CEO among three dozen self-driving car companies, based on a review by Forbes.
“It’s welcome news in a male-dominated field,” said Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s AgeLab. “The computer science community to start with is heavily male-dominated, the auto industry is heavily male-dominated. It’s critical that if (autonomous vehicles are) to be a sustaining evolution of technology there’s going to have to be diversification in the leadership as well.”
Women and people of color remain underrepresented as leaders in the auto and tech industries. Looking back to the fabled U.S. government-sponsored DARPA Challenge races of 2005 and 2007 that ignited the robot car revolutions, rosters for the era’s two dominant teams, Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University, include only one or two women each among dozens of brainy young engineers and computer scientists. Improving gender and ethnic diversity at tech and auto companies isn’t a superficial step – multiple studies find that it meaningfully boosts corporate performance and creates better companies.
“When organizations are represented by people who have similar backgrounds, experiences, education, it can lead to group think – so you’re not getting the most creative ideas,” said Ashley Martin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. “Also having social category diversity (e.g., gender, race), can lead to more information elaboration/consideration of ideas and therefore people thinking more carefully and creatively about their decisions, with the potential to lead to better performance.”
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