Three Women Building the Future at a Self-Driving Technology Company
To celebrate Women’s History Month, Ground Truth is spotlighting three visionary leaders who are paving the future for Argo AI and the self-driving industry. Collectively, they have spent decades in the business, facilitating billion-dollar deals (Cynthia Kwon), safeguarding systems against external threats (Summer Fowler), carving a legal pathway for emerging technologies (Kate Kozlowski), and providing mentorship for the next generation of leaders (all of the above). Every day, this trio of executives aren’t just honoring the history of women in their industries, they are busy creating it.
The Deal Maker: Cynthia Kwon
Vice President, Strategy and Business Development
As a twentysomething living in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid- to late-90s, Cynthia had a front-row seat to the first dot-com boom. And like so many others during that heady time, she caught the startup bug, working at a series of young digital companies all trying (and mostly failing) to revolutionize their industries. What she remembers most from that time—aside from the culture clash of seeing a world awash in money while she was still paying off her student loans: “The camaraderie of a diverse group of people building something,” she says. “The feeling that we were all in the trenches together. Of working to create something that would benefit people.” It was, she recalls, an “incredibly exciting time.”
Of course, it all came to a crashing halt in the early 2000s. But by that time, Cynthia, a native of Southern California and graduate of Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, had a better understanding of what she wanted to do with the rest of her career. After a stint at a venture capital firm confirmed that she was happier working inside of startups rather than advising them from the outside, Cynthia finally landed at Google. It was there that she met two people who would change the course of her life and career.
First, there was KeeKim Heng, whom she met while working on the Google Maps team in Zurich and who would eventually become her husband. And then there was Bryan Salesky, who Cynthia met while they were both working on Google’s self-driving car project. Several years later, when her ex-colleague started Argo AI, Cynthia’s business-development wheels began turning. She believed that by forging global partnerships with automakers and other manufacturers, she could make an impact at a truly massive scale. “It was a no-brainer for me to join the company,” she said.
At Argo AI, all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit. “As the business-minded person, I’m thinking about what’s next. How do we create the next big thing for Argo?” she says. Cynthia’s passion for innovation and new technology have defined everything she’s accomplished as Vice President of Strategy and Business Development. And it’s her vision for the company—not to mention her dealmaking prowess—that has helped steer Argo since its earliest days.
Cynthia was instrumental in sealing Argo’s second automaker deal with Volkswagen and leads strategic efforts to develop new markets for Argo AI’s self-driving technology. She knows firsthand how much strategic thinking, negotiation, and planning goes into putting an Argo AI partnership on the road. She’s always thinking ahead, while navigating the now: “We made a bet with Ford and VW, and this bet is starting to pay off. So now we’re just thinking, wow, what else can we do? And when is the right time to go for it?”
The Adventurer: Summer Fowler
Chief Information Officer
Chief Information Officers tend to be risk-averse, a trait that is practically part of their job description. After all, they need complete assurance that any new software, hardware, or process is safe and doesn’t risk exposing their company to external threats. That’s why it’s so surprising when Summer, Argo AI’s CIO since late 2018, reveals a secret passion: “I like to jump out of planes.”
It’s not a regular pastime, she qualifies. “I’ve only ever jumped tandem, and this was before I had my three kids. But I love it!”
Compared to the typical CIO, Summer has a slightly different outlook on risk. “I absolutely embrace risk. But I believe it is my role to identify and manage risks with the goal of Argo’s operational resilience, so that we’re able to continue to operate despite any disruptive events that may occur.”
Summer’s primary role at Argo is to ensure the company has a secure and functional IT infrastructure, with the right networks, systems, and cloud environment for the various software and engineering teams. But interestingly, tech only entered her world later in life. “When I was younger, I wanted to go into space.”
Rather than training as an astronaut, she went to the University of Pittsburgh to study law. Then, in what would become a career-defining moment, she transferred to computer science, which ultimately secured her a software engineering role as a defense contractor and led to more than a decade at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University.
But something was missing. “I wanted to work in an area that would change the world within the next 10 years.” Once at Argo, she instantly noted the difference in pace between academia and a tech startup. “Life is a lot faster now.” she chuckles. “But it matches my personality. And part of the fun at Argo is that it’s insanely collaborative.”
When she’s not working, teaching cybersecurity, or advising local corporates and non-profits — or jumping out of planes — Summer’s a big fan of the arts, hopping from the ballet to the symphony and the big Broadway shows. And she loves to travel and explore; she and her three kids have done the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb, caved in the Ozarks, climbed Mount Fuji, and plan to go to the Galapagos.
Once they’re old enough, her kids say they want to skydive together with Summer and her husband. “I’m not sure what this says about my risk posture,” she says, “but I am fortunate that my kids and husband enjoy my plans!”
The Counselor: Kate Kozlowski
Executive Vice President, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, and Secretary
Growing up in a tranquil, close-knit community in Dearborn, Michigan, Argo’s top lawyer, Kate Kozlowski, “always dreamed of going to faraway places.” But for some time, life had other plans. She married her high school sweetheart John, had her first child, and before she knew it, she had barely “any time or money to go anywhere.”
That would all change when a new offer reignited her childhood dream. After graduating from law school with honors, Kate took a legal position in Ford Motor Company’s International Trade & Transactions Group. Her grandfather, father, and brother had all passed through Ford’s doors during their careers, and she was thrilled to continue the family tradition.
As an eager young lawyer, Kate was always asking for extra assignments, so her bosses gave her the challenge of trying to sell Ford’s manufacturing facility in Egypt, a deal that had already fallen through half a dozen times. “Three months later,” she says, laughing, “I was on a plane to Cairo to close the sale.”
Before long, her whole job involved going to faraway places — from China to Russia to Brazil — forging partnerships and market access that would reinforce Ford’s status as a global powerhouse. As she navigated complex legal systems, different cultural norms, and big personalities, she learned that the best negotiation tactic is to convince all parties that you’re on the same team. “I’ve found that people are very willing to do things when it’s good for them,” she explains. “Finding a win-win is super important.”
To find balance in her jet-setting lifestyle, Kate also deepened her roots back in Michigan. In 2011, she settled down on her husband’s family farm a few hours north of Detroit. That, she says, is where she does the “things that ground me” — hunting and fishing, growing vegetables, operating a tractor, and caring for a cadre of sheep, chickens, and cows.
For a brief period, she even considered giving up her corporate career to open a farm-to-table restaurant in her small town. She was on the verge of acting on the idea when she met Argo’s Cynthia Kwon for lunch in 2017. When Cynthia heard Kate’s exit plan, she shook her head and said, “No, you can’t do that.”
Not long after, she agreed to join Argo as the company’s general counsel. Having brokered the deal that brought together Ford and Argo the year before, she remembered the “immediate connection” she’d felt with the executive team. But more than anything, her decision to join Argo was fueled by her lifelong sense of adventure.
“Self-driving is a new frontier,” she says. “Instead of conquering new markets, we’re conquering new technology.”