Do you ever feel boxed in or typecasted based on your current role or what you've studied? Dr. Neda Cvijetic has made it her mission to break down false barriers throughout her life and career. She's a senior engineering leader AND she has her own fashion business on the side called Hautefit. She has a strong intellect AND strong emotional intelligence. She has a thriving career AND a very fulfilling personal and family life.
She has worked for some of the hottest technology and innovation leaders in the world, including NEC, Tesla and Nvidia, AND recently started a new role as Senior Vice President -- Head of Artificial Intelligence at Stellantis, the parent company of some of the biggest car brands in the world.
So how does she do it? Listen to this inspiring episode to find out!
Neda Cvijetic is Senior Vice President – Head of Artificial Intelligence at Stellantis, where she leads AI software that will create breakthrough capabilities for all Stellantis brands. Prior to Stellantis, Neda worked on autonomous vehicles, AI, and computer vision at NVIDIA and was also the producer and host of DRIVE Labs, a video and blog series that provides a behind-the-scenes look at a range of AI and AV technologies under development at NVIDIA.
Prior to NVIDIA, Neda worked on advanced projects in Autopilot and Infotainment systems at Tesla, served on the adjunct faculty of Columbia University, and held senior research positions at NEC Labs America. She holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia, as well as over 20 granted U.S. patents and peer-reviewed conference and journal publications with more than 4,000 Google scholar citations.
Prologue: Hey listeners, I want to start this episode with a prologue, which is unusual for us, but this is an unusual circumstance.
So, on Career Curves, we expect people to change jobs. Sometimes this happens between the time we record an episode and when we release it. This is the case with this episode. We interviewed Neda while she was at NVIDIA and then in October 2021, she moved to a new company and new role.
This episode is still awesome and tells her story up to her starting the new job. Stay tuned until the end for an update on what she’s up to now.
And with that, here’s the episode we recorded while she was at NVIDIA.
Beth Davies, host: How do you build a career in a field that doesn't exist when you're starting out? That's the challenge faced and conquered by our guest on this episode, Dr. Neda Cvijetic, a leader in artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles at NVIDIA.
Welcome to Career Curves, where we talked to people who have interesting careers and explore how they got where they are today.
I'm your host Beth Davies and I am thrilled to have Neda here with me. I met Neda when we were both working at Tesla and I have to say she is a powerful force. She has a PhD in electrical engineering, has been granted over 20 US patents, and has authored peer-reviewed conference and journal publications resulting in about 4,000 Google scholar citations.
In addition to working on autonomous vehicles and computer vision at NVIDIA, she's founder and CEO of Hautefit, a company that merges fashion with robots and technology. And she's a new mom.
Neda is here to tell us how she has combined her interests and her passions to blaze her own trail.
Neda, thanks for joining me on Career Curves.
Neda Cvijetic, guest: Beth, thank you so much for having me.
Beth: I'd like to start with what you're doing now, and then we'll go back in time and find out how you got here. So, your primary job, other than new mom, is at NVIDIA where you're working on autonomous vehicles and computer vision. Can you explain what this means and what it is that you do?
Neda: Yes, absolutely. So, NVIDIA is where I went from engineering into two new areas for me. One is technical product management. Think of this as defining what the product is going to be and then working with the engineers to make it work versus doing the hands-on engineering work as the primary role. And here, the responsibility is really changed. Sometimes we're in the trenches deciding how the software architecture is going to look. What are going to be the inputs and outputs of the different modules? How are we going to factor the whole stack to achieve a certain goal?
A lot of the time we come out with brand new things that result in patents as a result of this exercise, because self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, have never been solved before.
And then, sometimes on other days, it's a little bit different. I do product marketing, which is to take all those insights that we gleaned and send that out into the world because it's important for us to be very transparent and open and actually help inform people about how these maneuvers are achieved by a car versus having folks look at it as a black box.
A lot of these functions are achieved by AI, hence even more important to explain to folks how this works so that they feel comfortable with the technology.
Beth: Yes, because you're working on a technology that, frankly, I think a lot of people are afraid of -- the idea of an autonomous vehicle -- and they think they are going to be safer when they're driving. So how do you respond to that challenge?
Neda: I think the best way is to quite literally unpack it and take away that black box element and say, "Here's how it works under the hood. It's a mathematical model modeled after the structure of the brain that takes in data and produces a semantic output, which is quite literally what we as humans do. It's the same, it's just done by a computer."
By taking folks inside under the hood, by talking to them person to person, taking complex concepts and using plain English language to make this accessible to everyone, I think this is how they feel empowered by that understanding. It's not just seeing an autonomous vehicle do something. Suddenly you understand what it's thinking and why it's doing the things that it's doing, which is a completely different level of feeling comfortable with something.
