MLTer’s recognized as part of “40 under 40” – Robert Harmon Jr.
Robert Harmon Jr. is a 2003 Career Prep Alum. Robert is the Director and Deputy General Counsel at Tesla. Named one of the 2016 40 Under 40 Top Diverse Talents in Silicon Valley, Robert shares more about his career path up until now.
Tell us about your career path and how you came to Tesla?
I earned a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Engineering and Economics from Columbia University. While attending Columbia I interned at General Motors (GM), with the goal of becoming an engineer in the auto industry like my father. After two summers , I realized that joining GM as an engineer wouldn’t afford me the opportunities to use my creative problem-solving skills that I was seeking. As a junior in college, I was now faced with figuring out my path and quickly. My advisor and I narrowed it down to a career in management consulting or law. Knowing nothing about being a lawyer, I decided to take a job at the law firm Dewey Ballantine assisting the attorney development group. Spending time with lawyers I realized that a career in law was right for me, so I applied and was accepted to the University of Michigan Law School. After graduating Michigan Law School, I moved back to New York to work for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP (Paul, Weiss), a top-tier New York based law firm. I worked for seven years in the real estate department at Paul, Weiss representing clients in commercial real estate transactions, including the City University of New York’s new headquarters, expansion of a Las Vegas strip mall, and Cornell NYC Tech initiative. After leaving Paul Weiss, I worked at Amazon for two years, where I built data centers across the world and provided global legal advice and support for Amazon Web Services in real estate, energy, and construction. I joined Tesla approximately three years ago to support global real estate.
What do you do at Tesla?
I am the Director and Deputy General Counsel. For nearly three years, I have provided legal oversight and leadership relative to Tesla’s real estate acquisitions and the development of Tesla’s real estate portfolio. Being responsible for all aspects of Tesla’s global real estate and construction, I was influential in the strategic planning, site selection, and construction of Tesla’s Gigafactory 1– the company’s six million square-foot lithium-ion battery factory. I continue to play a direct role in the construction and management of the Gigafactory, in addition to managing the infrastructure needs for one of the world’s fastest growing retailers.
When you think back to your MLT experience, what stands out in helping you achieve your success?
MLT was the first place where I realized that my dreams could include running a company. It introduced me to people who looked like me and came from similar backgrounds who were achieving things far beyond what I ever thought was possible. Without that experience, I don’t know that I would have that same sense of belonging that has enabled me to carry myself with the type of confidence that has allowed me to be successful in my career.
Did you ever think you would be where you are today?
My parents did an excellent job of not allowing us to put limits on our dreams, but it is hard to dream beyond what you know. So if you would have told the kid me that I would be where I am now, I would have been surprised that I was a lawyer, but not surprised that I worked at a company where creativity and problem-solving are in our DNA. I think what would have been surprising to me is that I am here at this age and have so much more career and opportunity in front of me.
Anything you wish you had done differently with regard to your career?
There are always things that we can look back at and wish we would have done differently, but what I’ve realized is that all of those things got me to where I am now. The advice I always give to people making decisions about their career, is to figure out what decision honors them and what they want out of their life and career, and values the contribution they will make.
You know MLT believes in the importance of people discovering their passions, so what are you passionate about in your work? How do you bring that passion to the company?
My first passion is Real Estate, so getting the chance to touch and be a part of important real estate decisions every day, makes me happy. My second passion is problem-solving, I really enjoy finding meaningful solutions to difficult problems. I think I bring both to work with me every day. The real estate enthusiast sees the importance in the real estate we choose, especially as it is a representation of who we are as a company. The problem-solver in me welcomes the opportunity to remove barriers and allow this company to continue to achieve success.
Share some of the things you’ve learned or discovered through your experience in Silicon Valley.
When I first arrived in Silicon Valley, I had my head down working to master my job and contribute to my company. I didn’t really spend much time in the larger Silicon Valley landscape. Over the last year at the urging of my wonderful wife, I have spent more time meeting people and socializing within Silicon Valley. What I’ve learned is that there is an amazing network of people of color who have achieved exceptional things and are willing to reach out a hand and help the next generation – you just have to find them.
How long have you been in Silicon Valley and what changes are you seeing?
I have been in Silicon Valley for close to three years, but spent one and a half years prior in Seattle within an exciting tech environment. I arrived in Silicon Valley at the start of Jesse Jackson’s Silicon Valley Diversity Campaign, so there was a heightened awareness about diversity. I can’t say that I’ve seen seismic changes with regard to diversity in the large tech companies, but what I have seen, and what is probably even more important, is a number of people of color starting their own technology companies and their own venture funds.
How do you feel about winning this award?
I feel extremely honored to be recognized. Even more so given the amazing people with whom I received the recognition.
With so much in the news about the need for greater diversity in tech, what advice do you have for someone who might be interested but unsure about pursuing a career in Silicon Valley?
My advice would be to pursue your passion. Just as a supportive community of people of color developed around finance and law and consumer packaged goods once we began to have a more significant presence, a community is developing here in the valley. But, just like in finance, law or any other field, at the end of the day that supportive community means nothing if you aren’t doing something that you are passionate about and doing it well.
Anything you think that differentiates career paths in this sector from other more “familiar” ones – like finance or consumer packaged goods?
Working in the valley means being comfortable with some level of uncertainty. Uncertainty about whether your company will succeed, and uncertainty about your career path. If you want to work here, you have to be willing and able to block out that uncertainty and just focus on applying your skill and ability to what is in front of you. Stability isn’t a trait of the valley, so those who need stability to be happy should look elsewhere.
Any advice for someone who may aspire to senior leadership in Silicon Valley?
My advice would be that “leadership” in Silicon Valley doesn’t look like leadership in other industries. The leadership in place now is young, so staying in one place and moving up the ladder may not be a viable path. You have to be willing to take some risks, seize opportunities when they present themselves, and look for them when they do not. You have to be willing to look past the title to the opportunity for growth, a “senior” title buried behind 20 other senior titles may not be as good an opportunity as a title without a “senior,” but with the runway to grow into far more if you show up and show out.
What’s next for you?
Success and happiness. I am extremely excited by what we are doing at Tesla. I believe in our mission and our goals, and I am happy to have a role in getting us there.