An Evening with Zipcar Founder Robin Chase

Last night I had the chance to re-connect with Robin Chase, Co-Founder of ZIpcar and Buzzcar (and a fellow Wellesley alum) at the opening night reception of the Springboard Annual Forum. There we had a half-hour fireside chat discussing her past, present and future initiatives and the change she would like to see in the world.

Robin is a transportation innovator who has built upon her expertise in launching and leading one of the world’s first and most successful car sharing companies (Zipcar) to become a highly respected thought leader in three related arenas – transportation, entrepreneurship, and technology innovation. She is perhaps best known for her on-going efforts to wake the world up about the dangers of global warming. Here is a brief synopsis of our discussion.

My question: Thought leaders are the informed opinion leaders, the go-to people in their field of expertise. From what I’ve observed, the most effective thought leaders are also people who can turn their ideas into reality. How important was it for you, now that you are working to influence governments and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, that you began your career as an entrepreneur?

Answer: Robin agreed that the credibility she has today is based, in large part, on the success of Zipcar. Often when people invite her to introduce herself in a new arena, that is the stamp of approval that allows her to gain their initial attention. She also knows that the fact that she proved that people would adopt a shared business concept like Zipcar allows her to advise others in building similar businesses.

My question: The most influential thought leaders have a very clear idea of what the future needs to look like – what I call the What If? future. When we started Springboard, we wondered, What If we could create a unique venture conference that prepared women to present their businesses — could we move the needle on funding for women entrepreneurs. By now, with 537 entrepreneurs and $6B+ raised, I think we’ve proved we can. What is your What If future that you are working to achieve?

Answer: Chase has committed her energy and efforts to reduce the use of carbon fuels and abate global warming. “The worst projections, if we keep to business as usual, by 2060 we’ll be plus 11 degrees Fahrenheit,” she said. “It’s very uncertain that humans can exist at plus 11 degrees.” Every company she has started (including Zipcar, Buzzcar and GoLoco) and those she has advised have introduced new business models to address some of the main drivers of global warming – including too many people driving cars.

My question: Many thought leaders I’ve interviewed say that there was a moment in time when they recognized that they had achieved that distinction. One person told me that he realized it the day his 8 year old son asked him, “Daddy, are you somebody?” It turns out that his son had found his Wikipedia page and for the first time had recognized that his dad was famous. What was that moment in time for you – when you realized you were a thought leader?

Answer: Robin recalls exactly the moment when this occurred for her. She was in a Paris hotel room after a long day of meetings and she was checking her email for the first time that day. In her mailbox was first an email inviting her to fly to Tennessee to attend a 3-day summit run by Al Gore during which she would have 20 minutes to present her ideas to him and his team. The very next email was inviting her to Washington to meet with the US Secretary of Transportation on technology policy for vehicles. That is when the lightbulb went off that she had ‘arrived’.

Question: You mentioned once that your participation in Springboard played a significant role in your career. Can you share that story?

Answer: Robin recalls that the most valuable takeaway from her 3 months of Springboard coaching was how to walk onto a stage with confidence and “own the stage”. She also credits the coaching program with giving her the confidence to speak publicly about her ideas — after pitching her business in front of an audience of investors, other audiences were far less intimidating.

Question: You talk about the importance of playing at your highest level – how you believe that your impact now is national and international. Where did that thinking begin?

Answer: When Robin was at Harvard as part of her Loeb Fellowship, she shared an office with an expert in real estate. She heard him talking with others about land and how the best real estate developers thought about how to maximize the value of each piece of land. Should it have a park, an office building or an apartment complex? She realized that same metaphor applied to leaders. She no longer works at the local or the state level. She only works at the national and international level because the issues she is working on are big, challenging issues and she has an opportunity to have an impact at that level. It means saying no a lot, which can be challenging, but that has been crucial to maximizing her own value to the world.

Question: As a well-established thought leader, you have been invited to have a seat at many tables. What are some of the recent examples of surprising conversations you have been a part of?

Answer: A few months ago, Robin received an invitation to present at a conference in Boston during which she shared some of her ideas about the global economy and need for more companies like Airbnb, Etsy, YouTube which employ shared economy business models. This led to an invitation to participate in a conversation about the future of the global economy at the Aspen Institute. Although she initially turned down the invitation, she was finally convinced that this was important to attend. At one point during the Aspen weekend, she realized she was not only the only woman at the table but that her ideas were quickly being adopted by the others in the room. She knew that only a few years ago this would not have been a place where someone like her would have even been invited.

Question: What are you working on now? What advice do you have for (women) entrepreneurs?

Answer: Robin shared with the group that she is writing a book about the new “Peers, Inc.” model that she is advocating for where companies do what they do best – build a platform, pipes or infrastructure – while allowing individuals to do what they do best – create content or provide services. She gave the example of YouTube that created infrastructure for videos; Airbnb which created a platform for house sharing; Etsy which provided a platform for individuals to sell their crafts, etc. She explained that every entrepreneur needs to be thinking about their company in the same way. What platform can they build for others to use in order to scale quickly and efficiently. She mentioned that Airbnb, in 4 years, had more ‘hotel’ rooms than the largest hotel chain in the world – Intercontinental Hotels had after 60 years. She encouraged every entrepreneur and executive in the audience to re-visit their own strategic plans to assure that they have a similar success.

Want to read more about the evening? Read the Xconomy article here.

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