Interview with Zenia Tata, Executive Director, Global Development & International Expansion at XPrize

She’s bold, brimming with optimism, determined to change the world. And she’s doing it. Zenia Tata heads up XPRIZE’s global expansion, leading the charge to tackle the challenges felt around the world, such as women’s safety and water scarcity. She studied liberal arts but always dreamed of space exploration—and now she’s landed at this perfect intersection between entrepreneurship, social good and science.
Good news: Zenia will be speaking at Girls in Tech Catalyst, June 20-22 in San Francisco where you can see her live. We hope to see you there.
Explain “moonshot thinking” in your own words.
Moonshot thinking is when you take on something audacious and big. But it’s more than that; it’s being strategic. It’s about taking on transformative ideas—pivotal problems that can radically change the paradigm and make a shift.
Why did you launch the Anu and Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE and the Water Abundance XPRIZE in India?
It’s easier to do a grand challenge when it’s a possible solution coming from the people who feel the problem every day. We cannot solve the world’s challenges from our offices in Culver City; we need to go out into the world to engage innovators outside of the U.S.
What do you look for in problem solvers?
Anyone. The beauty in our model and the variance in the teams surprises us all the time. Some winners take a multidisciplinary approach; other times it’s a total maverick. Our strategy: to incentivize people. There’s a strong incentive in being the first at something. There’s a strong incentive in money; everyone needs it. And there’s a strong incentive in doing good in the world—humans are naturally altruistic souls.
What drew you into working with social organizations in the first place?
Ever since I could remember, probably from the age of 7 to 10, I was very into space and doing social good. It was all I wanted to do. I come from a family of social activists and philanthropists. It’s in my DNA. India doesn’t matter what class level you’re in; everyone there grows up with abject poverty, flooding; lack of water, brownouts. Everyone experiences it.
You’re going to be speaking at Girls in Tech Catalyst in June, an audience of largely Millennial women. What’s the one thing Millennials need to be doing to take charge of their career?
Be driven by purpose. Whatever that may be. Keep moving towards that purpose. When you do that, it’s amazing how opportunity is offered up by the universe. Be true to yourself, and take risks in your 20s and 30s. If you take risks earlier in life, it becomes easier, almost like a habit. As an example, I learned to ski later in life. I had to learn to fall. I had to learn to not be scared of falling and build that resolve.
Another thing I did: every two to three years I made sure to move up in my career. I climbed. I took steps up and kept striving. That helped me a lot when building my career when I was younger.
You’ve built a fascinating career of social entrepreneurship, innovation and consulting. For those reading who say, “Gee, I want a career like that!” what would you suggest they do?
Know yourself. And once you get comfortable with who you are, understand your gaps in knowledge. You have the power to learn it and ask questions. I have a liberal arts background. I learn science every day. I believe 20% of your career is from institutional learning and the other 80% is from your career.
What’s the best and worst advice you’ve ever received?
The worst is always the naysayers. The ones who say it can’t be done.
What makes you most proud?
Surviving it all! The fact that I still want to do this work despite the naysayers, the fact that I still have a drive for big global impact after all these years.
What were some of the things you did early on to climb the career ladder?
Making a conscious effort to move up. It’s always easier to stay where you are and to be comfortable.
I’ve always felt the clock ticking; time is running out. It’s only later that I’ve understood that we’re the people we’ve been waiting for. If it’s not me, then who? If not now, then when?