I had the pleasure of interviewing Anousheh Ansari, 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.
Before 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, intending to invest $1 billion in women-founded companies by 2020. She published her memoir, My Dream of Stars, to share her life story as inspiration for young women around the world.
Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in electronics and computer engineering from George Mason University, a master’s degree in electrical engineering from George Washington University; and honorary doctorates from George Mason University, Utah Valley University, and International Space University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
XPRIZE Foundation since its early days as a sponsor of the first competition.
It was basically because of my personal passion, interest, and the dream of wanting to fly to space (a dream shared by millions of people), and the way space was shaped around government, was limiting. Peter Diamandis, the founder and executive chairman, started XPRIZE in 1984. When Peter and I eventually crossed paths, he told me about his idea of the competition — which is how I got involved in the very first prize, sponsoring the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight, which spurred an industry and created exponential breakthroughs. On October 4, 2004, XPRIZE captured the world’s attention by awarding the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE — the largest prize in history — to Mojave Aerospace Ventures for their SpaceShipOne. Led by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, with financial backing from Paul Allen, the team’s winning technology was licensed by Richard Branson to create Virgin Galactic. With the awarding of this competition, a brand-new $2 billion private space industry was launched.
As an entrepreneur, it was very compelling, because as a model it really incentives and inspires innovation, but minimizes risk, because you’re asking the world to build what you’re looking for without paying for them. It was attractive to me to open up this journey, this dream for the world.
This competition, which took a long time, proved to be very successful, we wanted to use the model to solve other large challenges. I served on the board, then as the past two years as the CEO, I have the opportunity to hone and direct this power platform we have built over 25 years to face new challenges, which are new complex, and technology is playing a large role in them. These problems are really compounding, and the need for incentive competitions is really pressing.
Since then we have launched over $140 million in prize purses, including the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, and the $1.4 million Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XPRIZE.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I listen to a lot of podcasts. I enjoy “How About This”, which is an NPR podcast about successful entrepreneurs who share their stories about their challenges and overcoming challenges. These “overnight” successes actually took 10–15 years, and I can always find nuggets of advice, and inspiration to get through a tough day.
The one book I read that inspired me the most was “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado-Perez. It was an eye opening, because I’m immersed in the AI and Machine Learning world. The gender data gap and bias was an area I had not recognized, and through this book I learned of the numerous hidden biases and issues due to gender, and this knowledge motivated me to address the issue directly at XPRIZE.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Referring to the positive message. That is our purpose. And it’s really helpful to have hope during this trying time.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
One thing is that I always try to look at the future with an optimistic lens. Yes, there are problems and challenges. You never know what’s next, but optimism will guide you through the tough times, the despair.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
On the personal side, the isolation is difficult. As an executive, sometimes being able to have conversations in the hallways and interact with people in a casual way gives you a way to get a pulse on the organization. Not having those opportunities will sometimes leave me blinded on how the organization is feeling.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge as a nonprofit we are facing is being able to continue fundraising and being able to bring people into our network, especially without being able to meet and interact. We are looking at new models and ways to engage potential donors. Specifically, one of those ways is to launch something new to XPRIZE, especially the XPRIZE Pandemic Alliance, which is a collaborative effort between stakeholders who we used to ask to participate in our competitions, now we are asking them to contribute their resources and solve them. It is heartwarming to see how many are participating, helping push solutions and breakthroughs forward. But for the most part, it is about sharing and working towards a common goal of solving COVID.
Our fight to find COVID-19 solutions from a health and economic perspective is growing — we launched the XPRIZE Pandemic Alliance, XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling Competition, Rapid COVID Testing Competition, and NextGen Mask Challenge
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s interesting, for me, its uncertain times and difficult times, but I’m familiar with it — I lived through a revolution and war, and the uncertain times of 9/11. There is always something big happening, some big disruption. The only way to get through the tough challenges is to not lose hope, and try to take charge of what you can. There’s a lot of things you can’t take charge of. Use the opportunity and time to look into the future, and use this time as a change to see how the pandemic can help you reach your goal. It can go two ways, it happens to you and you come out of it worse, or you come out of it better. This is about controlling and creating what you can to come out the other side better, instead of fighting against it.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
A lot of our work is in exponential technology — and the pandemic has accelerated this type of technology. As part of XPRIZE, we are always looking into the future to see how the changes in these technologies will disrupt the world and improve the world. Some of these include online education. People who were once resistant, now have to embrace it. A lot of those technologies have found their way to schools, teachers and students and will continue to grow.
The same is happening in the healthcare industry with telemedicine and rapid diagnosis that will help provide services to larger communities at lower cost. Sometimes these will be at lower costs.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Automation is driving technology — but at what cost? It is especially prevalent in the service industry, which minimizes risks in future problems, but it’s disruptive in the loss of jobs, and some of these jobs will never return. While automation is not slowing down — I’m happy and very excited about our recent launch XPRIZE Rapid Reskilling to help disadvantaged citizens, who may not have access or the skills for jobs of the future, with a living wage. We will help them gain those skills needed really quickly, to help provide.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
My vision for XPRIZE in the post-COVID economy is making our company more resilient, broadening our base for support and to engage with by looking at the big problems of the future. Trying to focus and define those big grand challenges that humanity will be facing in this changing world, to try to engage the world, to inspire to help others work with us, support us to find solutions to those problems.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Simply, be positive.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s one very meaningful quote that was on my patch when I went to the International Space Station, by Mahatma Gandhi “Be the change you want to be”. I fundamentally believe that whatever change you want in this world, you need to take the first step.
How can our readers further follow your work?
“Future Positive” podcast which is available on Apple, Spotify, and Acast and through the website here.