By Michelle Quinn San Jose Mercury News
Talk about picking a big challenge.
For her next act, Padmasree Warrior, one of the most prominent Silicon Valley female executives, is taking on Elon Musk.
Starting today, Warrior will be the chief executive of NextEV, U.S., an electric car company with headquarters in Shanghai.
From its U.S. operations being built now on N. First Street in San Jose, Warrior is putting out the Help Wanted sign. She plans to hire as many as 400 workers, particularly software engineers and experts at machine learning, autonomous driving and vehicular robotics.
NextEV's goal is to create a super car next year, and sell a mass-market electric vehicle that also offers drivers the best of the mobile Internet.
Watch out, Tesla.
The former chief technology and chief strategy officer for Cisco Systems, Warrior left the networking firm in September after she wasn't named the company's new CEO to replace the long-serving John Chambers.
The move meant that Cisco was losing someone who became a symbol for many in Silicon Valley of how high women can climb at tech firms. As a frequent speaker at women's tech events, Warrior reached outside the company walls to the rest of the world, I wrote in a column then.
Given Warrior's track record, I expected her to move to another big company or to take the helm of a so-called "unicorn," one of the 100+ private tech firms valued at more than $1 billion. She is on the boards of Microsoft, the Gap and Box. She spent years as the CTO at Motorola.
In an interview, Warrior said she considered everything -- venture capital, large companies, startups. She wasn't sure what she wanted to do but knew she didn't want to fill the same role twice.
Technology is about to hit another inflection point, she predicts, which will spur major change in a range of industries.
Education and transportation, two sectors generally doing the same things they did decades ago, seem ripe for change, she said.
"I wanted to be part of that next thing," she added.
Someone in her Cisco network introduced her to William Li, the founder of NextEV and Bitauto.com, an Internet content company in China.
Over Sunday breakfast in Palo Alto, Li sold her on the company's vision.
The firm's financial backing is a reflection of the kind of money that is flooding into Silicon Valley.
NextEV investors include a mix of entrepreneurs and enterprises including Tencent, the Chinese Internet firm, and Sequoia Capital, the Menlo Park venture firm. NextEV has already begun to make some big-name hires including Martin Leach, the former CEO of Maserati who headed Ford's operation in Europe. It has poached talent as well from Tesla and BMW.
In a statement, Li said that Warrior's "track record as a technology visionary is undisputed ... Her passion for technology and the positive impact it can have on humanity, aligns well with the core values of NextEV."
Warrior, who drives a Tesla Model S and a Prius, said she plans to bring her experience as a woman to the effort. For example, one of her pet peeves is that there is no designated place to put your handbag in a car.
"Electric vehicles have a long way to go to create the kind of user experience people are accustomed to on their mobile phones," she said.
Even with deep pockets and a great team, NextEV's success isn't certain. It faces a crowded field, even beyond Tesla. There's Google and Apple, as well as a slew of startups. And there are the traditional car companies. Just this month, Ford announced a $4.5 billion electric car effort.
The battle over the future of the car is just beginning. NextEV may have some structural advantages, with operations in China, the U.S. and Germany -- each with its own skill set.
"It's taking globalization to the next level," Warrior said. "That attracted me to it. We are not just an EV car company."
The competition will be good for all, she said, adding that the challenge is whether we can "bring the innovation that happens in the software space to a product that is a complex system like a car."
Warrior will get a chance to lead the way. It will be fascinating to see the kind of company she builds.