Beth: To a certain extent it's not that different than when we're interacting with people. If I trust why you're doing what you do, or if I know why you're doing what you do, I'm going to trust you more. And so, you're really saying the same thing. If you understand why the technology is doing what it's doing, you're going to trust it more.
Beth: What's gratifying to you about this work?
Neda: I think that it connects a lot of the interests that I had throughout my career, which seem very non-linear, and we'll get to that in a little bit, but a passion for research, for emerging technologies. A passion for engineering but also passion for teaching.
I even at some point, I think in high school, thought about being a journalist. This kind of ties into that too, because you're presenting. And then we'll talk about this too but in college I actually worked as a group fitness instructor, which has to do with motivating people. And so, in some sense, you're getting folks excited about the technology.
So, I think that's what's personally gratifying, that in the role I get to combine all of these things that in earlier points in my career almost seemed disjointed.
Beth: I happen to know that you have another passion that doesn't quite fit in with all of these that you've been able to combine, which is that you also have a passion for fashion and that has led you to create a company. So, you're the founder and CEO of Hautefit.
Tell us a little bit about what you do for this side project that you have.
Neda: It's interesting. I've always found that I like things to be "And". You're an engineer And. And a lot of times throughout my engineering career it's been phrased from the outside as, "You're an engineer, but you can't also be interested in fashion." It's almost like for a true engineer, your interests are focused within that one area.
I think that I wanted to break down those barriers while also creating clothes for myself that have the qualities that I wanted. That are elevated in style, but super comfortable at the same time. That fit and make me feel confident and empowered, while breaking down the stereotype.
I think that the stereotype is why we saw that hashtag "I look like an engineer" a couple of years ago. It's specifically because of challenging this, "you can't be an and. You're an or."
Another stereotype along those lines that I've noticed in Silicon Valley is this supposed inverse relationship between IQ and EQ. You can't be both intelligent in the intellectual sense and emotional sense. I've seen this so many times. People say that there's an inverse correlation. I disagree. I completely disagree. There is no law of physics that states that.
And so, in some sense, my passion for breaking down these false barriers, imaginary barriers, and bringing the And into the persona of the engineer is why I feel so passionate about doing this.
Beth: How does your work with Hautefit play to your strengths?
Neda: Ah, so I talk to my production manager about this sometimes. She is used to working with fashion designers who typically come at it from traditional design training with a vision. And then the point of friction is how to translate that vision into execution.
Whereas I come at it the other way. To me, a pattern is an engineering drawing. So, we're literally specifying lengths of edges, curvature, tolerances. She has said to me that she's actually found that really helpful because a lot less gets lost in translation. We agree on the execution side right at the bat and that's actually made remote collaboration a lot easier too during this pandemic where we can't get in the studio together. So, I think actually the engineering training helps here.
Beth: I remember, actually, the first time I found out that you were doing clothing. We were having cocktails after work one day and somebody said, "You know, she makes all of her own clothes." And I was like, "What?" You always were impeccably dressed and they're like, "Oh yeah, she makes all of her own clothes." And so, it was really exciting to see you take it into a full-fledged business.
Neda: Well, that's how it started. I decided I'm not finding what I'd like to wear. And of course, as the engineer, I'm like, "I think I'm just going to make it."
So, it was one of those things where I got a sewing machine and took some classes at a community college and decided to try it myself. And then it led to this side business.
Beth: You obviously are a woman engineer and so I want to talk about this just a little bit, because when you're thinking about some of these Ands: you're a woman and you're an engineer. Sometimes I see women who try to fit into being an engineer by trying to follow what the men are doing particularly say in fashion, which sometimes is a lack of fashion. Was that a part for you of blazing this own trail with fashion?
Neda: Absolutely. I got advice early on in my career from very well-intentioned people, "Don't try to stand out in the way that you present yourself. Try to actually blend in in the way that you present yourself in terms of the clothing, in terms of any accessories you may choose. Even things like a bold color of lipstick."
And I had to make a choice at some point in my career. Am I going to cave into that or do I completely disagree with this well-intentioned comment? And it's absolutely my calling to start doing exactly what I want in terms of how I present myself and I chose the latter.
I'm going to share a bit of an inspiration as to why. My number one inspiration in electrical engineering is Nikola Tesla. He is probably the greatest electrical engineer of all time.
And if you take a look to read about him and his personality, you will also notice that he was so interested in impeccable dressing. He had tailored clothing that were the height of fashion in New York at that time. He was a foodie, extremely interested in knowledgeable about foods and about wine. And yet he was, to me, the greatest inspiration to this day in the field of electrical engineering.
And so, this adamant, "No, it's an 'and'" I think ultimately stems from that.
Beth: Which is a perfect segue actually to your childhood because you've got something in common with Nikola Tesla besides your passion for fashion and your being in engineering. You both actually are from the same country. You're both from Serbia.
So, take me back to your childhood and tell me about growing up and how that has influenced who you are today.
