Laurie Yoler: “Don’t wait for things to come your way; go out and forge your own destiny”

Investor and founding Tesla board member Laurie Yoler answers our most pressing questions about her career and thoughts on tech.


November 10, 2020

Laurie Yoler — a general partner at the VC firm Playground Global — has a long and successful career in tech.

She’s worked at Accenture, Visa, Sun Microsystems and was a founding board member (and early investor) at Tesla. She’s also served on the board of more than 20 public, private, startup and nonprofit organizations. 

We recently asked Yoler to share some career insights:

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What’s one mistake you made in your career, and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake was assuming I could work anywhere with anyone. I’m an optimistic, hardworking, self-motivated person, so I thought I could fit into any culture.

However, I learned that even if you are offered a great job title, scope of responsibility and salary, being aligned with the values of the organization is still paramount.

It’s about being in an environment where you feel heard, valued and understood for the unique strengths that you bring. I’ve had jobs where I wasted so much time trying to prove my value-add. At a certain point, if you’re still trying to sell yourself, it’s not the right fit.   

What’s the best piece of advice someone ever gave you?

Early in my career, when I first started at Sun Microsystems in 1993, I cornered CEO Scott McNealy and asked him what the strategy was for Sun in commercial markets.

He looked at me incredulously, and said: “If I knew the answer to that, why did I need to hire you!?!” That was exactly what I needed to hear to propel me forward.

I stopped asking for guidance from above, and started working hard to make the best decisions I could make for the company, based on building a strong network of internal and external connections, reading everything I could, and gathering and synthesizing data on the industries of interest to Sun.

Based on that experience, the advice I give to others now is: Don’t wait for things to come your way; go out and forge your own destiny! Be it starting a new company, getting outside investment, getting a board seat, or creating the perfect role and business plan in your existing company, go out and work hard to make it happen.

You may fail, and fall on your face many times, but if you never try, you will never get that opportunity. The key is to build a great personal board of directors around you who are there to push you forward, support you when you fall, and encourage you to get back on the horse.

What’s one storyline in tech and business that you’re following? Tell us why it’s important.

As tensions between the US and China continue to mount, I’m closely following the monumental shift a major decoupling of our two nations could have on business and technology. These are two huge superpowers with phenomenal innovators.

It would be counterproductive to see a complete rift because we have so much we can learn from one another. Companies like TikTok and Zoom are just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve watched massive amounts of Chinese investment come into US companies, so I can’t imagine how breaking things up would even work in today’s interconnected world.  

Who’s the most interesting person you know?

I believe there’s something interesting about everyone’s story, but ultimately, I’d say my husband Ben LeNail.

After being diagnosed with a deadly genetic disease – adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) – and being told he likely only had 2-5 years to live, he refused to sit around and grieve.

He started multiple foundations, funded a lab at Stanford focused on ALD research, and offered his time to mentor young professionals, especially women, around how to negotiate and stand up for themselves at work.

He also joined a vibrant, multi-racial church in Redwood City where he helps in small groups and with the sermon notes. He used to be an incredible introvert, but has now created this extraordinary network around him that gives him a sense of purpose and helps keep him active and engaged helping others.  

What’s your favorite book that you’ve read in the last 12 months?

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. I found this book incredibly powerful and educational. Bryan provides a great deal of context and enlightened insight on the urgency to fix our broken system of unequal justice in the US. 

I also loved Sometimes Brilliant: The Impossible Adventure of a Spiritual Seeker and Visionary Physician Who Helped Conquer the Worst Disease in History by Larry Brilliant. He predicted the current pandemic and helped conquer the worst disease in history. 

What’s one thing you splurged on recently?

My biggest splurge recently has been the classic wooden jigsaw puzzles from Liberty Puzzles in Boulder, CO. Their puzzles feature classic and modern artwork, and at the beginning of the pandemic, when I found out their stock was running low, I called and ordered ten of them. 

In this challenging time, I’ve found that spending a weekend working on a puzzle really makes me feel calm and centered.

I’ve found myself waking up on Saturday morning, working on a puzzle most of the day until midnight, then waking up and finishing it on Sunday morning.

Because it requires so much focus, it helps me get into a meditative state. So while it is a splurge, I consider it a worthy one for mental health!

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