Pioneering the Future of Transportation and Breaking Barriers in a Transforming Industry!
The daily commute is a universal experience that often feels like a necessary evil. Dealing with traffic jams, the anxiety of driving in busy areas, and the hours wasted sitting in our cars can make commuting a part of our day that we dread. Even though efforts have been made to address these problems through public transportation, carpooling, and urban planning, the underlying issues of overcrowding, pollution, and the overall inefficiency of daily commutes still remain.
To tackle these issues, Steven Del Gaizo is a passionate and pioneering leader who is not only reshaping the way we move but also breaking down barriers in a historically male-dominated industry in self-driving technology.
“I hate commuting,” Steven chuckles, “so I often joke that I work on self-driving technology so I don’t have to drive.” But his dedication to this field goes far beyond the convenience it offers. It’s a genuine love for technology, innovation, and the profound impact autonomous vehicles can have on society.
As a Lead Program Manager at Luminar Technologies, with years of experience in the automotive manufacturing sector, he is intimately familiar with the industry’s inner workings. His journey into the world of self-driving technology was born out of a desire to be part of something transformative — a movement that could not only revolutionize transportation but also save lives.
“The potential here is immense,” he reflects. “Autonomous vehicles have the power to significantly reduce accidents caused by human error, and that’s a mission worth dedicating one’s career to.”
But Steven’s story is more than just a testament to his passion for technology. It’s a narrative of breaking barriers and promoting diversity in a field that has not always been welcoming to everyone. Automotive manufacturing, traditionally seen as a male-dominated sector, often carried a reputation for lacking inclusivity.
As a queer leader in the automotive and self-driving technology spaces, Steven is on a mission to transform this perception. He recognizes the importance of his role in not only pushing the boundaries of innovation but also in fostering a more diverse and inclusive industry.
“When I first started,” Steven recalls, “I was often the youngest, queer, Latino in the room, and I didn’t have any role models to look up to. Now that I have the experience and I am in a leadership position, I am a mentor for my fellow LGBTQ+ STEM colleagues.”
His commitment to mentorship and giving back to the LGBTQ+ community is unwavering. Steven volunteers his time to help others navigate the challenges he once faced, ensuring that the path forward is smoother for those who come after him. His journey serves as an inspiration to us all, a reminder that with passion, dedication, and a commitment to inclusivity, we can shape a future that benefits everyone.
Below are the highlights of the interview:
Could you please brief about Luminar Technologies and its inception story?
I am newer to Luminar Technologies, but in the five short months that I’ve been here, I have witnessed the progress our team has accomplished in delivering cutting-edge technology to our automotive customers. Luminar Technologies, founded back in 2012 by CEO Austin Russell, develops vision-based LiDAR and machine perception technologies primarily for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and Autonomous Vehicle applications. The technology was developed from the chip level up rather than relying on off-the-shelf components, which sets Luminar apart from other competitors and allows our products to have better performance. Luminar is motivated by a unifying, world-changing purpose: to save 100 million lives and 100 trillion hours over the next 100 years.
Can you tell us about your experiences as a cross-functional leader and how you have leveraged those experiences to take initiative and act with urgency in developing business strategies?
I have experience as an engineer, program manager, and an Employee Resource Group (ERG) Leader. These experiences come together to complement each other and make me a well-rounded leader. As an ERG leader, I’ve been able to build more on my soft skills. I worked outside the traditional engineering functions and championed diversity policies at the highest levels of one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the world. These roles have helped me become a better program manager and leader because I am able to analyze every situation, anticipate what lies ahead, and be prepared for it. As a Program Manager, I developed strategies to ramp up production of new technology, roll out capabilities for autonomous vehicles, and pave a pathway for volume production in global markets.
How have your 12 patents in electric and autonomous vehicles contributed to your role as an innovation leader? Can you provide examples of how you have developed and executed these technologies?