Neda: So, I grew up across the street of an enormous statue of Nikola Tesla in Belgrade, Serbia that was right in front of the department of electrical engineering at the University of Belgrade, which was one of the most highly respected electrical engineering schools at the time in the region.
And so, every day I would pass there and oftentimes I'd be walking with my dad who is an engineer, and he would tell me stories of what he accomplished. You have to understand that to me, he was a superhero from that early time. It's hearing about his accomplishments that made me convinced, on a first principles level, that engineering and electrical engineering in particular can change the world for the better in an incredibly powerful way because, if you think about it, wireless communications which we have today, the AC induction motor, the polyphase power distribution systems that power everything. These were all his accomplishments. All of them. Even one of them would be incredible, but all of them.
That is the 21st century to me. Right there.
And so, I think being inspired by that, I came to look up to this field, this line of work, as something challenging, but something very noble that you can do to make the world better.
Beth: As a young girl in Serbia, were there messages that this was a field that was open to you and were you encouraged or were you getting some other kind of messages about what you should be and what your career should be?
Neda: So, this is very interesting because in Serbia there was no negative messaging that I felt as a young girl, interestingly enough. I've heard this talking to other women from Eastern European countries or China, for example. And I'm not sure if it was maybe a consequence of having gone through a period of communism, where in communism gender equality was a very very important concept. So, for some reason, it was actually ingrained in the culture that there was absolutely no difference. You want to be an engineer and a scientist as a woman, go for it.
And also, I think for me personally, my dad being an electrical engineer, he made sure that we knew, both my sister and I, that we can do whatever we want, including this and teaching us hands on what that looks like.
Beth: That's so exciting and motivating. I was completely unaware of that.
So, as you were getting ready to start college, it sounds like you were already very focused and that electrical engineering was what you wanted to do. So, tell me about college. Where did you go and what plans were you making for yourself?
Neda: So, you're right. As I was going towards college, based on all these childhood experiences and the classes that I'd taken, I was sure that I would do electrical engineering.
But an interesting thing happened. I went to a career fair, open house in electrical engineering, and there was a professional there working in this field who had a music demo set up where the music signals get digitized without losing integrity of information. This is the Nyquist Sampling Theorem. It underpins a lot of digital communications, but I didn't know that at the time.
And so, I walked up. There was a group of guys, this person and me. And I said, "Oh, this looks interesting. What is it?" And he went, I kid you not, "Oh, well this is a keyboard," because the musical demo was using a keyboard and then he proceeded to laugh and all the guys around me also proceeded to laugh.
That was the first time in some sense that I felt, "Wow, something is not right here. I don't know what just happened. I don't have the words to explain it, but it's not right." And, at that point of late high school/beginning of college, that was my first experience in some sense of being discouraged. I think because I was a woman, to be honest. I don't think he would have said that to any of the guys had they posed the same question.
Beth: And so how did you internalize that message? What did you do with that piece of messaging?
Neda: Looking back, I think the way that I internalized it, because I'm a data-driven person, I'm a numbers person, I think I internalized it through grades. I somehow decided because I lacked the words, I lacked the confidence to respond, but I knew that if I worked hard enough and the numbers showed it, then I can prove to myself and to others that I belong.
I don't think that's what we should be doing. I don't think that as a woman, you should have to work two to 10 times as hard but, being perfectly honest, that's how I internalized it at the time.
Beth: I could see a lot of people doing that. The idea of, "Well, I will show you," which requires that kind of reaction. So now tell me about college. Where did you go and what did you study? Tell me about that experience.
Neda: Yes. So, I went to the University of Virginia and I studied electrical engineering with a focus on digital communications. So ironically enough, the subject matter of that demo. So, I will show you!
Beth: How did you choose a university in the US and what was that like for you having grown up in Serbia and then coming to the US?
Neda: Yes. So, in the mid to late nineties, the political unrest and situation in Serbia caused us to immigrate to Canada and then to the United States and in the United States, we settled in Virginia. I decided that going to an in-state school is a prudent choice, but UVA happened to be one of the top public schools in the country and so in some sense, it was a natural choice for me. And when I went on campus the first time, I just felt it. I'm like, "I think I belong here."
Beth: Did you have any internships or activities in college that helped to solidify the direction you were headed in your career?
Neda: So, this is an interesting question. I think again looking back, one of the consequences of working so hard for the grades in my major caused me to actually want to do something completely unrelated to my major in the summers. And so, what I ended up doing in college actually is I was, an assistant teacher at the Governor's French Academy, which is a 4-week full French immersion program where you speak French all the time with a lot of high school students. I participated in that in high school myself.
Or I took an interest in becoming a group fitness instructor.
It was actually completely different things, I have to say, and it taught me two things. One, you definitely have a multidimensional personality and it will be interesting to see how you channel it in the future.
And two, I wish I would not have pushed the grades as hard and actually saved some of that energy for internships in the summer. That is one thing that I made up for in grad school but did not yet have a self-awareness for in college.
