March 19, 2019

Lead(H)er: Jessie Lazarus - Head of Mobility Business Development at CARMERA

When New York City’s mayor and City Hall staff had questions about how Uber would impact the city, they talked to Jessie Lazarus. As New York City’s Chief Digital Officer for three years, Lazarus worked to position the city as an attractive place to build and grow a tech company, give residents better access to tech, and update the city’s digital footprint. But through her involvement in conversations about how to best handle the new wave of ridesharing apps and similar technology, Lazarus gradually began to focus more heavily on how transportation played a role in New Yorkers’ ability to take full advantage of all the city had to offer.

“Part of the job was making sure that we had a strong infrastructure, and mobility is part of that,” Lazarus said. “We were focused on unlocking neighborhoods in the city that had been underserved historically by public transit.”

The question of how mobility impacts a community’s economic development continued to intrigue her, and it ultimately led her to CARMERA, where she now serves as the company’s Head of Mobility Business Development.

CARMERA is a street intelligence platform that provides essential mapping services for self-driving vehicles. Its real-time mapping suite helps vehicles see clearly and accurately, preventing confusion about whether that’s an 18-wheeler truck or a bridge ahead. The maps also help keep cars within millimeters of their ideal position on the road, even when lane lines are worn away or when debris falls into the middle of the road. Vehicles can then instantly share this information with others on the road, creating a smoother passenger experience as it redraws pathways.

Much of this data is collected through CARMERA Fleet Monitoring, through which CARMERA mounts high-powered sensors on the roofs of professional delivery fleet vehicles. The company receives data about traffic-impacting events, like accidents or construction, and partner fleets receive data about their trucks’ GPS locations, driver behavior, and a video log of the day’s trips for their own use.  

Finally, there’s CARMERA Site Intelligence, which provides real-time information about traffic-impacting events, like what time permitted construction projects actually begin each day.

“We generate so much data about what’s happening on the street in the process of building and maintaining these maps,” Lazarus said. “The Site Intelligence product is our way of sharing data that is high-value to cities for policy and planning purposes, but otherwise is low stakes and doesn’t compromise any commercial or technical trade secrets for our customers.”

This data would be costly and difficult for city officials to obtain otherwise, Lazarus says, and it would have been invaluable to her back in her City Hall days.

Lazarus always anticipated a career that would dip into and out of the public and private sectors, though she was never sure of the exact route. She considered going to law school, or working on Capitol Hill. Instead, she worked on President Obama’s reelection campaign, and a coworker there recruited her to work in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in New York. In 2016, Lazarus decided that as much as she loved her job, it was time for a short break.

“I’d been on this political path without ever stopping to think about what I might want to do when I “grow up,” even though that path was 10 years long,” Lazarus said.

She chose to go to business school. There, Lazarus worked at a venture capital fund while keeping an eye out for a company that was mobility-focused, early stage, and with a strong sense of civic responsibility in urban areas. CARMERA checked all those boxes.

The company’s pragmatic attitude towards the future of autonomous vehicles was also attractive. Maps are an integral part of the autonomous vehicle tech stack, but companies that previously believed they could build that whole stack themselves are quickly realizing they might need some help. As the hype cycle fades into the realities of what it takes to make self-driving cars part of our daily lives, Lazarus sees tremendous potential for impact.

“I think autonomous vehicles will help us achieve this idea of universal basic mobility, where people have the ability to move around and access all aspects of urban life no matter where they live, and particularly in underserved transit areas,” Lazarus said. “I thought CARMERA was built for that. The company’s DNA is focused on being a good steward of the entire transit ecosystem.”

Rapid Fire Questions

What do you like to do in your free time?

I love being outside and active, so skiing and hiking, in that order. I grew up on a farm in East Tennessee, so despite the fact that now I love being a New Yorker, I still have this need to be taking advantage of the outdoors as often as possible. That’s how I use my extended free time. In the day-to-day, I read and watch whatever new true crime story is streaming.

How do you manage stress?

Honestly, I think stress, particularly for women, is something we should talk more about. And we should be talking about actual mechanisms for dealing with it. I think of stress in two buckets: can I control it, or can't I? For things that I can control, I make lists and start powering through them. Nothing is too small to go on the list. You build a lot of momentum just making a dent in that list. It feels great.

For the second bucket, things I can’t control, I’m not someone who can put it out of sight, out of mind. I think a lot of productive and successful people can do that, so it works for some. Something that’s helped me is acupuncture. I’ve been going for the last few years. I didn’t believe anyone who recommended acupuncture in the past, but after going regularly, I’ve found it’s a great new tool to help manage general stressors.

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

I used to drink two, but I’m down to half a cup of coffee a day and feel great about it. Caffeine and coffee do have health benefits, but I’ve been trying to stay as hydrated as possible, and it feels counterproductive to that.

What’s one of your favorite places in the New York area?

For sure, Prospect Park. I live in Prospect Heights and feel very lucky to have such gorgeous green space in the neighborhood. It’s a great loop for running and a great place to hang out on the weekends. All of Brooklyn is there, and it’s beautiful. Being in the park on a sunny Saturday, I always get that, “greatest city in the world” feeling.

What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments so far?

I feel really proud of the work that we did to grow New York’s tech ecosystem. In particular, we focused on talent by creating programs to ensure that tech jobs were available to New Yorkers and New Yorkers had the training to access those jobs. One of the biggest initiatives that I am confident will pay dividends for the city and all its residents in the future is the Computer Science for All program. Two of my colleagues in city government and I took on getting CS4All done and didn’t stop until we got it in the budget. I feel very, very proud of that.

The program is a public-private partnership that we launched in 2015 to bring computer science education into all three grade bands in New York City public schools, 1.1 million kids. That kind of exposure to computer science in elementary, middle, and high schools is already having a big impact on all New Yorkers, and specifically on young women and girls who are now getting early exposure to STEM education.

Is this where you saw yourself 10 years ago?

Ten years ago, I was studying for the LSAT, living in D.C., and working for a think tank. I would have never guessed that I wouldn’t go to law school. I didn’t have a more clear sense of what I’d be doing than that. Obviously (and thank goodness) I didn’t go to law school. I grew up on a farm, and my husband and I joke that when I was growing up, technology was the electric fence we had to keep the cows in. Now I’m working at an autonomous vehicle software company in New York City, which I had never even visited until I was a teenager.

So things are definitely different. The lesson I take from the last 12 years is to be game for anything, realize what particular aspects of each job you love, and build on those in the next job you do. My next steps always became clear, even if they weren’t immediately obvious.

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

I think working for great people who trust you and will have your back is important. Someone in college once told me to choose classes based on the professor, not on the syllabus, and I think that’s how I’ve approached jobs. Work for people who will let you step beyond your qualifications because they trust you and will give you the freedom to learn, grow, and even mess up. Bosses who have your back is key.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.