Rick Smith of Axon: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

The key to leadership is humility. Set ego aside and truly listen to the people you work with. Admitting what you don’t know is just as important as sharing what you do know. This is a quality that inspires others to follow, respect, and work beside a leader. And it’s essential to remain mission-focused, not title-focused, or power-hungry. The best leaders are driven by the company mission, which sustains them through the inevitable ups and downs of business.

As a part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Rick Smith, CEO of Axon.

A technology pioneer with a vision to make the bullet obsolete, Rick founded the original company, TASER, in 1993. As the TASER device became ubiquitous in law enforcement, Rick pushed the company beyond weapons technology and towards a broader purpose of matching technology to public safety needs in order to make the world a safer place. Under his leadership, the company has grown from a garage in Tucson to a NASDAQ-listed global market leader in conducted energy weapons, body cameras and software.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Incollege, I studied neuroscience, business, and finance. In my early 20s I was studying abroad in Europe, and two of my friends from high school were shot and killed in a road rage incident. That ignited a passion in me to help solve the problem of gun violence. I was also a big Star Trek fan. So naturally, I thought: if we had access to something like a Phaser, or a similar non-lethal weapon, no one would need to fire metal bullets into each other anymore.

I had read about the TASER, created by NASA scientist Jack Cover, so I called him up using plain old 411 to get his number. The name TASER is an acronym inspired by Victor Appleton’s novel, “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.” Jack’s original model was designated a Title II firearm because it used gunpowder to fire the projectiles, yet it did not look like a firearm. This put it in the same highly restricted category as sawed-off shotguns, which meant it was complicated to sell, and the company went under as a result. We started in Jack’s Tucson garage to rebuild it with compressed gas to make it legal to carry.

My dad was a serial entrepreneur, and he agreed to fund the new start-up, which became TASER International. From there, we lost money for eight consecutive years of doing business. We pillaged my parents’ retirement fund to stay afloat. The company was eventually able to gain traction, and in mid-2001, TASER completed an IPO and began trading on the NASDAQ under the symbol TASR.

With TASER devices quickly becoming ubiquitous across law enforcement agencies, we moved into the business of body-worn cameras and digital evidence management software to help increase transparency and trust on both sides of the lens. In April 2017, we changed our company name to Axon to better represent the connected network of devices, apps, and people.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a huge advocate for continuous learning, both professionally and personally. If I had to choose one book that has made a significant impact, it’s Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. The book documents the incredible progress of human history to leave violence behind, through the lens of rational thinking and empathy. Pinker highlights six trends of declining violence, which I found particularly inspiring. This book inspired me to pursue writing my book, The End of Killing, which was published last year.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

I love this quote from Serena Williams, “I don’t like to lose — at anything… Yet I’ve grown most not from victories, but setbacks.”

This resonates so deeply and reminds me of my early career. Six years into TASER International, we didn’t have much success. Our first consumer-facing products tanked. Those times were dark and scary, but the hardships made me even more resolute to succeed.

Learning from my mistakes was the hardest, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. We re-evaluated the TASER weapon to make it more effective at incapacitating someone because early adaptations didn’t have enough power behind them. Once that was sorted, we decided to pursue the law enforcement market. Business took off from there.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is more than directing teams and having “all the answers.” The best leaders ask questions, listen to colleagues to understand what resources are needed to drive the mission forward, and rely on their teams to guide them on how to best proceed in business.

The key to leadership is humility. Set ego aside and truly listen to the people you work with. Admitting what you don’t know is just as important as sharing what you do know. This is a quality that inspires others to follow, respect, and work beside a leader. And it’s essential to remain mission-focused, not title-focused, or power-hungry. The best leaders are driven by the company mission, which sustains them through the inevitable ups and downs of business.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Taking vacations with my family is my favorite way to unplug, but I also exercise to relieve stress. I typically do high-intensity interval training with weights around 4–5 times a week. I time those exercises with a stopwatch instead of my phone. I don’t want to get distracted by an email or text message during my workout.

Remaining optimistic is essential. In times of stress or when faced with challenges, maintaining an optimistic mindset is no easy feat. When I find myself anxious or overwhelmed, I take a step back to look at the world from a sociological standpoint. Our world is small but liminal. Once we accept that perennial, uncomfortable, and necessary transitions will occur, we can gain the optimism that enables us to progress in a meaningful way. And I’ll share that it’s easier to be optimistic when you get enough sleep, eat well, and feel like you have the mental support you need to overcome the things that can pull you down.

In this industry, new challenges arise regularly. While the TASER device was designed to be a less-lethal option on an officer’s tool belt, we soon found that customers were accused of overusing the device. We took an optimistic approach to solve this problem by delving into the body-worn camera business. This helped to increase transparency for both law enforcement and members of the community.

But the use of body cameras led to another dilemma: a ton of video evidence to be stored, managed, and shared. To address this problem, we developed our cloud-based digital evidence management solution Axon Evidence (Evidence.com).

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, it’s clear we need racial reconciliation and hope. The events of these past few months have made us challenge the way we think, speak, and act on race-related matters.

Axon is uniquely positioned to help drive social justice reforms through technology. Technology alone can’t solve systemic racism — but we believe it has a huge role to play. Most studies have shown that body-worn video positively affects de-escalating situations and reduces the use of force while increasing transparency.