Beth: Was there anybody who was saying to you, "All right, so Neda, it's great that you've got these hobbies around foreign language, or you've got these hobbies around fitness, but you should be more productive with your summers. You actually should be working in engineering." Were you getting that kind of a message and how were you handling that?
Neda: I think because I was a strong student, I didn't get too much of that type of messaging, but it did come internally for me about third year, that third summer, where I decided that for myself and what I decided to do is get involved in undergraduate research. I thought to myself, "Well, you're a great student. Why don't you do some research and see if grad school is for you?"
And that was kind of the turning point for me. So maybe halfway, that second half of college, I decided to get involved in undergrad research and that naturally led to writing my first research these as an undergraduate, which then progressed into grad school.
Beth: What made you ultimately decide that yes, you were going to go to grad school?
Neda: One thing I noticed as a student in engineering school is that I didn't love the way that teaching of engineering was being done at a research institution. It was almost like an afterthought. And I think that that was a disservice to a lot of interested students.
That's where I got the passion in really putting a lot of effort and intent into making the subject matter clear. Putting effort into clarity. I saw the impact that that can have.
And that, in addition to the emphasis on the academic performance, the grades and things, made me think, "Maybe I'm well cut out to be a professor since I have walked this academic path as a student and I have a passion for sharing this with clarity with others. I think this might be the right path for me." And then I pursued graduate school to make that happen, to be a professor.
Beth: I got it! So even though I know you in the business world, that wasn't your initial plan. You really were going after the PhD to become a professor.
Neda: That's exactly right. And in fact, during my PhD, in addition to my research, I signed up for a two-year program called Tomorrow's Professor Today where we did things like create syllabi, practice your teaching persona. All of these kinds of backstage skills needed to be an effective professor. Two years of this training in addition to all the PhD work. So, yes, that's right.
Beth: Tell me about the experience of getting your PhD. I have heard that it can be quite a grueling experience. What was it like for you?
Neda: It is a grueling experience. It's a commitment. I have to say, this sounds a little bit brutal, but I have to compare it to getting kicked in the face 10 times and getting up the 11th time and succeeding. And this is even if you have a very healthy relationship with your advisor and your research is progressing well, simply because it's incredibly hard discovering something new in a field. Coming to the point where you're at the crest of the knowledge in that field and now you're making an original contribution. That is incredibly difficult.
For this reason, I have tremendous respect for anybody who chooses to pursue this path. It is not a path of self-gratification. It requires a lot of sacrifice, a lot of effort. And so, I think that commitment is the key word here, but it teaches resilience also.
Beth: Did you have any moments where you thought maybe I'm going to stop and not pursue the PhD? So, dropout?
Neda: I think what was a very healthy in my case was that I had a super positive rapport with my mentor, with my PhD advisor. We were able to also set up a collaboration with industry that helped us do experimental verifications using industrial equipment that was too expensive to purchase by the lab.
So, a lot of things were pointing towards progress during this process and so, in my case, I saw enough of that to keep going. But had any one of these things been off, I think that it would make anybody question because it's challenging, even when things are progressing.
Beth: I've got a question for you about after your PhD, but I want to ask a quick little side question.
So, in my introduction, I refer to you as "doctor," Dr. Neda.
Beth: But I don't see you using the honorific very often at all. And maybe that's just the things that I've looked at. But do you consciously choose to not say "Dr" when referring to yourself professionally? And if so, why?
Neda: Ah, that's a great question. It is a conscious choice.
I have always had the philosophy of presenting myself as I am and having whoever is speaking with me or engaging in dialogue with me making whatever decision based on what they see. And if they choose to go online and do any additional research, that's great and they'll see this additional part of my history, but I don't like leading with that. I think that it can be sometimes a little bit intimidating to lead with something like that. But I am proud of that. I will say that I'm definitely proud of my PhD.
I remember being in rooms of 300 people, for example, giving a presentation and being so well-trained, like an Olympic athlete, that there's literally no question a person can ask you about your field, that you can't answer. And so, in some sense, I feel very proud of that experience and the skills that it's taught me, but I just feel like I don't wish to lead with that when meeting somebody new.
Beth: Yeah, so don't want it to become a barrier.
Neda: Yes, that's right.
Beth: Got it. But yes, you should be really quite proud of it.
You mentioned that your plan was to become a professor and when you finished getting your PhD my understanding is you actually were in your "ands" doing more than one thing. You were doing both professor -- adjunct professor at Columbia -- but you also took a job at NEC as a senior researcher. So, tell me what was going on for you post finishing your PhD and why you were in these "and" worlds.
Neda: That was a very interesting time. I finished my PhD coming up on the summer of 2008. As you recall, that was the beginning of the greatest financial crisis in the United States, since the great depression, so suddenly my plans of being a professor at a research institution were met with my resume competing with 400 other resumes of folks who had industrial experience, who had post-docs, who had more than one post-doc and it was a completely different ball game.
