Take credit for your work: Women don’t like taking credit for their projects or achievements. We play vital roles as leaders and team members, and we should be proud of our contributions.
As part of my series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivian Sun, Head of Business Development, Partnerships and Marketing, TuSimple. Vivian Sun leads business and partner development, marketing and Public Relations for TuSimple, one the world’s most advanced self-driving truck companies. Based in San Diego, she is a member of the executive leadership team driving customer acquisition and strategic partnerships. Vivian has leading roles in industry associations. She is a member of the American Trucking Association’s Communications and Image Policy, and Environmental and Energy Policy Committees. She is on the advisory board and a speaker for the Autonomous Vehicles conference in Detroit, a frequent guest speaker at the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) events as well as other leading conferences in the industry. She has been a key driver of the company’s growth since its founding in 2015. A fast-growth startup, the company has scaled from 80 to 400 employees worldwide in 36 months. TuSimple’s goal is to deliver the first and safest driverless truck to market. The company is currently validating its system in Arizona, earning revenue while hauling goods every day for large companies. The company’s goal is to increase safety, decrease transportation costs, and reduce carbon emissions. Vivian holds a Master of Public Administration from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in Business Management from the University of Surrey.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the ‘backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path?
Prior to TuSimple, I worked in executive education in New York preparing international business executives for entrepreneurial success in the U.S. My job connected me with executives and leaders from many different industries and countries. Through a connection in this program, I met Dr. Xiaodi Hou and the TuSimple team. I was immediately captivated by the company’s work and the founders’ values. They have an amazing goal to develop the world’s safest and first self-driving semi-trucks — 18 wheelers! Inspired by his vision and excitement about transforming the trucking and logistics world, I jumped at the opportunity to work with him and his team of industry and technical experts. Within a week of meeting Dr. Hou, I took a huge leap of faith and moved from New York to San Diego where TuSimple is headquartered. When I started here in 2016, I immediately recognized that this field offered so much potential for personal and professional development. I knew this could be an arena I could immerse myself in and grow quickly.
I’m not an engineer, programmer or from the trucking industry, but this did not hold me back. At TuSimple, I immersed myself in all aspects of the business which is an opportunity often afforded people starting out in fast growing start-ups. I read everything I could get my hands on from news articles and scientific white papers to analyst reports to understand the intersection of transportation, trucking, supply chain and AI. I created a map in my mind for how these industries are evolving through the application of automation. I also immediately engaged with industry leaders and contacts in different companies to get myself up to speed quickly.
I believe everyone should consider careers in rising industries instead of those which might be static or in decline. I think entering a growing industry is more likely to position you for future opportunities. For this reason, I looked into opportunities to ride the wave in an up-and-coming sector and found a great one — specifically transportation and self-driving vehicles powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). I currently lead business and partner development as well as marketing for TuSimple, and given my educational and professional background, this industry is a very exciting and non-traditional path for me.
What lessons can others learn from your story?
Many job opportunities today require skill sets that didn’t exist 10 years ago. With this in mind, the first lessons I learned early on were to highlight my strengths, be intentional in how I educated myself and make meaningful connections. I surrounded myself with industry leaders and experts in the field in order to soak in information, create a knowledge base beyond my own business degree and become an automation expert.
Another lesson I’d like to offer from my path is to take risks and create opportunities for yourself. For example, the first big conference I attended with TuSimple was the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the world’s largest tech event which brings together 200,000 people in Las Vegas every year. At the time, I was just learning the ropes at TuSimple and within the AI industry in general but I knew it would be important to establish relevant partnerships for the company at the show. I started with small interactions — walking up to many different people and companies I didn’t have prior relationships with to introduce my company and learn about theirs. By being confident and always eager to learn, I was able to establish dozens of new relationships with companies important to us in the automotive and AI space at the show and get a strong kick start in this new industry. Confidence is key, especially for women in male-dominated fields.
Overall, don’t be afraid to tout your strengths to others and network as much as possible with leaders in your field of interest. Keep learning! You must acquire as much information as you can throughout your working life to stay current in a rapidly changing business environment and industry. Continuing to learn and pushing yourself will help you develop confidence when establishing yourself in any field.
Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
We have a number of projects I feel very passionate about. For me, playing a role in an emerging industry like self-driving trucks is very challenging but also inspiring because it really unites leaders from different sectors and gets them excited. At TuSimple, I get to build new partner ecosystems and a completely new business model for the future of trucking. I enjoy working with OEMs, Tier 1s, suppliers, shippers and fleet managers as they figure out how to make autonomy work for their businesses. As autonomous technology begins to dramatically change these very traditional businesses, I love creating new opportunities in each part of a newly evolving supply chain.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am most grateful to my mother. I come from a family structure where my mother is a powerful, successful businesswoman. My mother would bring me into business meetings when I was only ten years old so I could observe and be immersed in this environment. Growing up, I saw my mother conduct business, take risks, and utilize resources for her business in order to succeed. Even as a very young child, she drew me into her entrepreneurial world by asking for my opinion on business actions and investments. She would give me projects to work on to involve me in her business activities. From a management and business perspective, she taught me how to take on projects, manage deadlines and eventually run a team. I’m very grateful to have had that structure growing up and such a strong female role model to show me how to be powerful and resourceful, as well as how to solve problems. She taught me to never give up, be confident in my skills and carry myself professionally. I have always been inspired to be like her and follow in her footsteps. She also encouraged me to always set higher goals for myself.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?
The AI industry is so exciting because the possibilities are endless and automation is now touching so many areas of our work and lives. At TuSimple, we are developing one of the most advanced and complicated AI systems in history. Our autonomy will benefit people’s everyday lives because self-driving trucks will improve operational safety and efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions. From the food we eat to the clothes that we wear, every aspect of our lives is touched by the trucking and logistics industry.
As far as five things that excite me about the AI industry… on the whole I would have to say I look forward to seeing how the application of AI technology will improve and transform traditional manufacturing, medicine, art and music, agriculture and the environment. Most importantly, how it will improve quality of life and increase efficiency.
For example, in the healthcare industry we’re already seeing AI being utilized to benefit human health with improved image analysis, information exchange, and even scheduling. AI improves our lives and has the potential to transform the negative aspects of work like tedious repetition and labor into positive ones through efficiency and safety.
What are the 5 things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?
It’s no secret that AI and automation will transform the future workplace. Today’s job titles might require completely different skill sets in a few years. For example, a truck driver in the future may be required to know how to monitor autonomous systems and interact with vehicle networks. These changes might be daunting but TuSimple is proactively taking steps with local colleges to help prepare professional drivers to build on their existing driving knowledge base with a basic understanding of AI, and how self-driving trucks operate.
Another concern I have about the AI industry is that misleading information sometimes is being spread. Companies developing and using AI must take a leading role in educating the public and government on where the technology is currently in terms of capability and the steps they are taking to ensure its safe use.
Also, autonomous vehicles are being tested on public roads. A safe operation and testing process needs to be implemented by the companies involved. AI companies must agree to a set of safety standards that they abide by. At TuSimple, we are conducting millions of miles of simulated and real world driving to ensure the safe operation of our trucks. We are also working proactively with law enforcement, government agencies, and safety bodies to provide open, transparent testing.
As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?
I resonate with Mark’s position. People fear the unknown, but it’s important to remember that often the unknown is where we find the most positive change. We should not focus on whether or not AI can turn against us, but rather we should zero in on how AI can best be applied and the beneficial influence it can potentially have on our workforce. It can make jobs safer and reduce certain tedious functions that humans perform today to free us up for other more creative work. It’s also crucial to take the right steps to ensure that safety is a priority. In fact, TuSimple’s goal is to build the safest self-driving truck.
Artificial intelligence has the potential for so much good, and we are already in a new technological era in which we are moving toward making the world a better place for humans with AI. That being said, today’s AI is not true awakening intelligence — it is a highly efficient automation. AI does not have consciousness.
What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?
