Linda Yates, trailblazing CEO of Mach49, is one of Silicon Valley’s brightest soothsayers. Her latest book, The Unicorn Within, proves she’s shaping the minds of those who live and work here.
What to make of a titan who favors a black leather jacket and blue jeans to whatever fuzzy style denotes Silicon Valley these days? A biz badass? For sure. A visionary? Absolutely. But Linda Yates is also someone who continues to surprise people. She’s built a thriving company, Mach49 (mach49.com), led scores of new initiatives that turn heads, built one of the most sustainable homes on the planet and written a bestselling book, The Unicorn Within: How Companies Can Create Game-Changing Ventures at Startup Speed. The book reached the top position on Amazon’s new release list and was ranked among the top 10 business books by Forbes.
Yates grew up in Silicon Valley and says she wanted to be the first woman Secretary of State. “But the amazing Madeleine Albright was way ahead of me, and, lucky for all of us, she got that job first,” she laughs. “My parents took that opportunity to [advise] me not to go into politics but instead leverage my love of all things international to build successful businesses with global reach to drive change. With that as your foundation, you can support all the politicians, NGOs, environmental causes and passionate individuals who share your values for years to come.”
The entrepreneur took that advice to heart. She spent a decade as a board member for NYSE-traded Sybase Inc. (now SAP) and has served as a board member and advisor to many entrepreneurs and private companies. She was CEO of Strategos (strategos.com), a pioneer in corporate innovation, and led the SF office for Mac Group/Gemini. The Stanford and University of Virginia grad, who boasts extensive global experience—she’s lived, worked or traveled to over 70 countries—is a Henry Crown Fellow with the Aspen Institute (aspeninstitute.org). We caught up with Yates while she was in England promoting her book.
Silicon Valley shaped you—and millions of others. What makes this region so unique? It’s a unique confluence of people, values, education, finance, culture, pioneering spirit and technology. The two things that bind all these factors together and distinguish Silicon Valley from other regions are an extraordinary appetite for risk and an unwavering sense of optimism and hope.
This place is still a meritocracy valuing creativity, curiosity and hard work, where people who grew up with nothing—no money, no connections—but with ambition and talent can succeed beyond their wildest expectations. The cynicism the media loves to bathe in may attract clicks, but it stands in the way of promoting the good work to which every person I know, regardless of title, function or role, is deeply committed.
So, you remain bullish on this region as a leader? The area will continue to drive the innovation economy for decades to come. We have both entrepreneurial potential and entrepreneurial experience—layers and layers deep—and an entire ecosystem of support and capital built to serve those entrepreneurs.
And thankfully, they keep coming! Looking ahead, Silicon Valley promises to continue to lead the world in fast-growing emerging markets around generative AI, blockchain, virtual reality, biotechnology and much more. We’ve already seen a new wave of unicorns and decacorns in these areas, and it is only a matter of time before we see the next generation of Apple, Google, Genentech, Adobe, Nvidia, SalesForce and ServiceNow, among many other Silicon Valley greats, emerge to lead us to the future.
What prompted you to launch Mach49 and write The Unicorn Within? There are two altruistic reasons why I founded Mach49 and wrote the book.
First, people are living longer due to health care and technology. That means they’ll be working longer. As much as we celebrate startups, most people are employed by large companies—and they need purposeful, meaningful work. I believe most large companies need to look more like Berkshire Hathaway or Alphabet and have a portfolio of companies and new ventures as it allows people to be more creative, stay closer to the customer, move with agility, kill things that aren’t working and ensure that those that are working can reach escape velocity.
The second reason we founded Mach49 and wrote this book is because of the big, hairy challenges we face: climate change, education, disease, racism/bigotry, poverty, hunger, water, disappearing species and other challenges. We need our big companies to know how to experiment, innovate and disrupt to solve them.
Big companies can address every one of these challenges. If we fall into the trap of all or nothing, that the challenges are too overwhelming, we risk doing nothing. If we think ‘that’s not our job’—that it’s the government’s task to fix that problem—and that we can do nothing, we are deeply wrong. Each of us has within us the capacity to drive profound change. New ventures can be bold. They are a way to place the small bets we need to test solutions.
Yates and her husband, Paul Holland, built one of the most sustainable homes in the United States, Tah. Mah. Lah., right here in Silicon Valley.
And The Unicorn Within showcases this philosophy, yes? The not-so-secret-secret of Silicon Valley is that it’s not that hard—it also isn’t fairy dust. I wrote The Unicorn Within to democratize what we do at Mach49, to build capability, not dependency and to extend access to the success we have experienced inside the Global 1000 to a much broader audience by making our methodology, tools, assessments, agendas, processes, scripts and more available to everyone who aspires to disrupt themselves from the inside out and the outside in—not just to survive but to thrive and ultimately, hopefully, to change the world.
How do you define venture-driven growth? Large companies have advantages that only some well-funded startups could hope to match. They have ideas, talent, capital, brand and technology. They have customers—often millions of them. However, most companies never realize the potential of their built-in advantages. Why? Because doing that requires them to think and act differently to overcome the inertia, antibodies and orthodoxies that starve great ideas of oxygen at best, or worse, kill them.