So, what ended up happening is that I was able to get a research position at NEC Labs. I also got an offer to be a professor at a small teaching college in Seattle, and I'll always think of them fondly. I decided to go with NEC simply because I wasn't ready to give up the research part of the job.
Through networking at NEC -- NEC hosted professors from the local universities, whether it was Columbia, whether it was the Princeton -- I ended up having a coffee chat with one of the professors from Columbia after their presentation at NEC. They invited me to give a talk at Columbia and then invited me to come on as an adjunct faculty member.
And so, through networking, I was able to achieve an "and" where one day a week, going to Columbia University in the city from my Princeton University research job and teaching students about digital communications became part of my day job.
Beth: So, tell me about your time at NEC as a senior researcher. How did that work lay the foundation for where you are today?
Neda: NEC was a research lab, so our deliverables were taking emerging technologies and productizing them, creating intellectual property for the company, and creating publications. Peer-reviewed publications, journals and at conferences. So, it aligned a lot with my academic interests, and it also taught me to be comfortable with the ambiguity of an emerging technology. To not be daunted by that. To find clarity in ambiguity, if you will. And to do it, not just in the area that I first started working on as a PhD student, but across a couple of different fields because fields change over time.
And so, whatever we come in with after school is not necessarily what we're going to be doing five years later. That's not going to be the emerging technology anymore. But it teaches you to spot and anticipate what's next, based on your experience.
Beth: I would imagine, too, that some of those kicks that you got while working on your PhD also prepare you for working on emerging technologies, that there would probably be some parts that are setbacks for instance. Is that a true experience?
Neda: 100%, 100%. Because what's true when trying to innovate in one emerging technology will be true in the other, and so you learn to not see it as a setback. You simply look at it differently. "Okay, I'm going to change my constraint." Or "Okay. I'll try this now." And so, you take it as a normal process versus discouragement that means "Oh, this is over." It's never over. It's never over!
Beth: It's so interesting, Neda, because I think a lot of people ask about Silicon Valley, “When have you experienced failure?" And one of the things I see with a lot of engineers is that it's just not really part of their thinking. The term failure. Sure, things don't work out, but instead it's all part of the grand evolution and the grand experimenting. Does that resonate for you?
Neda: Yes, it does, because in some sense, as an engineer, you are neutral to the outcome and you learn regardless of what the outcome is. You go through that process and its actually really interesting how things that seem to not work out in one way, lead to a discovery in a completely unanticipated way later. It's a very non-linear process. Very non-linear. It can change orders of magnitude day to day. And so, I, I would agree with that.
Beth: And hence your discovery to of the appreciation and the ability to live with ambiguity.
So, you were with NEC for a couple of years and then ultimately ended up deciding to leave NEC. Tell me what led to you deciding to move on from that experience and that opportunity.
Neda: NEC labs was a small place, so about a hundred employees total, and it felt like a family, a lot of folks had been there for a really long time.
But I just felt, after a couple of years, it was time to try something new. I just felt like I needed to also, frankly, come to Silicon Valley as an engineer and have that experience under my engineering belt, if you will.
I had a friend who worked at Tesla and he said, "Hey, I know you love Nikola Tesla, and we're doing a lot of cool things here. I think you should check this out."
Beth: So, this actually means, too, that you were now consciously deciding to leave being a professor behind, at least for now, because you're still young and you've got a long career ahead of you. Do you remember consciously making that decision and what was that like for you?
Neda: I do. I do. And part of it was how can I give advice to future engineers if I don't have hands-on experience of what it's like to work in the epicenter, the global epicenter of engineering. In some sense I did feel like doing this now, I think will make me a better professor later because I will speak from experience to these students.
Beth: And so, you did come into the corporate space, come into enterprise with a fast growing, high visibility company, which was Tesla, of course, named for your hero. What was the exact role you were coming into and what was it that attracted you to that opportunity?
Neda: I was coming in as a staff engineer to work on advanced projects within Tesla: autopilot and infotainment. So even working on Tesla infotainment and autopilot would have been amazing, but I got to work on advanced projects, so things that are 12 - 18 months in the future. I don't think that there was a role in the world like this. I'm trying to think what would have been more interesting or compelling to me? I think it's nothing. It's quite literally nothing. And to do that at Tesla? I mean, that's it. That's it.
Beth: Okay, but that sounds incredibly scary as well as exciting. How do you manage that scary side for yourself?
Neda: Oh, it's definitely scary. I think that it's scary and exciting at the same time, in a way that I'd never felt before.
I will never forget the day that Model 3 reservations opened up. I'm sitting there at my desk and I'm watching this footage of the line of people extending around the corner of stores globally and hearing at the end of the day that 400,000 people had signed up for this product. I mean, it's incredible. You feel like "my work now has tremendous impact. It connects with people" and I think you have to channel that and overcome the scary in this way. You have to let the excitement lead the way.