AI companies should be open and transparent from testing to commercial deployment with the general public. AI companies as disruptors should hold themselves to higher moral and ethical standards. Companies need to provide information to the public through transparent and truthful marketing so that people understand and are comfortable with these new developments.
AI companies should also proactively work with government officials, law enforcement and educational institutions in order to set an industry standard for safety and communications. They should take leadership roles to provide the public sector with good information to make sure the workforce development efforts are most informed.
Also, AI companies should provide solutions regarding safety and workforce development to nicely transition to the future of work. For example, TuSimple recently launched an autonomous vehicle driver certificate program for certified truck drivers in conjunction with Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ to equip themselves with relevant knowledge and skills to expand their roles in this new and rapidly growing industry.
Additionally, industry must work hard to share information and educate the public about autonomous vehicles. The government can help provide guidance to the industry and develop a path to safe deployment of technology and trucks.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
I believe in education and the power of information. From my personal experience to my professional life, I also strive to be involved or lead in organizations that accomplish that. I am personally working to be involved in organizations that prioritize advocacy in their work such as participating as a member of the American Trucking Association’s environmental committee and public policy committee. These platforms allow me to have a voice on important issues and inform the public as well as the industry on autonomous trucking technology and issues. I want to continue to expand my participation in organizations like this with the goal of improving the world we live in.
I also make conscious decisions regarding the company I work for and the industry I am in. I want to make sure there’s a bigger cause and impact we can bring to the world by achieving the technology. TuSimple prioritized tackling major issues within the trucking industry as well as society as a whole given transportation directly affects people’s everyday lives. In that respect, the self-driving technology we are creating offers a number of benefits to the world. Whether it’s making roads safer, trucks more efficient and therefore less polluting or producing economic benefits with fuel savings.
As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share 3 things that you would you advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?
1. Be visible: I believe women should always actively look for opportunities to shine light on our achievements and capabilities. Find opportunities to present yourself in front of your company and then go to bigger stages in your industry.
2. Take credit for your work: Women don’t like taking credit for their projects or achievements. We play vital roles as leaders and team members, and we should be proud of our contributions.
3. Communicate: I believe that communication is the most important soft skill in career development. Expertise in your field is the foundation of all your work, but it is equally necessary to be able to persuasively articulate your ideas, thoughts and needs, particularly in a team setting.
Can you advise what is needed to engage more women into the AI industry?
In order to win the game, you must first be in the game. For someone like myself who might not have training or expertise from the beginning, it’s crucial to be creative and tenacious to get your foot in the door of an industry like self-driving trucks and AI. Once you’re in the door, it’s much easier to learn on the job and find opportunities.
The industry should be mindful that women play an important role and bring unique perspectives to the AI, and should look to recruit them more aggressively.
What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?
My dad, who always supported my mother’s endeavors, told me “always be mindful, kind, and try to give back when you can because you never know what any one person is experiencing in their life at any given point. Even in small interactions, one word you say can influence someone’s decisions and impact them in ways you wouldn’t be able to predict.”
I think his philosophy taught me to always look at the bigger picture and be mindful of the impact I want to have in my work, with the people around me, and on the world. It also taught me to prioritize people and seek to be a positive influence. This overall outlook on life has allowed me to be successful in my work.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would start an educational movement where I help people re-kindle a love of learning in order to equip themselves with the new knowledge we will all need to be successful and happy in our rapidly changing world. I’d like people to learn more about the topics that we take for granted such as the many technologies that touch our lives but that most don’t understand. This movement would focus on bringing more information to the public so people can make more informed and better decisions.
I want people to be more aware of the role of technology in our everyday lives. For example, consumer-facing tech products always get the spotlight, but we need to be mindful of what’s going on behind the curtain with the systems that power our homes and offices, transport our good across our nation’s highways and help us get things done! How do our supply chains work? Who is making the products I buy and how do they get to my home or office? For example, TuSimple recently completed a pilot project with the USPS to haul mail from Arizona to Texas. Even the Post Office is interested in understanding the benefits of automation for its business! My lifelong learning movement could help people better understand the broad impact of new technologies and the benefits they bring to us as members of the workforce.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!