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September 20, 2023 02:00 PM
Jessica Robinson believes that turning points in life “don’t always happen when you’re onstage or being promoted or successfully making money.”
She says one of those turning points occurred when she was marketing manager for Zipcar, when the idea of shared mobility was new. Part of the job took her out into the community, talking to Seattle-area residents about how they traveled.
“Those conversations still stick with me every day,” Robinson says. “I talked to people who wanted to live in a certain neighborhood but couldn’t afford to own a car, or struggled because the trains didn’t get where they needed to go. We had a mobility solution that was a piece of the puzzle that they didn’t know about but could change people’s lives.”
Those very personal stories — about the life-changing importance of being able to get around — sparked Robinson’s passion for mobility. “It is an industry that is aligned with who I am as a person,” she says.
Robinson is a co-founder and partner of Assembly Ventures, a venture capital firm whose mission is to invest in entrepreneurs and mobility companies. This year, the firm saw Our Next Energy, a startup it helped fund with its first investment in 2021, secure $300 million through a Series B funding round.
Although she never imagined a career in the transportation industry, Robinson says it all makes sense. Her father loved trains. “There’s an album with photos of me and my sister around all sorts of trains. I was always around that form of transportation. I think that primed me to be interested in the question of how we move around,” she says.
Robinson earned a degree in anthropology, then spent a decade working in the tea industry. In 2008, she left her job, cleared her mind and traveled. But when she got back to Seattle, in the middle of the recession, she says, “No one was hiring. But I had a chance to meet the local team of what seemed like a crazy idea.” That idea turned out to be Zipcar.
After seven years helping Zipcar’s car-sharing business get off the ground, Robinson began building a resume as a mobility pioneer and leader — including more than two years at Ford Smart Mobility and as co-founder of the Michigan Mobility Institute. “From Zipcar to now, I’ve had the chance to sit in different seats in the industry: a startup, a startup accelerator, a large automaker,” she says. “Now I feel I’m taking that experience and putting it all together.”
Being a woman in the transportation industry has been challenging, but Robinson says during her career she also often has been one of the youngest in the room. “Those two things made me learn how to accept myself. I said to myself, ‘I’m here. I have to move forward and do the best I can.’ ”
She laughs and says she often starts speeches by saying, “ ‘I’m not a car guy.’ That’s as obvious as it gets. I find that it serves me well to just own that, in a full-throated way.”
Still, she says, “There are days when I feel very lonely as a partner in a venture fund. I have to remind myself, ‘You don’t have to do this alone.’ It’s important to have a team around you. It’s been important for me to have mentors in place — both men, but also woman mentors whom I rely on to discuss things I might not always talk about with my male colleagues.”
Despite the challenges, she firmly believes “diverse voices make our industry better,” she says. “Diversity makes companies more resilient and more competitive, particularly in the space I inhabit now. When you’re out to disrupt a 100-year-old industry, that’s important. Teams that recognize those advantages are set up to win in the long run. I’m excited to see the industry more broadly wrap its arms around that.”
Diverse voices, she says, help to counter the “auto industry’s engineering-centric way of thinking, where every problem can be solved by a better product, a better material, a better engine. When you have diverse voices at the table, with different backgrounds, the framing of the questions is different — and the outcomes are, too.”
Building diversity in the industry, she says, has to start early, especially with women. “If we want to make sure we attract women to this industry and to engineering more broadly, we have to go back to kindergarten teachers who encourage girls in a certain way. The culture that women and girls grow up in — we have to fix that.”