This beautiful world has over 7.5 billion people in it, but more than 2 billion of them don’t have safe, healthy, desirable housing and 1.2 billion are without access to electricity. What if we could change that by 2035? Do you think we could do it? What if we could also save the planet’s forests and create a future where people around the world have access to affordable, sufficient and healthy food? Pipe dream or absolutely possible? Well, this is the very real and bold vision of today’s guest, Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation, which is funding projects to help build a better, safer, more sustainable world.
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The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther
Featured In This Episode
Anousheh Ansari is CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation, the world’s leader in designing and operating incentive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges. Ansari, along with her family, sponsored the organization’s first competition, the Ansari XPRIZE, a $10 million competition that ignited a new era for commercial spaceflight. Since then, she has served on XPRIZE’s Board of Directors.
Prior to being named CEO of XPRIZE, Ansari served as the CEO of Prodea Systems, a leading Internet of Things (IoT) technology firm she co-founded in 2006, and continues to serve as the executive chairwoman. She captured headlines around the world when she embarked upon an 11-day space expedition, accomplishing her childhood dream of becoming the first female private space explorer, first astronaut of Iranian descent, first Muslim woman in space and fourth private explorer to visit space.
Ansari serves on the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council and has received numerous honors, including the WEF Young Global Leader, Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and STEM Leadership Hall of Fame, among others. She is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and serves on the board of Jabil and Peace First, as well as several other not-for-profit organizations focused on STEM education and youth empowerment.
Ansari also co-founded The Billion Dollar Fund for Women, announced in October 2018 at the Tri Hita Karana (THK) Forum on Sustainable Development in Bali, with a goal of investing $1 billion in women-founded companies by 2020.
Adriana Gascoigne (00:00):
I’m Adriana Gascoigne , founder of Girls in Tech and this is The Girls in Tech Podcast, where we’re discussing the ways tech is always evolving and helping the world evolve too. Listen in, get inspired, and learn how you can use your skills to create the change you want to see in the world. Here’s your host, Zuzy Martin-Aly .
Zuzy Martin-Aly (00:21):
There’s a company that will value you for you. There’s a tech job where your skillset and unique perspectives are appreciated. By inviting you to share the real you, the Girls in Tech Jobs Board helps you find that job so that you can take the next step in your career with confidence. Go to jobs.girlsintech.org today. That’s jobs.girlsintech.org.
Anousheh Ansari (00:44):
Technology is a tool, just like a knife is a tool and with a knife, we can peel an orange and eat it. In the hands of a surgeon, it can save lives. And in the hands of someone who is evil, it can actually harm someone. So, it is important for us to use technology, but use it wisely and be very specific about making sure that the technology we develop is used for good and for solving humanity’s challenges.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (01:17):
This beautiful world has over seven and a half billion people in it, but more than 2 billion of them don’t have safe, healthy, desirable housing. And 1.2 billion live without access to electricity. When we discuss food, approximately 25% of the people on earth fail to get adequate nutrition, while obesity costs the world $2 trillion a year. These are problems that affect the planet, the economy, our health, and life as we know it — it’s all connected. What if we could change that by 2035? Do you think we could do it? What if we could also save the planet’s forests and create a future where people around the world have access to affordable, sufficient and healthy food? Pipe dream or absolutely possible? Well, this is the very real and bold vision of today’s guest, Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation. She believes solving these problems is indeed possible.
The XPRIZE Foundation designs and operates competitions that invest in industry-changing technologies that bring us closer to a better, safer and more sustainable world with a focus on four main areas, food, housing, forests and longevity. Anousheh, who has an engineering background and whose family sponsored the XPRIZE’s first competition, is also the Executive Chairwoman of Prodea Systems, a leading Internet of Things technology firm that she co-founded. Plus, guess what? She was the fourth private explorer and first female private explorer to ever visit space. That’s right, I said space. Anousheh recently shared her thoughts on humanity’s grandest challenges with us, the role of technology and how we can change the world. Here’s our conversation.
Well, Anousheh Ansari, thank you so much for being with us today on The Girls in Tech Podcast. We’re really honored to be speaking with you today. Let’s take a step back. To call your personal journey inspiring is a complete understatement. You were the first female explorer in space, only the fourth private citizen overall. First astronaut of Iranian descent and the first Muslim woman in space. Wow! Just have to pause there to say wow. What inspired you as a child in Iran to dream about space?
