Five Questions For … Manoj Saxena, AI Investor & Ex-IBM Watson Chief

Austin—Humanity is entering the age of homo digitalis.

That’s the view of Manoj Saxena, the former general manager of IBM’s Watson Solutions in Austin, TX, and now a venture capitalist who focuses on artificial intelligence startups. The way he sees it, technological advances in machine learning and virtual reality can be combined to create a new environment in which we interact with data. The world becomes your touch screen. (“Homo Digitalis” is also the name of a book that speaks of similar issues, by Natasha Friis Saxberg.)

“Just like the industrial age amplified our arms and legs, AI will amplify our brains to do more to make good use of the resources we have on this planet,” Saxena says.

This “amplified brain” made possible by technological innovation can help to solve big problems around climate change, how we use the world’s scarce resources, and how to provide equal opportunity for economic growth throughout societies, he says.

Nurturing startups that might help bring about these solutions are his focus as managing director with Silicon Valley-based The Entrepreneur Fund, where he focuses on cognitive computing startups.

Saxena isn’t only focused on the virtual world, however. An avid racecar fan and owner of Saxena Racing, he has raced in a 2009 Porsche 911 GT3RS and a “rally prepped” 1971 Datsun 240z on five continents.

For our latest installment of “Five Questions For … ,” Saxena speaks about the limitations of youth versus age, the art of listening, and the meditative powers of racecar driving. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Xconomy: What leadership lessons have you learned from your children?

Manoj Saxena: The first one is remember to be interested in what they’re interested in, and not trying to get them into what you’re interested in. Good leaders first seek to understand the perspectives of the people they work with, their view of the world, hopes and fears. Then you can start seeding in your own point of view and story. First, seek to understand. That’s number one.

The other part is that the best form of learning and insight sometimes comes from them teaching you rather than you assuming you know how the world works. As a leader, you are leading people across the whole age group, people in their 40s, 50s, 60s. You also have some interns, entry-level college folks in their early 20s. Too often in rapidly changing workforces, we don’t understand fully how this generation sees the world. Good leadership starts with good listening.

X: How do your experiences in the racing world apply to innovating or the startup ecosystem?

MS: When I race, it slows me down, and slows my mind down. It lets me meditate. Before, it was go sit with a monk and meditate. Now, I race cars.

I was attracted to speed early on in my life. [Racing is] meditation in motion for me. When you are racing, you have to be connected with the car, with the road. You have to shut your mind down. Just like in regular meditation, you focus on your breath. In racing, you have breaking points and turn points and you’re feeling the car on the road. The mind needs to get stilled and completely focus because, if you don’t, bad things happen. The car is sort of sensing your temperament. If you’re on the edge, the car gets twitchy. If you’re calm, it’s like the driver Ayrton Senna says: When he moves his feet on the pedals, he feels like he’s walking on eggshells. It’s that soft, moving softly and gliding across the road.

As a student of racing, I found there to be multiple parallels between racing and life: No race is won on the first turn but many races are lost on the first turn. One of the things they teach you in racing is when you start getting into tough situations, lift your sight and look farther down the road and not on front of the car. Similarly in life, look ahead and plan for that, rather than the crisis that you are in. No race is ever won on a straight; it’s won on how you take the corners and turns. In life, it’s how you tackled the twists and turns of adversity.

X: What did your 25-year-old self know that you have forgotten?

MS: Uh, inside the body of a 51-year-old is an 18-year-old saying, “What the hell just happened … ”

I’m more idealistic than I was when I was 25 years old. I think I’ve forgotten fear; the 25-year-old probably had more fear about living out his dreams and visions and purpose than the 51-year-old has right now. I describe my state of mind as feeling unlimited in terms of what I can do given all the experiences and skills and resources I’ve been able to accumulate. I feel incredibly energized about the types of technologies and types of opportunities that these technologies can create for bettering society and business.

The 25-year-old was not as flexible and open-minded as the 51-year-old is. He was a little bit more fearful and didn’t believe in himself as much. You are limited by what you allow your mind to put as constraints or guardrails around you.

Back in ’98, my second daughter was born. I had this deep desire in me to do a startup. I decided to take out 13 credit cards with $200,000 on them. I was making $140,000 at 3M, but I decided to quit and start a new company. The fear was absolutely paralyzing. What happens if things go wrong? I went and lived with a monk for a month, and practiced this teaching, vipassana, which is a process where you turn inside. The concept is, we are who we are today because of an aversion we have built up over life. Things that happened when we were children end up determining who we are as adults. The idea is to go deep inside my psyche and do surgery on it. It helped me get a better handle on myself, to take that leap with confidence rather than fear.

X: How do you define success?

MS: Success is not a destination; success is a journey. One of my favorite quotes is, “Success is never final and failure is never fatal.” Every five years in general the definition of success changes because the purpose towards which I’m applying my time, energy, and resources changes. Success to me is the journey. Second, it’s a state of being rather than a title or a paycheck, the W2, or a speaking engagement.

Success is about learning, growing. Something one of my CEOs at IBM said was growth and comfort don’t exist. It’s the ability to continue to grow and continue to be uncomfortable as you push into new areas.

X: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

MS: I wanted to stay as a kid. When I was a kid I had very average dreams in the sense that I wanted to get into a good school and get good degrees. My father was a commissioner of police; my mother was a doctor. It was only when I came to the U.S., and only when I worked for 3M after my MBA, did I understand the power of what innovation really is. I was in a training program on methods of innovation and I got hooked on it, the excitement of coming up with new products, bring them to market, building businesses. Having done that for eight years, I took the same lessons of atoms and molecules at 3M to bits and bytes in the software world.

The 12-year-old would not recognize the 51-year-old today.

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