KauffmanWomen: Q&A with Ernestine Fu on Technology, Government, and Societal Impact

Our feature this month is with Ernestine Fu (KF Class 17). For the past decade, Ernestine has focused on emerging technologies ranging from autonomous vehicles and robotics to security and defense technology. Many of her investments have touched on government needs.

Ernestine got her start in venture capital after joining the fund Alsop Louie Partners in 2011. She was inspired by her colleagues’ backgrounds in government, which included stints at the NSA and In-Q-Tel. Since then, Ernestine has led investments in early-stage technology startups that have secured large contracts with government agencies, such as the encrypted communications company Wickr and defense technology company Anduril Industries.

Aside from investing in startups, Ernestine teaches courses in the engineering and medical school as an adjunct professor at Stanford University, works with international organizations like Hyundai and DBS Bank, and guides research projects spanning renewable energy and smart cities. She graduated with her B.S., M.S., MBA, and Ph.D. from Stanford.

She is also active in a number of policy initiatives. Most recently, she was appointed as a commissioner for California 100, a new initiative that is focused on creating a bold vision for the state’s next century. She is a board director of the non-partisan policy organization Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation. Her interest in public service stems from starting a nonprofit as a teenager and then co-authoring the book Civic Work, Civic Lessons with former Stanford Law School Dean Thomas Ehrlich.

Ernestine shares with us her thoughts on using technology to encourage democratic processes, providing underrepresented communities with access to coding education, and the intersection of Washington and Silicon Valley.

What is one idea you have for how technology can be used by the government to benefit its citizens?

I love when subtle changes enabled by technology can lead to new informal processes and power structures that create and encourage democratic processes.

For instance, how can we provide citizens with easier access to video footage of floor sessions and committee hearings? Currently, in many cities, it can take weeks or months to access these records.

Solutions like this could lower the barrier for information-seeking citizens. People and groups — such as the media, watchdog organizations, aspiring politicians, think tanks, scholars, and interested constituents — could now reinforce checks and balances and create new standards of public accountability, and more meaningfully keep in touch with how laws are made. It could potentially kickstart higher levels of curiosity, engagement and participation in our democratic processes.

We often hear that there is more than distance separating Washington and Silicon Valley — there’s a knowledge gap, too. What advice do you have for Silicon Valley companies looking to win work with the government?

I’m reminded and inspired by Silicon Valley’s long relationship with the federal government — from Fairchild Semiconductor building chips that helped send American astronauts to the moon, to Lockheed Missiles developing the Polaris missile and Varian selling microwave tubes for military applications.

Companies that have successfully worked with the government realize that they’re undertaking a formidable task: navigating and unlocking an entrenched bureaucracy and fending off opposition from major contractors. Hire the right people with contract procurement and lobbying knowledge, and of course, be persistent.

Conversely, what advice do you have for government agencies eyeing innovation and Silicon Valley?

We need to break away from incremental improvements, and instead, focus on changes that result in 10x improvement, rather than 10% improvement — that requires a mindset shift from both the public and private sector.

We can start by reducing the administrative burden on small startups interested in government opportunities. DIU, AFWERX, SVIP, and several others have made great progress in recent years, but the process is still far from perfect. Oftentimes, there remain structural ties to archaic funding and administrative mechanisms that continue to restrict decision-making despite the emergence of new innovation organizations.

We need a holistic approach to simplifying and modernizing the entire procurement and acquisitions pipeline with the goal of increasing speed and efficiency throughout.

From federal to state and local government, education has always been a hotbed for debate. What is one thing we can do to improve education for our next generation?

Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the three pillars of education since at least the 19th century. Now, coding needs to be the fourth.

From biology to transportation, every sector is being transformed and revolutionized by software and hardware which are fundamentally programmable. This revolution is already upon us, and every single job our children will contemplate in their lifetime will likely involve operating a computer with some proficiency.

Unless we make an immediate investment in educating all students on computer science and coding, we’ll see an increasing divide in wealth and lifestyle between the coding proficient and the coding illiterate.

What woman leader inspires you the most?

Marie Curie.

How have you leveraged the KF network or, what have you enjoyed most about the program?

KauffmanWomen features insights from women investors, entrepreneurs, and executives within the Kauffman Fellows network. This month’s feature was led by co-editor Jessica Straus (Class 22). Have ideas for future articles? Submit your ideas here.

Kauffman Fellows is the world’s premier venture education program with the largest and most connected network of VC investors.