Anousheh Ansari (03:40):
Growing up, I think I was a very curious child and wanted to find out about how everything works and why things are the way they are. And summer nights, we would sleep outside, because it’s cooler, and I would gaze at the night skies, and I would see these blinking things in the night skies, and I wanted to know what they are, what they’re made of, and if it’s a place I can go to. I also had read The Little Prince, and the story of The Little Prince and kept thinking if there are aliens, if there are other beings in this universe. And I longed to connect with them, communicate with them, and see what their world looked like. So that sort of piqued my interest in astronomy, in science, in space. And it has been a part of my life since.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (04:40):
The Little Prince, it brings back such fond memories. I think I had a crush on him when I was a little girl. You’ve mentioned the power of imagination and you just described that imagination so beautifully of when you were a young girl. But you’ve mentioned how it’s underutilized. Can you explain your thoughts on this for all of us of any age?
Anousheh Ansari (04:59):
Absolutely. I often quote Albert Einstein, or at least attributed to him which, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” And to me, imagination, it’s a unique gift we have as human beings. And when we’re little, when we’re children, we use it a lot. We play with imaginary friends. We go to imaginary places. Somehow when we grow older, we lose that sense of awe and wonder and don’t use our imagination as much. But when you look at human history and all of our inventions, creations, they all stem from our imagination. We can create things that doesn’t exist. We can think of solutions that are not there. We can build the places that doesn’t exist.
So imagination is a very important part of our lives, and we need to cultivate it. We need to make sure that it’s protected and it’s open and it doesn’t have any boundaries. And more importantly, we need to encourage it as we get older and not discourage it, which is what happens. But I’ve worked at the XPRIZE where we believe in crazy ideas. So, usually, when you grow older and you use your imagination for something really bold and unthinkable, it becomes crazy. And we love crazy here.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (06:25):
Yeah. I actually love the quote on your website, and you don’t only work there, you’re the CEO, which I love your modesty, by the way. “The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” And that’s Peter Diamandis’ quote.
Anousheh Ansari (06:40):
Yes. He’s the founder of the foundation. And he believes and lives by that model, and so do we at XPRIZE.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (06:50):
I love that, but on that note, XPRIZE uses competition to solve the world’s greatest problems. And you first became involved by funding its first competition, correct? So what inspired you to do that? And if you could talk a little bit about the challenges in funding such innovations?
Anousheh Ansari (07:07):
Great question. Because my story about my passion for space was in a few magazines. Peter Diamandis had read that and approached me and told me about the idea of a competition to open up space, democratize space. And that was sort of very compelling to me to be able to create a movement and awareness, but at the same time, a competition to get people all over the world, all the engineers, aerospace engineers, and non-engineers to come together and build the next spaceship that will carry passengers to space. But we had, I think, 26 teams from all over the world competing, all different approaches, and the Scaled Composite team, headed by the legendary Burt Rutan, won the prize. And righ around the same time Richard Branson from Virgin Companies actually signed an agreement to commercialize it, which was ultimately what we hoped for, that the winner or some of the finalists actually will make their designs commercial companies.
And just last year, the Virgin Galactic Group took the company public. So it’s the first XPRIZE team ever going public. So we’re very excited and happy, but I really believed in this, and I still do and think that space is not just a hobby, but it is an answer to a lot of challenges we face on our planet and continues to be an important part of our exploration. So, hopefully, we’ve opened the door and with all the policy changes we were able to make, now we have an industry that is 50-100 billion dollars, and it didn’t exist before XPRIZE, so I’m very proud that I’ve been part of it.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (09:03):
Congratulations. That is super exciting. And can you share your dreams of what impact you hope this first team coming, going public will have in others? What impact do you hope they have in your lifetime?
Anousheh Ansari (09:18):
What I’ve witnessed just this year with all the new launches and new capabilities that have come about because of the fact that now we have a commercial space program, it’s very, very important. I have seen commercial companies collaborating. We have Astrobotics, which is a Google lunar XPRIZE team, also working on a lunar mission. So there’s a lot of teams and people who we’ve inspired now collaborating, building companies with NASA and other space agencies to really advance humanity’s position in space. So I see opening up space and allowing it to be accessible and affordable to access to do business in space is just like early days of internet, when we will see a lot of creativity and a lot of new ways that businesses in space can help us. So there’s abundant opportunities for building businesses and products and services that help humanity and lessens the burden of material and other energy needs that we have on our planet.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (10:38):
I find it interesting that the competitions are actually open to everyone. It doesn’t matter what their background. Can you give us some examples of shared traits, both technological and non, perhaps?
Anousheh Ansari (10:50):
We believe in diversity, the more diversity we have in the teams that compete for our XPRIZEes, we believe that we come up with better solutions. And when I talk about diversity is a geographic, age, gender, every kind of diversity you can imagine. We’ve had retired scientists win prizes, we also had junior high school teams win prizes and competitions. So I think it’s important to have that diversity of mindset.
