Meet The New Queen of The Electric Car Biz

Key Speakers At The Dublin Web Summit
Padmasree Warrior, chief technology officer of Cisco Systems Inc., reacts during a Bloomberg Television interview at the Dublin Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland, on Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Popularity of smartphones, tablets and tools that let people to work, shop or watch videos from anywhere with an Internet connection has upended a technology industry that long profited from a model of selling PCs and accompanying software. Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photo by Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg—Getty Images

The woman with the most powerful name in tech just got more powerful.

Padmasree Warrior, the former chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco Systems (CSCO), is the new U.S. CEO and global chief development officer at NextEV, a Chinese startup that’s building an electric car to compete with Tesla (TSLA).

The move represents a major reroute for Warrior, who spent her entire career at well-established global giants—Motorola (MSI) for 23 years and Cisco for the past seven. As her mentor, John Chambers, ceded the Cisco CEO role to Chuck Robbins this past summer, Warrior says that Robbins “wanted me to stay three more years,” but she didn’t want to commit to keep doing what she had already done. Looking for fresh challenges, she considered a variety of career turns—joining a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, starting her own ed-tech company, or taking a CEO role at an Internet company. (She talked to folks close to Twitter about the CEO job there.) But when a former Cisco colleague, Tom Schaefer, told her about the Chinese electric car startup and introduced her to founder and chairman William Li over breakfast in Silicon Valley, Warrior, 55, was smitten. “Many verticals are about to go through massive change because of technology,” she says, contending that no industry is as ripe for disruption as transportation.

Warrior has never worked in the car business or for a startup, and here she is entering an intensely competitive and fast-changing field. All the more reason she was drawn to NextEV. The company, she says, will not only “apply technology to solve fundamental problems”—climate change and global pollution, among them. NextEV also aims to one-up Tesla in terms of “user experience,” she says, adding, “If you were to build a car company in the mobile Internet era, what would it look like?” Though the Tesla that she drives—a red Model S—is about as high-tech as modern cars come, it isn’t the “extension of the mobile Internet” that she envisions building at NextEV.

“We’re not committing to a timeline yet,” Warrior says, admitting that she’ll keep driving her Tesla “until I build my own car.” While NextEV is headquartered in Shanghai—and will sell its cars initially in China—Warrior will operate out of San Jose, where the startup has an 85,000-square-foot research and development center. Global from the ground up, NextEv also has operations in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, and Munich. The president is Dr. Martin Leach, who was CEO of Maserati and president of Ford Europe.

NextEV is the creation of a group of Chinese Internet entrepreneurs, including Li, who founded Internet auto giant (BITA); Xiang Li, who started automotive website (ATHM), and Richard Liu, who founded e-commerce site (JD). Electric carmakers typically require huge amounts of capital, and this one is no exception. NextEV has raised about half of the $1 billion in funding it’s targeting. Its investors include Chinese Internet giant Tencent, Hillhouse Capital (an Uber backer), Joy Capital (an investor in Chinese car services company Tuhu), and Sequoia Capital.

Leaning into unexpected opportunities has long been a priority for Warrior. After growing up in southern India and getting her B.S. in chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi, she moved to the U.S. at age 22 to study for her Masters at Cornell. En route to her doctorate (she wanted to be a professor, she says), she took a job at a Motorola semiconductor plant. Though she planned to stay one year, she stuck around for 23. Rising through Motorola’s ranks, she became chief technology officer in 2003 and made Fortune’s annual Most Powerful Women rankings.

Warrior is on the boards of Gap (GPS), Box (BOX), and, as of this month, Microsoft (MSFT). And now she will join the NextEV board as well.

So this is a busy year for Warrior, who is also a wife, mother (one grown son), painter (“I never took classes. I taught myself.”), Haiku poet, and certified powerhouse on Twitter (TWTR). She has 1.63 million followers. Warrior tweets whenever she finds spare moments—which now will be few. No wonder she says, “I like the 140 characters. I hope they don’t change it.”

To learn more about cars that could rival Tesla, watch this Fortune video:

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

LeadershipBroadsheetDiversity and InclusionCareersVenture Capital