Our Serial Entrepreneur Series sponsored by IBM is a personal look into what it takes to spearhead an emerging tech company. Four our fourth installment, we spoke with Jessika Lora of CarForce about starting her first company and the desire to keep innovating.
Lora was named Global Entrepreneur of the Year by IBM at LAUNCH Festival in 2016. She is CEO and a founder of CarForce which won the Mobility Startup of the Year award at SXSW's Hatch Pitch. She had previously spent time as a consultant at Deloitte and was the former Head of Automotive Corporate Partnerships for eBay.
Many people realize they have an entrepreneurial spirit at a very young age. Was that the case for you?
Our family would travel to Mexico to visit my relatives every summer which gave me early exposure to a lot of important business concepts as well as a high degree of comfort taking on entrepreneurial risk. I spent a lot of time roaming around listening to people haggle for the price of everything from clothing to chickens, evaluating purchase decisions based on comparables. I ultimately learned two-sided marketplace dynamics first-hand. I would bring samples of unique inventory (stationary, cosmetics, and candy) back from my visits and figure out what had the most appeal and then take orders, collect payments up-front from my schoolmates and source the goods while on vacation. This was the early ’90’s, pre-eBay, and before cellphones. It wasn’t a business; it was an elementary school hobby. I went on to lead our high school’s Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) chapter and always found myself fascinated by commerce despite getting increasingly pulled into math and science.
What influence did consulting have on your career? How did it help you start your company?
Consulting was a paid business school education for me. I joined Deloitte in December 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession. I spent the next three years in key roles largely dealing with the compelling business challenges our clients were experiencing due to the economic downturn. That experience did for my career what Lean did to the startup world: it gave me a blueprint for how to assess complex business problems, craft implementable solutions, and execute on a winning strategy. It was these skills that ultimately landed me my dream job running automotive strategy at eBay Motors, and that same ruthlessness for simple, executable, plans that has guided how I manage my startup.
Do you envision yourself founding another company in the future?
Yes. If it’s what you love doing, there’s always a thirst to do more.
What would you consider as defining moments in your career?
2016 in its entirety was a defining moment for my career. We launched our MVP in January, rolled out our software to multiple dealerships, and endeared our technology to hundreds of families across America. In the meantime, we built an all-star founding team, won IBM’s Global Entrepreneur of the Year Award and got selected as the Mobility Startup of the Year by a panel of judges including Aya Zook of Microsoft Ventures and Amazon’s Dr. Werner Vogels. One particularly special moment was co-leading one of the opening panels at SXSW’s Interactive to a packed room of fellow startup founders. It gave me the opportunity to share some of the most helpful books and advice that I have collected on my startup journey. In that moment I realized two things: (1) How much incredibly helpful advice I’ve collected, and (2) I was in a position to broadcast it to people as hungry for it as I am. I felt, and continue to feel, honored by that moment.
What was the transition like working for someone else to being on your own?
Easy! One of the biggest misconceptions about running a startup is falsely equating “you get to be your own boss” with “you’re not accountable to anyone”. Sure, org structures are flatter, teams are smaller, and roles are larger in a startup versus when you’re working for an established company. However, you’re still accountable to your own goals, success metrics, and of course to your network of advisors, investors, employees, and cofounders. In that sense, if you’ve worked for someone else, especially in a general manager role at a large company, you are probably going to be very good at maintaining accountability to yourself and to your network of stakeholders.
What are your thoughts on the ever-growing entrepreneurial community? Is it healthy to glorify the concept of being "entrepreneurial”?
This is such a great question with at least a half a dozen answers that I want to fire off, some of them contradictory with each other! I can argue both sides of why we should and shouldn’t continue to glorify the entrepreneurial community. My sentiments on this are best captured through a personal story that many of my closest friends have heard me tell with a big grin on my face: I played soccer in middle school but my dad, a huge soccer fan in general, never came to the games. Finally, one day he attended but he left before the game ended. When I got home I asked “Hey dad, why didn’t you stay to the end?” He looked at me as if considering if I was ready for the truth and then said, “Jessi, you’re such a gifted kid in many areas, but soccer isn’t one of them. Find what you’re good at naturally and become the best at that.”
My dad's advice irritated me but I could tell he was being sincere and trying to help, so I listened and reflected on his words; in fact, I still do. That was my last soccer season. I had a competitive edge in math and science that I didn’t have in sports so I doubled down on my academics and got a full ride scholarship to Stanford, Harvard, Lehigh, and Oregon State. I know that wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t focused, or if I had kept trying to play a game that I wasn’t good at.
My advice to anyone in the entrepreneurial community is to help people and companies become hedgehogs, not foxes. Hedgehogs have a singular focus that gives them the ability to sift through complexity to discern underlying patterns, identify and pursue what is essential, and ignore the rest.
Learn more about IBM's Global Entrepreneur Program where qualified startups can receive up to $120K in IBM Cloud credits. IBM equips startups with the go-to-market support, business mentorship, services, discounts, technical guidance and networking opportunities needed to quickly bring their solution to market fast on the industry leading Cloud platform. Apply today and unleash IBM to empower your startup!