We also have seen experts compete and form teams. At the same time, someone with a passion to solve a problem can be resourceful. We’ve had, for example, one of our competition, which was an oil cleanup, a dentist and a tattoo artist — they had met. I think the dentist was getting a tattoo, talking about the oil cleanup competition, and they formed a team and made it to the finals. So having the technical capability is important, but sometimes people form teams, and then they bring people who can help them with a technical question as well. So we’ve seen that the most important thing is the passion and the desire and the curiosity to dig into a problem and try to solve it.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (12:15):
Can you give us an example or two of your favorite or most promising competitions revolving around energy, specifically?
Anousheh Ansari (12:25):
Currently, we have a competition that we will be awarding early part of next year, and basically, this competition, our NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is about capturing the CO2 output of a smokestack, whether it’s a natural gas plant or a coal plant. And instead of letting that CO2 pollute the environment, they are basically taking this CO2 and building all sorts of different things from concrete to vodka, to material for sunglasses and shoes. So we’re very excited to see the creativity and also the fact that they’re really making a big difference to create this potential for circular carbon network. And we want to take that now to the next step, where we would basically be able to suck gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere and turn it into something productive. And once we are able to launch this, hopefully, once we get our sponsors lined up for it, I think it will be the biggest contribution to slowing down and hopefully, over time, reversing global warming.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (13:45):
Wow. I just pictured this. I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which I thought it was normal to be surrounded by smokestacks from all the factories. But when I moved out to California, I realized that wasn’t the case. So I pictured all those smokestacks and all the carbon dioxide being sucked up and turned into something wonderful. I hope to see that very soon, thanks to XPRIZE. Anousheh, can you share some of the details of the competitions that are coming soon and some of the prizes that are currently open?
Anousheh Ansari (14:15):
Absolutely. So there are a few competitions that we’ve announced and we’re still in the registration phase. So if you like any of the ones I mentioned, please form a team, go to our website and enter the competition. So the one that I mentioned a little bit earlier was the Rainforest XPRIZE. So that’s still open; I think registration will be closing soon. So hurry up. The other one that we just recently announced that we’re very proud of, especially given what’s happening with the pandemic and the massive job losses is a competition called the XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling, and this is basically to use technologies to help people learn new skills so they can find better jobs and new jobs that are growing, especially in underprivileged communities, to learn skills that will help them acquire new jobs and actually keep those jobs in the long run.
Another competition, which is also announced very recently is our Next-Generation Mask competition. So we’re asking young innovators and designers to design a mask that would be comfortable, that would not have all the limitations that we’ve been seeing in some of the masks that prevents people from wearing masks and designed that. And we already have a lot of companies who have said they will manufacture millions of those masks that win the competition. So we’re excited about that.
And we also have something for our real young audience. Basically, we’re asking kids to design games that are around one of the XPRIZE themes of exploration, environment and equity. So those are some of the competitions that we have announced that are open for teams to register now. We’re working on competitions around new sources of food. We are looking at many competitions in the environmen that we haven’t announced yet. So, hopefully, by the end of this year and early next year, you will see a lot of interesting large competitions that we’ll be announcing to help the world to deal with some of our environmental challenges.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (16:46):
And some of the prizes?
Anousheh Ansari (16:49):
The Next-Gen Mask is our smallest one, which I think it’s in different pockets. There’s about a million dollars. But the Rainforest XPRIZE, I believe it’s about $10 million. And so the range of the prize purses is between five to 10, sometimes $20 million. So it depends on how difficult and complex building the solution is. And that’s how we decide the prize range.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (17:20):
You’re also the co-founder and co-funded The Billion Dollar Fund for Women whose initial goal was to invest $1 billion in women-founded companies by 2020. How close are you to reaching that goal? And why is it so important for women to get involved and to be supported in this space?
Anousheh Ansari (17:42):
As a woman tech entrepreneur, I can tell you that it’s critical to have more diversity and especially more women involved in designing and building products and solutions. And especially in tech. One of the areas that I’m particularly interested right now is in AI and machine learning and realizing how over centuries, everything was designed around the male body and the male physiology and the male needs. Not necessarily out of harmful desires, but it’s just a lot of men are designing products, and what they use is their own experiences and their own mindset and people who look like them. And that’s why you find things in the world that don’t fit women well, or that women are not included in the design and safety issues of many products. So that’s why I think it’s important to have women involved and especially entrepreneurs because there may be even a whole area of products and services that can be made for women by women who understand those needs and can address the marketplace much better. So I think it’s critical for us to have that.
The Billion Dollar Fund for Women was put together in order to really, again, shine a light on this issue and to get the everyday venture capital firms to commit up to a billion dollars in total, to invest in female-funded companies. And we were able to reach that goal of the pledges to reach the $1 billion. And over the next three to four years, they are making those investments in the businesses that are female-funded or female-run.
You mentioned entrepreneurship when talking about women. Can you talk about other skills that you would give advice to younger women that they should hone or learn in school in order to get to this place, to get a business funded, to develop a solution to one of the world’s greatest problems? What skills — what areas of focus — should they go towards?
