Marissa Mayer has had her work cut out for her. The former Google exec’s five-year run as CEO of Yahoo! ended in 2017 when she wasn’t able to turn around the floundering tech giant, her tenure marked by big bets that didn’t pay off—the $1.1 billion purchase of blogging site Tumblr in 2013 comes to mind, as does a controversial decision to end a work-from-home program many Yahoo! employees relied on.
But if you wrote Mayer off as yesterday’s news, you were sorely mistaken.
Mayer is not quite ready to detail what her new firm, Palo Alto-based Lumi Labs, is up to, but she did give some tantalizing clues in an on-stage interview at the Techonomy conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay.
“I remember that getting a man on the moon was a grand challenge, but many interesting things came out of that effort, including the integrated circuit.”
The first thing Mayer wants you to know is that Lumi Labs (which she cofounded with Enrique Muñoz Torres) is “a classic incubator” that will develop new ideas from concept to development and delivery. A major focus is artificial intelligence and how it can be used to develop practical, easy-to-use consumer applications that can help people.
Mayer thinks there is a great opportunity to take advantage of the massive investments being made in AI to create useful applications. “AI is focused on many of the grand challenges like self-driving cars, but AI could be deployed on smaller things,” she said at the November conference. “I remember that getting a man on the moon was a grand challenge, but many interesting things came out of that effort, including the integrated circuit.”
She specifically mentioned contact lists as one area Lumi Labs is working on. “I haven’t found one person who thinks their contacts are in the order they want without any duplicates or other issues,” said Mayer. As a first step, the company released Holiday Helper back in December, a free service you can use to update your list of contacts and generate mailing labels.
Mayer also brings knowledge from her last seven years on the board of Walmart. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about Walmart and how to run a first-rate company,” she related. “What’s most impressive is their scale. It’s really mind-boggling at times, when you meet with the logistics team and find out about all the stuff they carry that ultimately ends up in our homes.”
Critics point to the impact Walmart has on small retailers, which often can’t survive when a Walmart enters the same region. But Mayer focused on the positives the retail giant brings. When President Obama called for the minimum wage to rise to $10 in three years, Mayer noted that Walmart raised their minimum salary to $10 immediately because, she said, “the CEO said it’s the right thing to do for our employees. And it was nice to have that as a baseline because then pretty much every other retailer had to match it.”
Similarly, when Walmart does something positive for the environment or limits gun sales, its competitors tend to follow suit. “They are good people and they think a lot about their impact on the world,” said Mayer.
As for the current state of tech, Mayer noted there have been some “surprising pitfalls the last five-to-10 years, but overall I’m optimistic about technology driving people forward.”