  • Body cameras can capture truth and provide transparency where there was none before.
  • Signal technology, along with the power of AI, can ensure cameras are always on when they’re supposed to be.
  • Live-streaming video combined with other real-time situational awareness data and a re-imagined 911 experience can get the right help to the right place with the proper oversight faster than ever before.
  • Virtual reality empathy training can help officers put themselves in others’ shoes and be better equipped to listen and de-escalate before acting.
  • Citizen portals to securely share footage captured by peaceful protesters can create a direct and constructive connection between communities and the agencies sworn to protect them.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

For the last several years, we have been very active in significant diversity events, including Pride parades in both Seattle and Phoenix. We have vibrant affinity groups for women and the LGBTQ community and regularly partner with networking organizations, including WomenHack, Girls in Tech, and DevColor.

We are actively working on doing more about DEI, so our employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work, regardless of race, gender, or orientation.

Other areas we are focusing on include:

  • Hiring — We’re reviewing hiring practices and putting together a dedicated recruitment team focused on improving our overall hiring strategy and helping us increase diversity recruiting.
  • Promotions — Moving forward, we will track and evaluate D&I data as part of all performance and compensation reviews to ensure Axon is driving a fair and inclusive environment for all career levels.
  • Building a more open, inclusive culture — To expand the scope of our different DEI initiatives, which currently include facilitating dialogues focused on diversity leadership development, recruiting, and community engagement, we’re fine-tuning our affinity group efforts. This includes BIPOC and LGBTQ groups to ensure their voices are more pervasive and involved in key company conversations. Additionally, Axon is launching regular company-wide unconscious bias and cross-cultural training for our offices worldwide and remote staff.
  • Evaluating our supplier relationships — We want to work with suppliers who value diversity and inclusion as much as we do. We’ve changed our RFP and supplier vetting process to identify minority-owned businesses better to support.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Axon has spent years building a team of voices to help guide us to innovate our products. We recognize the importance of diversity in those voices, so we are regularly making changes and additions to our Board of Directors, AI Ethics Board, and Axon leadership teams. It is more important than ever that we hear from the voice of our primary customer, law enforcement, or the voices of top technology leaders, but the voices of those who represent the underrepresented.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Our country is demanding change — more specifically, law enforcement reform. In recent weeks we’ve met with our African American employees and held company-wide meetings to talk about Black Lives Matters openly. From these conversations, we’ve determined the following need to be prioritized to drive real change:

1) Demand Transparency & Accountability — Until there is reform against excessive force in the justice system, we as a country can demand justice for those who cannot.The use of body-worn cameras and software tools can capture truth and provide transparency where there was none before. Accountability tools that measure an officer’s compliance with body camera policies, use-of-force trends, etc. can help identify where training is needed and hold officers accountable.

2) Invest in equitable hiring practices to close employment disparities — Current events have made more people aware of our nation’s disparities and implicit biases. Becoming aware that these things exist is the first step to understanding them and developing a strategy to break down inequality. Axon is taking different approaches to improving internally. I’ve already outlined our D&I hiring and promotion strategies. Our new training series will address biases, cultural and racial perceptions, and open conversations to encourage sensitivity, openness, and safety among employees.

3) Bridge gap between law enforcement and communities — The tension between law enforcement and communities across our country are heightened now more than ever. Systemic racism must be eradicated to begin bridging the divide.At Axon, we’re dedicated to helping law enforcement personnel streamline their workflows with AI-driven tools to ensure they can build constructive relationships in the community. We’re also committed to seeking community input to ensure our existing and future products reflect their needs.

Our immediate customer is the public safety industry — but our customer’s customer is the public. We have the unique opportunity to provide technology that supports both parties and helps reduce the tension that is prevalent today.

4) Invest in allies and reform — We have already changed our RFP and supplier/vendor selection process to identify minority-owned businesses. We’ve also added a weighting factor to our awards, so all selections take this into account and actively encourage diversity as we seek to support minority-owned businesses. To assist agencies with reform efforts, we will continue to balance the opportunity and necessity of using data to find actionable insights, with our ethics-first framework on key issues like retention policies and excessive force reform. Our independent AI Ethics Board will continue to play a significant role in these discussions.

5) Respect Black Lives — All lives cannot matter until Black Lives Matter. We must check unconscious bias at the door and learn to recognize microaggressions. More knowledge is power.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Never before have we seen so many police leaders come together and commit to reform and change. This is what gives me optimism that we can become a more equitable and inclusive society. At Axon, we are committed to continuing the conversation to drive positive change. We are proudly leaning into this time of transformational change and driving forward in the next wave of policing reform. Everyone deserves to get home safely.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Sir Richard Branson: some of the best business advice I ever received was about accomplishing great things while building people up along the way. I realized a long time ago that the type of leader I want to emulate is Sir Richard. He has changed the world in several industries while living a fantastic life and leaving a trail of happy people and deep, meaningful relationships in his wake. That is the mark of a great leader.

I have met Sir Richard on several occasions and always come away, inspired, and amazed. There are some well-known tech leaders whom I believe led unhappy lives and left a trail of burned relationships. As much as I admire their work, I would never want to have lived their lives.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn. Follow my blog at www.axonrick.com/blog/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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