Beth: Almost like turn it into a motivator. Turn it into something that energizes you as opposed to something that causes you to run for the hills.
Neda: Yes. Yes, because often as an engineer, I felt the opposite problem. If I worked on improving a piece of telecom equipment, well, no end-user is going to know about that. It's a business-to-business type of customer and you don't feel like you're connecting with people as much.
But here, I have it. I have this opportunity now for my work to go into the hands of all these people and it has Tesla's name on it. And so yeah, for me, channeling that energy that way was the solution.
Beth: Now I also know, because this is how you and I met, that you also channeled some of your energy at Tesla into an affinity group called Women in Tesla. And I'm curious, what caused you to get involved with Women in Tesla?
Neda: That was an interesting time in Silicon Valley. It was the time of the Me Too Movement. A lot of articles, a lot of blogs, written by women working in tech at different companies in the Bay Area were coming out. And I felt that I needed to get involved in doing what I can.
I saw that Tesla had a very strong Women in Tesla group. These are some of the most impressive women, engineers, and scientists that I have ever met in my life. And some of my closest friends now that I've met through work. We still keep in touch and have become a mentorship circle for me.
So, I think it was a combination of these things. The fact that I wasn't happy with what I was seeing in terms of how women in tech are treated. The fact that now we had these affinity groups that can take action to change things versus just talking about it. And the fact that the women that were participating were so inspiring to me. That made me prioritize this.
Beth: If you were giving advice to other women engineers would being involved in an affinity group be on the list of advice that you would give them and why?
Neda: Yes, I think so, and why is there have been studies done, I think by both the Harvard Business Review and the National Academy of Sciences that women who have this close-knit circle of women friends are more successful professionally because in that mentorship circle, I'm calling it, you feel comfortable exchanging compensation information. You have a shared network. You have access to opportunities. You have concrete action-oriented and experience-driven advice on how to handle various situations that nobody teaches you how to handle, from email to tough conversations.
And so, I would, because for me personally, these relationships have been so impactful in my career that yes, I absolutely would.
Beth: After a few years, you ended up leaving Tesla and going to NVIDIA where you are now. How did you find this opportunity and what excited you about joining NVIDIA?
Neda: Well, I was exposed to NVIDIA through the GTC conference, the GPU Technology Conference. This is something that they were doing for years in the Bay Area and I loved the technology that was being presented. I loved the way that they organized the conference. And it was through a friend again.
The second half of my career after grad school is when the networking aspect really played a big role in making these transitions from one company to another. So, it was again through a friend of mine that I connected and then decided to make the move ultimately.
Beth: Earlier, you mentioned that going to NVIDIA actually had you step into a product role for the first time. Tell me about that shift. How is this kind of role different than engineering roles that you had had before?
Neda: This is a fascinating shift. The product role is a role that gets to wear so many different hats. I think that's why it's well aligned with my personality. You have your engineering hat on. You have your business hat on. In my case, it's also a product marketing hat on. And so, you're getting to be so cross-functional in this role and you get to do so many different things that that's why I think it fits well for me.
Beth: As you were moving from a company like Tesla into another big company like NVIDIA, what were you finding was different about company cultures and how was that contributing to the work you are doing in your experiences?
Neda: That's really interesting. For me, up until coming to NVIDIA, I realized that I'd worked in startups my entire career. NEC Labs was basically a startup within NEC that was meant to innovate and then transition R&D into product for the bigger NEC in Japan.
Tesla definitely operated like a startup. Definitely. Bottom up. Shortest path communication. All of these things that I actually really like and I think achieve great results.
And then you come into NVIDIA and it's also a big company. It's very global and I participated in some events and some panels where they asked me, "Well, what is the corporate response to this?"
And I was like, "Corporate?" So, it was kind of coming to terms with the fact that you do want to operate like a startup, but you do also need to be mindful that a company's big and global. You need to also figure your way out in terms of managing processes and balancing these two things, the corporate culture side and the startup culture side. So, keeping the innovation going while also navigating the requirements of being a big, corporate company.
Beth: One of the things that you did inside of this big corporate company is that you actually started something, which I think is pretty interesting. So, this idea of DRIVE Labs. Tell me about DRIVE Labs. What it is and what it is that you started inside of NVIDIA?
Neda: Yes. Coming back to what we talked about earlier, we noticed that a lot of the content that's coming out regarding AI or self-driving cars doesn't provide a lot of commentary about how this technology works. We decided we would do the opposite. So, we would actually take you inside of the mind of the machine and explain exactly what we're building and how it works. We started a series of YouTube videos called DRIVE Labs, along with blogs that do literally just that.