These companies must recapture their entrepreneurial origins’ spirit, spark, scale and speed. They must build their Growth Engine, unlocking disruptive growth through venture building and venture Investing. That’s what we call venture-driven growth.
Do you have examples of this in action? Great examples include creating Australia’s leading solar-as-a-service provider with a French energy company and developing a new venture revolutionizing retailing through portable and autonomous mini-retail stores for an industrial smart mobility giant.
We’ve also designed a successful venture factory producing 12 to 18 new ventures annually for a large global tech company; for a global tire company, we designed their corporate venture capital arm—with several great exits under their belt already—and turned around a preexisting venture in the mobile fleet services business that is now thriving.
Our future-minded regional health care system client incubated an incredible, globally scalable sustainability practice building on their commitment to driving sustainability in health care, and for a Japanese electronics company, we helped drive the fastest start to a CVC ever, with three unicorn exits in the fund’s first 18 months.
Large companies fall into the trap of becoming dinosaurs. You believe they can thrive.
Large companies are not doomed to be dinosaurs. There’s no reason that large companies can’t disrupt themselves from the inside out and the outside in to drive disruption and meaningful growth—there’s no reason the hotel companies couldn’t have created Airbnb, no law of physics that says Uber couldn’t have come out of the car companies, no barrier to the financial services giants creating Stripe, the music companies creating Spotify.
Miro is valued at $17.5 billion doing digital stickies—that should have been 3M’s brainchild; they invented the Postit note, but instead, they laid off 6,000 people this year.
What are the reasons large companies fail when they focus on venture-driven growth?
Many corporates think they can all be YCombinator, the granddaddy of startup incubators/accelerators in Silicon Valley. They study YC and think, ‘How hard can it be? We just need money and mentors.’ But what large global companies really need is methodology.
The second is mothership friction. One strand of the mothership DNA is the ability to create, build, invest and launch new ventures. The other strand of the DNA is all about seizing the mothership advantage. Internal friction is deadly. Corporate accelerators typically fail to engage the mothership and finesse the shifts—for example, in metrics, compensation, procurement, policies and politics—to help their ventures reach escape velocity.
Lastly, senior executives fail to grow. Senior executives must learn to think and execute like top-tier VCs. In addition to working with companies on disrupting inside out—creating ventures and helping them build their own incubators—we also help them disrupt themselves from the outside in.
Please tell me about Mach49’s Growth Institute and professional development. The Growth Institute was developed to leverage over 200 of our masterclasses, immersion programs and workshops, helping chief human resource officers develop their own Growth University. It’s important that companies don’t create the haves and the have-nots in their organization—the cool kids getting to do venture building and venture investing and those ‘stuck’ in the core and legacy business. The Growth Institute empowers companies to drive true growth and innovation-fueled transformation across the organization.
I’m intrigued by your newly launched 2401 digital platform. From the beginning of Mach49, we were committed to building capability, not dependency. The book was the first manifestation of our promise to democratize what we do, and 2401 is the second [proves] that we’re here to work ourselves out of a job [laughs]. We designed the 2401 SaaS platform to supercharge an organization with the hard skills, proven methods and portfolio-level insights required to deliver meaningful growth—at scale.
The platform enables asynchronous learning, expedited results, AI-augmented tools and insights, cross-portfolio alignment and outsized business impact.
You and your husband, Paul Holland, are passionate about education. Could you share your initiatives in those arenas? Education must be disrupted—and it’s being disrupted as we speak. Today, we see radical new models gaining ground that will someday become the norm. We have reached an inflection point regarding the 21st-century learner—who represents many diverse characteristics, including neurodiversity, demographic, socioeconomic and cultural.
We’re also exploring what the essential elements of a 21st-century learning ecosystem must be to accommodate the realities of the modern world and the students who will shape it. There can no longer be a one-size-fits-all model. There can no longer be a system based on scantrons and standardized tests. I’ve been an activist trying to drive this change in both the public and private school system, from co-founding a Lab School committed to demonstrating what 21st-century education could be to co-developing a one-of-a-kind Intersession.
Your home is impressive and earth-friendly. Please share your journey in building Tah.Mah.Lah When my parents decided to downsize and sell the home my siblings and I had grown up in since 1967, we bought it to build the greenest house in the United States. Our goal was to hire every green building consultant we could, showcase cleantech startups, be intentional about every decision and then share everything we learned with others who might need the motivation or assistance to make their homes and buildings greener.
Tah.Mah.Lah became another venture we started from scratch, looking at all aspects of green building—energy, water, waste, materials and habitat. No one house can make a difference, but it can be a pebble in a pond. We’ve used it to educate others, including school children working on sustainable science projects, college students competing in international green building competitions, architects and builders who all too often ‘value engineer’ green elements out of a house unnecessarily, and major corporations who must recognize they have the power to move the needle on climate change and policymakers and politicians who need to help fund and pass laws to ensure a healthier planet.
Photography by: TODD ECKELMAN; COURTESY OF LINDA YATES