Sebastian Thrun is among the most prolific entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. As a serial founder whose ventures include Google X, education trailblazer Udacity, and transportation company Kitty Hawk, he is an enormously big thinker whose natural curiosity leads him to take on seemingly impossible projects.
Among many other thoughts, Sebastian believes that "AI will be as impactful as the printing press in the next 100 years." He constantly looks for ways that technology can solve global issues and enrich our lives. "When you're digging for gold," he says, "it's not the shovel that matters. It's the gold — and what you do with the gold. When people say, 'I can't live without that technology,' that's the point when you can see you're changing the world."
Sebastian is one of the most positive people I've ever met. He has an unceasing belief in a better future. It's rare for him to get nervous over an ambitious idea. And yet, as I learned when we recently sat down to talk, he admitted that even an optimist like him has to push through occasional self-doubt.
As he recalled, "Larry Page knocked on my door and said, 'You're building a self-driving car at Stanford that can drive on desert trails. Can you build a self-driving car that can go anywhere in California?' I had trepidation — I had an intuition that it would never work. (But) he convinced me to start the Chauffeur team, which is now Waymo. And within a year and a half, we had self-driving cars on roads."
This goes to the core of Sebastian's unique spin on entrepreneurship. He thinks big, and he never gives up. "You have to be curious, have grit, and when you start something, learn to finish it. Execution is key." (He should know: he has 60 patents to his name.)
As a leader, Sebastian is a master at cultivating innovation across his teams, which is something he learned from his early days at X. He favors multiple small teams that can operate largely independently. He said, "You have to have a very good vision that carries you on rainy days when things go badly. Then hire the best people in the world, and give them infinite freedom."
This approach has been something of an obsession with Sebastian as he has tackled two global challenges, education and transportation, through Udacity and Kitty Hawk. With the former, he wants to democratize education, and with the latter, free the world from traffic. In our interview, he shared his vision for both. Education will be "life-long, addictive, and personalized," he said. As for the flying car, it's not a new idea: "The Jetsons had the idea for flying cars 50 years ago — and it's finally come to fruition."
Sebastian's mind is a cacophony of ideas, each one bolder than the next. He is always pushing toward the seemingly impossible. But even for someone whose work is on exhibit at the Smithsonian A&S Museum, Sebastian believes we've only invented 1% of what is possible. In his world, that means there's still 99% to go!