03/25/2012 11:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2012

Great Person #2: The Fragility of Life, Dreaming Big, and Ending Our Dependence on Oil

Shai Agassi is on a mission to make a big dream come true. At the age of 33, he sold his first software company for a few hundreds million dollars to SAP. He then went on to lead SAP's overall technology strategy and execution before he was designated as next in line for the role of CEO. Then, as the story goes, he decided to take a left turn and continue his journey on a completely different path -- a path that more closely aligned with a personal passion. He decided to build an electric car company that could potentially end our dependence on oil. The name of the company is A Better Place and he recently opened his first location in Israel. He is slated to open additional locations in Australia, China, Denmark, Japan, Canada, California and Hawaii. I caught up with Shai at his first showroom, located in Israel, to take a test drive and to interview the person behind this great vision. By the way, the cars are really fast and make no engine noise.

(We are in a conference room at a Better Place's showroom in Israel. Download MP3 audio to hear Shai and I speaking.)

Robert: What's your purpose in life?

Shai: To end oil!

Robert: Did an event or person in your childhood change the way you think? For instance, in my life, my grandfather always said, "Don't be a follower."

Shai: I had lots of different events in my life. I went to college at a very early age and towards the end of my bachelor's degree, a car hit me and I ended up in the hospital for almost a year and a half. It took four painful surgeries to recoup my ability to walk. This accident taught me how fragile we are. While you've got to be focused on what you are doing, you still need to remember that everything can change at any moment in time.

Robert: Was there one failure that gave you your greatest lesson?

Shai: Just like most start-ups and entrepreneurs, at one stage of my life, I had a company that was writing software for other people and we had five contracts that we were working on at the same time. Then all five contracts, independently of one another, got cancelled within forty-eight hours. We suddenly had only two weeks of cash flow left.

Robert: What happened?

Shai: It was the best thing that ever happened. It focused me and I basically decided to stop building stuff for other people and decided to build my own product. That turned us from a service company to a product company and as a result, eighteen months later, we sold the company for $110 million. So we went from bankruptcy to success within a short time.

Robert: I had a similar experience with my company in 1998. We were building websites and I lost my largest customer, was running out of cash and then decided to build a product. We went Public on NASDAQ 18 months later after that incident with LivePerson. I often think there is some strange way in which the world works, that when you are faced with a serious crossroad, if you cross it, great things can happen.

Robert: So if you wrote your obituary, what would you hope it said?

Shai: He dared to dream.

Robert: Is there a person in your life who you really admire, who is a hero to you?

Shai: My girlfriend.


Shai: There are too many things to describe. She's just got the ability to make everybody around her better, aspire to be better, and she's always got my back.

Robert: What are your core values?

Shai: Wow. Let me describe a Better Place's values as I think it's better than describing my core values. Our values are dream big, run responsibly, invite everyone, value our people, execute with excellence.

Robert: If you could go back and change one day, which day would you change?

Shai: I know what day it is, but I cannot tell you. It is proprietary!

Robert: What would have to happen in the world to make the world a perfect place for you?

Shai: I think we need more people who are able to take big problems like oil, the environment, healthcare, education, and dedicate themselves to solving them. Not just from a passion side, but also from an engineering side of creating new systems. If we found twenty more big thinkers, who were willing to execute and dedicate their lives, I think the world would become truly a better place.

Robert: If you could get one question answered that I haven't asked you, what would that question be?

Shai: When do you think no one will buy a gasoline car in Israel? The answer is before the end of the decade!

Robert: Ok. Last but not least, is there some story that you would like to tell that tells your story?

Shai: It's been told many times. I presented the whole idea of a Better Place as a white paper back at the end of 2006 during a conference and Shimon Peres, who is the President of Israel. He took my white paper and then three days later he called me into his office. What I didn't know is he showed the white paper to many experts and everyone said I was crazy. He said, "If everybody thinks you are crazy, you must be leading the market and the world." Within two weeks, we had an agreement with the government of Israel to turn my white paper into a reality. A month later, we had an agreement with Renault to make the cars and a year later we launched the company. Those kinds of moments are truly rare. It's so much easier for political leaders in the world to basically look at big ideas and not want to put their name on it. It's very rare to find a political leader that's willing to step up and say -- We've got to make something happen and we're going to take a risk on a big new idea. I guess, sometimes it takes the crazy guy to make things a reality.

Robert: Awesome.

Shai: Thanks. I have to run!

(Shai leaps out of his chair, gets into a Better Place car and drives away.)

In my next article, I interview actor Ed Norton and his friend Abby Sigal of Enterprise Community Partners about affordable housing, online philanthropy, and his grandfather Jim Rouse.