I love innovation and challenging best practices to put a product into production. Many of my patent ideas came from out-of-the-box ideas and design thinking. As engineers, many of us tend to automatically discredit our new ideas based on past experiences, but technology is constantly advancing, which enables new solutions. Over the past 5 years, I have seen more innovation in the automotive industry than in the last few decades. The transition to electric and autonomous vehicles requires a streamlined approach. A few of my patents have gone into production, and I achieved that by integrating my design ideas at the beginning of the design process, investigating new manufacturing processes, and developing methodologies to validate those designs.
As a champion of diversity, can you share your experiences leading the GM LGBTQ+ Employee Resource Group and how it has positively impacted the organization and its employees?
When I first started my career, I was a closeted, introverted engineer who had a fear of public speaking and never imagined that I would be the queer speaker of a global company with the ability to influence present and future corporate policies. Joining the ERG gave me the confidence to be my authentic self, and it allowed me to grow both in my personal and professional life. As I took on more leadership roles within the ERG, I realized the influence I had to change peoples’ lives. During my time as an ERG leader, I was able to improve medical benefits, implement policies on gender transitioning, and develop a network for LGBTQ+ employees.
Being recognized as an OUTStanding LGBTQ+ Top 20 Leader in 2022 is a significant achievement. How do you believe this recognition has influenced your role as a leader and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and inclusion?
The recognition affirms the hard work I accomplished and the extra hours I put in day in and day out. It also reenergized me to keep going. After winning the award, I was able to influence my company’s leaders to sign the Respect for Marriage Act and the Michigan Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Amendment which provide protections for gender identity and sexual orientation. Sometimes, being a leader in this space can be exhausting. ERG work is often work that is done in addition to our day jobs, and it is easy to feel burnt out. Awards like this help bring energy and passion back into the role.
Can you describe a specific instance where you have successfully led a team through a complex project or initiative, and what strategies you used to ensure its success?
Currently, I am leading my team to execute the next-generation technology that will go into all our future LiDAR sensors. Upon joining Luminar, I had some experience with laser technology, but I was not a technical expert. However, to lead a team effectively, you rely on your team members to provide input. Leaders give autonomy to their teams and ask them to help educate and guide them. I openly admit when I do not understand complex technical discussions, and I take on every opportunity to learn by visiting our manufacturing locations or suppliers. By trusting and empowering my team, I hold them accountable to their deliverables but also trust the information that I am provided.
How do you foster a culture of inclusivity and encourage diversity of thought within your teams and across the organization?
I always try to start my meetings by recognizing important cultural holidays or DEI moments. I’ve had positive feedback from doing this, and individuals have reached out to me after expressing appreciation and gratitude. When I initiate a project plan, I also ask for important holidays and time off since people will be out of the office since my team is global. It’s important to realize that everyone has different backgrounds and experiences, and by being an inclusive leader, you are enabling each person to contribute to their full ability. I am also very intentional about giving all people the opportunity to provide input, and I always try to lead with empathy.
What strategies or approaches do you use to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and advancements in the electric and autonomous vehicle industry? How do you ensure that your knowledge and expertise remain relevant and cutting-edge?
I do a lot of my own personal research. By working for a tech company in this space, I am constantly working on next-generation projects and interacting with our R&D group on what comes next. Typically, I also stay up-to-date with automotive publications and academic articles that I read during my flights on business trips. I also follow competitive automotive articles and research independent companies to learn more about their technology and what sets them apart.
Can you share a recent example of a business strategy or innovation project that you have led and the measurable impact it had on the organization’s success?
During my time as a program manager for Autonomous Vehicles, I worked with GM, Cruise, and Honda to develop a future rollout strategy with input from our manufacturing, finance, purchasing, and engineering organizations to lay out a plan on how to expand AVs into multiple global regions beyond the United States. This project taught me a lot about business, how to gain leadership alignment, the importance of knowing key decision-makers, and being prepared to answer questions from senior leaders. Through this exercise, I helped execute a plan to invest millions to enable future global expansion for the program. This prepared me well for my role at Luminar because I have extensive automotive experience at all levels with multiple OEMs, and I bring those learnings with me every day.