June 12, 2018 • By UCI Paul Merage School of Business
In the not-too-distant future, our cars will use artificial intelligence to make dinner reservations at a nearby restaurant for the exact number of people in the car, or offer to notify a meeting organizer if we’re running late for an appointment due to traffic.
The person paving the road into the digital future for Toyota Motor North America is Zack Hicks, who earned his Executive MBA at The Paul Merage School of Business in 2003. He serves as Toyota’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer, as well as CEO and president of Toyota Connected, a big data company that harnesses the power of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and other emerging technologies to improve our driving experience.
Hicks and his growing team at Toyota Connected – currently numbering 190 – are bringing the best of Silicon Valley’s tech innovations to their Dallas, Texas office as they make cars smarter and safer. Hicks says of his team, “They expect that they are going to change the world, and that inspires me to want to create an environment where they really can change the world.”
The incredible speed of technological change is both exciting and disquieting. “It’s happening at a rate that no one person can understand,” he says. “You have to have that natural curiosity and interest in the technology, but also have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and not knowing everything.”
Growing up in Detroit during some of Motor City’s more difficult times, Hicks swore he would never work in the auto industry. But when he became an account rep for United Airlines, helping large corporations book their air travel, Toyota became his favorite client.
“What I loved about Toyota was that when I visited them, it was a very consensus-driven organization,” says Hicks. “They would ask all the administrative assistants what they thought of the new reservation software, and they really cared what everybody had to say.”
Soon enough, Hicks was in-house at Toyota’s travel department, the first of many positions he has held across the company, over 22 years in departments ranging from financial services to IT. “Toyota is one of the few places where you can still show up to work in their travel department and end up CEO of a division,” he says. “Toyota still fundamentally believes that people are multi-faceted.”
“I encourage people to take as many rotations as possible and not look as every job move as having to be a level up,” Hicks advises. “Look at each job move as putting more tools in your tool belt so that when future opportunities come up, you’re better prepared for them.”
More tools was exactly what Hicks was looking for when he came to the Merage School, at a time when his career with Toyota was already well established. “I wasn’t interested in just checking the box, and I didn’t want to learn just theoretical aspects of business,” he says. He chose Merage for its good mix of faculty from academic backgrounds and real-life business positions. “I knew that made Merage a much richer learning environment.”
Hicks says that in addition to graduating with a degree and the tools he needed to excel at the executive level, he also gained a network of friends, including classmates he remains close with 15 years later.
As Hicks steers Toyota Connected into the future, he shares his secret to success: “I don’t assume that when I see a problem, that it’s somebody else’s job to fix it. I assume it’s my job to fix it,” he says. “If you see a problem through that lens that it’s someone else’s job to fix, then you miss an opportunity to make a difference.”
And that’s a perspective that’s bound to change more than just our cars.