Anousheh Ansari (19:11):
I think one skill that perhaps is not taught well in schools, but I think it’s a very important skill, especially these days, in our world now is communication and storytelling. When you are passionate about something, when you have an idea you want to build or implement, being able to communicate that desire and that passion and why you want to do that to others and to an investor, to people who can become your partner and be your team to build it with you. It’s very important. So I think it’s a very important skill that sometimes is overlooked. And I think all the girls who can possess and learn that skill and put it to good use is important.
The other thing that, especially with women I’ve seen, and me included when I was younger … I had this issue … is that even if we know how to tell the story, sometimes we’re too shy. We question ourselves too much. We put such a high burden on ourselves that we sit at the table quietly and don’t voice our opinion. So being able to overcome any shyness, any feeling of being uncomfortable in public and being able to speak in front of people, it’s important. So those types of skills, soft skills I would call it — it’s very important for women, because women have amazing, great ideas. They’re super smart, but they don’t do enough to let the world know about it. And I think learning those skills to be able to overcome that shyness, those barriers to be able to voice your ideas and your opinions and let the world see how brilliant you are, is important for young girls to learn and do.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (22:18):
How do you think we can give each other permission to speak up when we might be shy?
Anousheh Ansari (22:25):
I think it’s a practice. It takes time. I can tell you personally … So I came from Iran, I didn’t speak English. So when I came here, I was 16 years old and just learning the language was difficult for me as a teenager. You know teenagers can be cruel, and so for the longest time, I was afraid to speak because I was afraid to say something that was wrong or my accent and people make fun of me. And I went through my entire college without making a single report in front of the class. Somehow I managed to find an excuse and get out of it. But when I finally entered the workplace, I realized that — and I was the only woman and I was younger than most men that were in that group — I learned that unless I overcome that, it’s going to basically get me nowhere, but you have to push yourself. If you don’t push yourself beyond your comfort, you will never know how far you can go. And I’ve learned about myself that I can go a lot further than I think.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (23:47):
And you’re talking about pushing through that fear to actually let your true self out, because it sounds like you know who you are inside, but you’re afraid to speak, to take that step, to take that leap that will actually help you make your dreams come to fruition.
Anousheh Ansari (24:08):
Zuzy Martin-Aly (24:09):
It’s wonderful and refreshing to hear you share that experience that so many of us have on many different levels, because I’m sure people might think you got it all down.
Anousheh Ansari (24:22):
Zuzy Martin-Aly (24:22):
You’re all set, you’ve been in space and now you have no problems, but thank you for sharing that. It’s really beautiful; it’s just the one. Any final thoughts you’d like to say, or advice to people who are eager to have this incredible impact and contribute to solving the world’s greatest problems?
Anousheh Ansari (24:46):
One thing I want to maybe share is that as I’m getting older, I realized that one thing that I followed in my life is the fact that I don’t want to have any regrets. So when I look back at my life now, I am happy to say that I don’t have regrets. And that means that when you want to do something, when you have an idea, when there’s a new career path you want to go after, when there’s a new skill, you want to learn that you do it, you try, it doesn’t mean you will always succeed. It doesn’t mean that you will be excited and happy when you try it. But at least you never have to ask yourself what if, what if I did that? What if I learned that? What if I went there? So when you have something that’s … Not everything that pops into your mind that first time, but if it’s something that’s recurring, something that’s nagging at you, that you feel like maybe I should do this. Well, if you’ve been thinking about it, that means you should try it and find a way to try it because you don’t want to live with regrets.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (25:59):
Anousheh, thank you so much for sharing so much. It’s been a true pleasure speaking with you. And I’ve learned so much, and you’ve inspired me as you do many, many women and people around the world. Thank you.
Anousheh Ansari (26:12):
Thanks. It’s been a pleasure, and thank you for having me on your show.
Zuzy Martin-Aly (26:18):
Are you ready to sharpen your skills? Get inspired and learn how to thrive in tech? At the one-day Girls in Tech virtual conference on September 9th, you’ll benefit from skill-building sessions, personal development, workshops, networking, and so much more. Connect with people from around the world, as you invest in your personal and professional growth. Plus it’s free, to learn more, go to girlsintech.org/conference. That’s girlsintech.org/conference.
Adriana Gascoigne (26:48):
Thank you for listening to today’s episode. The Girls in Tech Podcast is a production of Tote + Pears. Were you inspired by what you heard today? Head over to girlsintech.org to find more resources for starting and advancing a career in tech, including our job spot and personal and professional development programs designed to help you excel. And be sure to tune in every other Tuesday for new episodes. See you next time.
The Girls in Tech Podcast is produced by Tote + Pears.
Music By: Adrian Dominic Walther