What's been interesting is that since then this content has been used for everything from recruiting to training our field teams. I heard a Bloomberg analyst say recently that it's also used by Wall Street to analyze what we do in the autonomous vehicle space.
And so, it's been a really interesting way to combine these startup-y, academic type skills, because it's called DRIVE Labs, even within a big company.
Beth: And then like you said too, you got to combine some of the other speaking and media skills because you are the on-camera talent for these DRIVE Labs. And I highly recommend that anybody go to YouTube and watch these. You're terrific in them and they are quite informative. So, it's also exciting to see that you got to combine these interests.
Would you say it's been an enriching experience for you to do DRIVE Labs?
Neda: Yes, for sure. I mean, let's be honest: that wasn't in the job description at all. How do you put that in that job description? But it has been. I've learned a lot. Even during the pandemic, I got to do some episodes at home where I'm learning how to set up the camera and set up the lighting and frame the shot and do audio tests and present myself on camera, which gets back a little bit to some of the journalist in me from earlier in my life.
So, I would say that when somebody has a situation where it's off job description, the main question I would ask is yes, but does it spark joy in some way to you? Are you curious about this? Because if you are, then there might be something there to explore. And I think that was the case here.
Beth: I think it's so important, Neda, because one of the things I see some people saying is if something isn't in my job description, I'm not going to do it unless you're willing to pay me extra for doing it. And so, what advice in general would you have for somebody that is saying, "that thing that you want me to do or that thing I'm suggesting isn't part of my job description, therefore, I'm not going to spend the time on it"?
Neda: I think that sometimes trying something that's not in our job description is a really good way to get to know ourselves a little bit better. And to know is this a hidden talent or hidden interest that I think I had, but I didn't know how to channel? Or no, I absolutely know that I don't want to do this ever again?
I've had situations with both and what I would say is that, again, that sparking of joy moment. You're somehow discovering a part of yourself in a way that you couldn't have anticipated. If so, I think it's a good thing and it could lead to future opportunities. I'm saying this as someone with a bit of a non-linear career path, obviously.
Beth: Well, that's why we do Career Curves. We think there's real magic in non-linear career paths.
One thing I'm really curious about Neda is how NVIDIA looks at the fact that you have this side hustle of Hautefit. How does your company think about, and look at, you having this other job, this other project?
Neda: That's really interesting.
When I decided I wanted to do the clothing design thing, I went to our legal department and I said, "Look, here's what I'd like to do. What is your guidance?" and they said, "That is so cool. You want to do fashion design? Do you want a design our NVIDIA t-shirt?" And I was mind blown. "Here's a simple, simple legal agreement. Don't use company computers. Don't do it on company time. But yeah, if you want to also participate in using your skills to help us with stuff that we have in the gear store, let's do it."
It was so inspiring to me to have those multiple dimensions of a personality embraced by your day job, because now you feel like you fit. You're not this square peg trying to force yourself through a round hole. You're literally bringing your whole self into this job.
I think that it actually inspires more loyalty to have a company respond like that because clearly there was no conflict of interest. NVIDIAs not going to get into haute couture anytime soon and I don't plan to make accelerated computing cards, but the positive attitude with which this was met was really great and felt really good.
Beth: I want to talk to you about work-life balance, because as you talk about all of these Ands, which are quite exciting, they also can become overwhelming. There's a lot going on.
So here you are. You've got NVIDIA, you've got Hautefit, and you're a new mom. What is your philosophy or your strategy for work-life balance?
Neda: I think about this on a first principles level as an engineer now. So why do we ask this question? It's because two resources are constrained and that's our time and our energy. If these were unconstrained, if they were infinite, we wouldn't need to actually ask this question. And so, my strategy, I have one for both. One for each of these axis.
For time, I found that clarity is the most beneficial way to extract maximum value from our time. So many times, the reasons why I've seen something drag on or not get closed out or take more time than it should or not yield as much satisfaction is that clarity is lacking in the situation. And so, I have become, let me say it this way... I insist on clarity in everything that I do, whether I'm talking with my production manager for Hautefit, whether it's in an NVIDIA meeting, whether it's at home with my husband when we're taking care of the baby, because I think clarity literally teaches us to do more with less time and to know what we need to do next.
And then the second part of that, the energy. I have found that trying to insert little pockets of joy during the day, whatever it happens to be, whether it's snuggling with my baby for two minutes, or looking at the latest sketches of a design that we're working on for the clothes. Just taking those two minutes, getting a little bit of joy out. Extracting that energy, getting energy, and then going back out into the daily grind of things helps with the energy side.
So far, those are the two things that I've found helpful.
Beth: One thing I find really interesting about what you're saying is that oftentimes when people start to talk about work-life balance, they look to somebody else like their manager and say, "What are you going to do to create work-life balance for me?" And there's nothing in your strategy and your approach that comes from somebody else. It really is something that you're making happen for yourself. I think that's pretty powerful.
