Tech Executive Credits Detroit And Its Grit For Her Success

By Frank Witsil Detroit Free Press

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Stacy Brown-Philpot, CEO of "TaskRabbit" who spent her formative years in Detroit where things weren't always so easy.

Detroit Free Press

When she was in the seventh grade, Stacy Brown-Philpot -- now the CEO of a San Francisco-based tech company that is changing the way people work -- learned an important, but painful, lesson about taking a stand.

The TaskRabbit executive, who grew up on Detroit's west side, was in middle school and other girls, she said, picked on her.

To avoid them, Brown-Philpot said, she'd rush home from her bus stop.

But, one day, Brown-Philpot recalled, her grandmother told her it was time to stand up for herself and shut the door. She wouldn't let her granddaughter in the house and left the youngster outside to face her tormentors.

"I didn't win," Brown-Philpot said. "But, at least I fought."

Eventually, her grandmother opened the door and sent the other girls home.

Brown-Philpot, 41, recalled she took a punch to the face, and fortunately, no one pulled out a weapon.

"But they never bothered me again," she said of the other girls. "I stood up for myself, and at some point, I learned you have to tell people to stop, and go in there and fight -- even if you don't win."

In a conversation edited for clarity and brevity, Brown-Philpot talked about how the lessons she learned in Detroit helped her, the city's prospects -- and offered advice.

QUESTION: There's buzz now about Detroit and a potential for it to be a tech hub. What are your thoughts on that?

ANSWER: I grew up on the west side of Detroit. Everybody in my family who had a job worked in the auto industry or something related to it. It's exciting to see technology is becoming a core part of the success and vitality of the city.

As someone who didn't think about tech until I went to college, I wish there were more opportunities and role models of technology executives around me because I found what I love to do. I'm glad now that there are great entrepreneurs now in the city who are inspiring young people to pursue careers in technology.

Q: Does your family still live in Detroit?

A: Both of my grandmothers and dad do. My mom just moved out to California to be closer to her grandchildren.

Q: Do you get back to Detroit much?

A: I do. I'll be there in September.

Q: What needs to happen for Detroit to revive?

A: Additional investment. I don't think we can have just one or two venture capital firms deciding to invest in the city. The city needs to create incentives for entrepreneurs to start companies and give them access to resources to grow those businesses. Then the city needs to go on a campaign that allows for us who don't live there to choose Detroit as a place where I can start my company and my family.

Q: So are you are suggesting there's not enough of a campaign now?

A: I don't think enough people hear about it. I think that the things that Mary Barra is doing at GM, really investing in self-driving cars and automation, is creating national attention on the city. We know we missed some opportunities in an industry that was core and important to our country and now we are going to be aggressive and make investments and understand how technology is evolving and take risks so we can be at the forefront of it. That's impressive. But small businesses have to thrive and those stories have to be told.

Q: Since you brought up GM, I want to ask: You drive a BMW instead of say, a Cadillac. Is that because Mary Barra hasn't told GM's story well enough to convince you -- a former Detroiter -- to buy what the company is making and selling?

A: When I was in high school at Cass Tech, I had to do a speech about how -- this is when Japanese automakers were doing a better job of building cars than Detroit -- we might be overtaken and maybe we should buy a Japanese car. I want to support the best product. I got the car I got because I didn't want a minivan, but I wanted a car big enough for my kids. I thought it was a brand that more associated with me. My dad owned Cadillacs all my life. They missed the opportunity to appeal to a younger demographic.

Q: You mentioned role models. You are in an industry where there are very few women in C-suites and even fewer minority women. What are your thoughts about that?

A: Ever since I left Detroit, I spent most of my life being the only one. At Cass, 98% of the students were black. Then, I go to Penn, where it was like, 6%, and that began my journey where I began being the only -- or one of the few. I've become comfortable being the only one but using it as an opportunity as a role model for other people.

Q: So what needs to happen so there are more women and minorities at the top?

A: Some of it is already happening. A lot of my success at Google before I came to TaskRabbit was based on having mentors who believed in me and gave me access to opportunities. There are lots of little brown girls out there who want to do something to change the world and all I want to do is help them get there.

Q: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?

A: A lot of entrepreneurship is seeing the future in a way that no one else sees it. Then, it becomes about execution and doing what it takes to succeed. When I grew up, I didn't have an option to fail. I was willing to do what it takes to succeed. Finally, it's about being willing to fail. It's in failure I learned the most about myself: The persistence and resilience to get back up again.

Q: Do you have any advice for Detroiters?

A: The city feels like it is coming back. You have the will. You have the personality. You have the power to succeed. It doesn't always feel that way, but having lived all over this country and all over the world, I've never met more interesting, dynamic, motivated people than the people I grew up with.

Q: What did Detroit give you to help you succeed?

A: Grit. Perseverance. Work ethic. Family values.

Q: Doesn't every executive say those are the things that brought them success?

A: I don't know that every executive says that. But, I do know that I've had my share of street fights.

Stacy Brown-Philpot Title: CEO Age: 41 Education: University of Pennsylvania, bachelor's degree in economics; Stanford University, master's degree in business administration Experience: Google, Goldman Sachs, PricewaterhouseCoopers Family: Husband Chris Philpot; two daughters, ages 6 and 2 Hobbies: Traveling. (She said she's been to every continent but Antarctica, which, she joked she needed to visit soon, "before it melts.") Car: 2010 BMW 750

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