Operator Spotlight: Waymo co-CEO and Intuit board member Tekedra Mawakana

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month we spoke with Tekedra Mawakana. She’s co-CEO at autonomous driving technology company Waymo (an Alphabet subsidiary), board director at Intuit, as well as an advisor to Boom Supersonic and — luckily for us — Operator Collective

Last year, you stepped into the co-CEO role at Waymo. There are lots of opinions about the role and title what is your thinking and approach? How do you make it work? 

TEKEDRA: The question about co-leadership is really fair. In many circumstances I can understand why it would be very difficult, and unfamiliar. However, my co-CEO, Dmitri Dolgov, and I have worked closely together for years now and bring very complementary skills to the table. Dmitri has been working on this engineering challenge his whole career. Thus, he focuses on the development of the Waymo Driver, and I focus on how to commercialize and deploy the tech, as well as build trust with the communities in which we operate and whom we serve. We jointly consider the best strategy and rollout, and strengthen our Waymo team and culture along the way. It’s been a great partnership and I feel very honored to lead the company of Waymonauts alongside him. 

Waymo is tackling a world-changing opportunity. It’s big and hard not the kind of thing that happens overnight! How do you think about creating a long-term roadmap for something like employee retention? How do you know when to stay the course, or when to adapt?

TEKEDRA: It’s definitely a marathon and not a sprint. We’ve been at this for over a decade now, have tested in more than 25 cities and driven more than 20 million miles on public roads. We understand deeply how challenging it is to introduce autonomous driving technology to the public and are committed to progressing safely as we continue to deploy our tech step-by-step. When it comes to our employees, it’s a really fantastic team of over 2,000 people who want to make a difference in the world and are here because they believe in the mission and the impact that this technology can have over the long-term.  

We’ve had the opportunity to bring in professionals from all over the world, with incredibly diverse expertise and points of view. They have come together to provide guidance for any number of different areas of our fully autonomous service and the technology behind it, including regarding key deployment decisions. Doing something like this that hasn’t been done before requires a lot of humility and tremendous openness around learning. And so that is how I approach things. I learn, listen, and make a decision. That learning journey is really core to how we approach things here at Waymo. 

Global policy issues can make or break tech companies. How could the next generation of tech giants benefit from bringing in operators with deep experience navigating complex legal and regulatory situations?  

TEKEDRA: One of the most interesting aspects of mission-driven tech is the broad opportunity for impact, and with expansive impact there will likely be questions about regulations. For that reason, I really hope new entrants will always consider how to apply policy, legal and regulatory expertise at the start to help protect investments, create industry norms, and ultimately deliver on the promise of the tech. 

At Waymo, we work with regulators and policymakers at every level of government to help ensure understanding of our fully autonomous driving technology. We consider Waymo to be an industry leader in this regard, in terms of transparency and engagement with governments. I’m really proud of the work of our team to advance our mission and help shape the future!

Describe a pivotal moment in your career that was truly defining for you — an opportunity that changed your life or a moment where you recognized defeat and changed course.

TEKEDRA: My decision to join Waymo was exciting to me because it was a chance to build from the ground up. I always loved being in big tech companies — I navigated them well for career success and personal enjoyment. But after a while, I really wanted to use my skills as a builder. Since joining Waymo, I have had the challenges of my career. From helping ensure our first commercial service was successfully launched to helping shape the type of company culture we want, it’s all about building with great intention, clear priorities and humility in leadership. 

What is one big lesson you’ve  learned from your career path? 

TEKEDRA: For more than two decades, I advised some of the best-known consumer technology companies working on advancing their business interests around the world.  Early in my career, I focused on transactions within the regulated technology and telecom industries, and rose up to advise CEOs navigating growth and turnaround strategies. Prior to Waymo, I led global teams at eBay, Yahoo, AOL and Startec Global Communications and I started my career at the DC-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson LLP.  When I think about my career path, it’s been anything but linear. A lesson I embraced early on is that often the best move for my career has been to take a role that requires a bit of a step back in order to move forward, and that it’s actually quite common for so many of us to see our careers take that kind of trajectory. 

What’s your secret super power?

TEKEDRA: My secret power has always been my willingness to speak up. It sounds easy, but it actually can be really challenging, especially when you look around the table (or video conference as the case has been through the pandemic) and find yourself to — for example — be the only woman present. While I may need to take a deep breath in sometimes before I speak up, once I start to speak, my super power grows as I am reminded of the importance of ensuring my voice is heard.

What’s one thing you’ve done successfully, personally or professionally, to empower the next generation of underrepresented leaders? What’s one thing you want to take on next?

TEKEDRA: Through my life and career I’ve learned the importance of giving back. I realized that — at a very early and important stage in my career — people along the way took a special interest in me, even though they were not mentors and coaches. This inspired me to start something years ago I call “Givebacks.” It’s a simple thing:- I committed to connecting with three women and people of color each quarter who were looking for guidance, had a question (typically about breaking into tech), or just were looking to build their network. We meet for coffee or lunch or video call, and each time I’m reminded of the importance of accessible leaders. If I am seen as an example to another young woman, or another person of color, of what they are capable of, I’m honored. 

I’ve also been able to use my space in tech to give back through angel investing and joining a women-led fund, like Operator Collective (!!!), which is dedicated to driving more diversity among both women and people of color in venture.

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are a key part of building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or on Twitter and LinkedIn.