Neda: And that's because I think work-life balance is so personal. It means different things to different people.
And to me, it really means extracting the greatest value of every moment in time and having ways to re-energize throughout the day. I guess I don't phrase it in terms of hours or more conventional metrics maybe. But it's personal for everyone.
Beth: You've spent your career now in these emerging fields. What advice would you give to others who want to be working in emerging fields? Like how do they spot them? How do they get involved? What advice do you have?
Neda: Well, the interesting thing about an emerging field is that when it's first emerging, it actually doesn't necessarily look attractive. It can look kind of clunky and funny.
When I think about the early 2000s -- 2005, 2006, 2007 -- self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles, they were in the stage of the darker grand challenge. These were not elegant looking cars. The cameras were huge. They were expensive. Sensors were not integrated. For the first time trying to get a vehicle to finish a Point A to Point B in the desert and the first year they did it, the car got lost. Like no car finished. It was super super early.
You look at this and you think, "Oh, sure, that's promising." It's tempting to look at it that way. So, what I would say is that it's really important to do your due diligence versus just kind of listening to press on whether something is emerging or not, because by the time they say it's emerging, it's kind of already emerged.
So do the due diligence and also investigate the chain of technology dependencies.
Beth: What does that mean?
Neda: So that means, for example, autonomous vehicles. Yes, but how is this enabled? This is enabled through camera sensors. Okay. What is the status of camera sensor technology? Is it mass manufacturable? At what price point? So, you kind of decompose things and you look at what are the underlying technologies that need to be ready for this other technology to be an emerging technology. Are they getting there? Is a too early? And so, to do a little bit of due diligence on the dependency chain as well.
Beth: Everything that you're doing, Neda, is so fascinating. And so, thank you. Thank you for sharing it. I have to acknowledge that you still are early in your career, and you've got many years ahead of you. Any thoughts on where you might go and goals for yourself in the years ahead?
Neda: Well, maybe it's a remnant of being in Silicon Valley for the past five years or so, but I've gotten to be a lot more passionate about entrepreneurship than I was in earlier stages of my career. When I attended several Women in Tech conferences a few years ago, I just was naturally drawn to trailblazer panels. And so, I think opportunities that include entrepreneurship in the role, whether it's being an entrepreneur in the context of starting a new business within a bigger company or doing a startup-y job where you're dedicating your time on that. That's the general direction that I feel passionate about for the future.
Which is interesting! It's almost been a shift in mindset from earlier in my career.
Beth: Do you ever think that you might do any kind of teaching or is that at this point, " I've really gone a different path and I'm okay leaving the teaching to others"?
Neda: I've seen folks come back. I've seen folks come back after a career in the industry and come back into academia as well. So that's the nice thing in some sense of having the PhD. If you want to take that path again, that door remains open. So, I will say that yeah, that's possible, too.
Beth: We'll never say never on that one.
I have my four final questions for you. First one is what would you say is the smartest career move you ever made, whether accidentally or intentionally?
Neda: Taking the Tesla job?
Beth: Why is that?
Neda: I went from watching that TV show, Silicon Valley, to experiencing it and living it and gleaning a lot of insights from that. And being in some sense on the biggest engineering stage in the world.
East coast is typically thought of as the epicenter of finance, but for engineering and for tech it's Silicon Valley. And so, kind of being in engineering, that environment is something that can maximize impact.
Beth: If you could have one do over, what would it be and why?
Neda: I would worry less about grades because they are not the primary -- I don't think I would even say secondary -- indicator of success. I see a lot of kids these days feeling that pressure, feeling that stress early on in life. And I think that they should know this is actually not the primary indicator. I've been there. I've done it. Trust me.
And so that would be my one do over: to worry less about that and use that energy in other things a little bit more.
Beth: If you could go back to the young Neda and give her a piece of career advice, what would it be?
Neda: I would say to her, "You have good instincts and so trust them. Trust them and don't be afraid."
Beth: And how do you define success for yourself?
Neda: Living your truth. At work. Outside of work. That and financial freedom.
Beth: Those are two wonderful measures.
So, Neda, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I have loved our conversation and I look forward to watching you in the years ahead because I know that you are going to continue to do interesting things and make some really exciting things happen.
So, thank you so much for being with me.
Neda: Thank you so much for this conversation, Beth. And thank you for having me.
Epilogue: A quick epilogue… Since our interview, Neda curved again and moved into a new role, Senior Vice President - Head of Artificial Intelligence at Stellantis. She will be leading the AI software team to create breakthrough capabilities for all Stellantis brands, including Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Fiat, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and more.
We are so excited to see Neda grow in her career and look forward to watching her and her team do amazing things.
Neda talked about a lot of cool things, from her clothing line, Hautefit to the Drive Lab videos she made while at NVIDIA. We’ve placed links to these and more on our website, Careercurves.com.
That’s it for this episode. As always, thanks for listening.