Skift Take

Waze, owned by Google, has huge potential to change the way cities move, as they place a renewed focus on mobility and community. Watch CEO Neha Parikh explain why the technology is much more than a navigation app.

Waze has 151 million monthly active users, and is more than an app to beat traffic jams, CEO Neha Parikh told Skift senior research analyst Seth Borko, as they dissected the intersections between maps and community.

The duo also looked at future mobility possibilities, and how Waze can change the way cities move, while the CEO shared her own personal and professional journey from Expedia that led her to the driving seat of Waze.

During the on-stage conversation at Skift Global Forum, called Navigating Leadership, Community, and the Road Ahead, discover too how Waze is helping to save lives — watch the full video, as well as read a transcript of it, below, to find out more.

Interview Transcript

Seth Borko: Hello everybody.

Neha Parikh: Hi.

Borko: Thank you for joining us.

Parikh: Thank you for having me.

Borko: All right, so we have the new CEO of …

Parikh: New-ish.

Borko: New-ish.

Parikh: A year and a half.

Borko: A year and a half CEO of Waze. Does Waze need an introduction? I feel like everyone here in the room … raise your hand if you use …

Parikh: Everybody uses Waze, right?

Borko: Raise your hand if you use Waze. You have Waze [inaudible] Yeah, there we go.

Parikh: Nice. Good to see.

Borko: And so people love the product. Tell us about yourself though, you have a background in travel industry, right?

Parikh: Yes, yes. I worked at a brand that some of you may have heard of … called Expedia.

Borko: Oh, Expedia … a small company, yeah.

Parikh: … for 12 years. Yes, yeah, 12 years at Expedia, Hotels.com, and Hotwire.

Borko: So how did you make that move to Waze, from travel industry to the transportation industry, mobility industry?

Borko: Gosh, where to start? So I spent 12 years at Expedia, like I said. I started at Hotels.com, I was one of the original people that worked on the loyalty program, for anyone who remembers the original name of the Hotels.com loyalty program, it was called … Anyone know?

Borko: There’ll be a prize at the end, you can find us if you know.

Parikh: It was called Welcome Rewards. Anyways, so I spent 12 years there. I think in the time that I worked at Expedia, I had 10 different jobs. I started as a product manager, I moved through different areas of marketing, strategy, general management, and the last role I had was, I was President of Hotwire and so I, over the time, had 10 jobs, lived in five different cities, Chicago, London, San Francisco, Dallas, and it was a lot, it was amazing, and …

Borko: It sounds great.

Parikh: Yeah, it was.

Borko: Why leave?

Parikh: I think two things. One, I absolutely loved Expedia, but I knew that I wanted to try something else. I didn’t want it to be kind of the only place that I was going to spend a lot of time. So I knew I wanted to do something else. And it was 2019, the summer of 2019 … actually spring, and I was starting to think I wanted to do something different, but I didn’t know what, and I wasn’t ready to jump into something straight on. And then something happened in my personal life, which is that my father-in-law passed away really unexpectedly. And it was, I guess, one of those moments that we’ll all go through, unfortunately. And for my husband and I, it was a moment of pausing and thinking about the decisions we were making in life and whether we were being deliberate and whether we were really using our time in the way that we wanted to.

And so about two weeks after my father-in-law passed, my husband came to me with this idea and he said, “Hey, if we’re going to retire someday for 20 years, if we’re lucky enough to do that, what if we just took a year now?” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean?” And he’s like, “What if we both quit our jobs for a year?”

And my first reaction was, that’s insane. I’ve worked for the past decade to get to where I am, and you sort of have all of these insecurities like, “How can you just quit? What will people think? How will you get back on? Will they believe me?” So all of that happened, and I realized though really quickly that he was right. I didn’t want another decade to pass and to look up and wonder where time went. So we both quit our jobs and I actually took a year and a half off, which was …

Borko: Incredible.

Parikh: Yeah, it was, it was. He thought I would last three months and I learned something about myself, which is I only have two speeds: all the way off, like doing nothing, or all the way on, 150 percent. And I think when I shut off, he was wondering if I would ever turn it back on again. But a year and a half later and a lot of thinking about kind of what I wanted and I guess Waze.

Borko: Well, you clearly turned it back on. I mean, you’ve got this incredible position, it’s a huge role. I mean, how big is Waze now?

Parikh: So Waze has 150 … we just hit a record actually, 151 million monthly active users. Here’s a fun stat: so next year … sorry, this year, collectively people who drive with Waze will drive 600 billion kilometers. Just to put it into perspective, because I had to somehow explain what that means, it’s 15 million times around the planet Earth. So it’s pretty big, it’s about 700 people, if that’s what you’re really asking.

Borko: No, I mean, to measuring companies by orbits around the Earth, I think that’s a great way to measure [inaudible] …

Parikh: 15 million then would be the answer.

Borko: We should do it. And so, you took that time off, you came back. I guess, how did that change your leadership style now that you’re stepping into this new role?

Parikh: That’s a great question. I’d love to say I’ve changed completely, but I think we are who we are. But no, I mean, I think part of taking that time off was being more deliberate about the choices that we were going to make and how we were going to spend our time. And so, one of the things we did was move from California, we were living in San Francisco and we moved here actually, so we live in New York now. My husband is from the Northeast, and so it’s the first time in 22 years of us being together that we’ve lived at near one of our family … well, his family. So it was important for us to be closer to family. For me, it’s just, I don’t know, I think what I realized by taking the time off is that you don’t have to live by anyone else’s rules. And I think that’s really changed who I am as a person as well. You should optimize for what makes sense in your life.

Borko: That’s a great lesson. I love that. Now you came in and started during the pandemic. I know a lot of entry-level staff, it’s hard to get up to speed during the pandemic. As a CEO who started during the pandemic, I mean, what’s that like?

Parikh: It was really hard. It was really hard. So not only was I starting a new role, for me, it’s a totally new company as well. So it wasn’t like I was just taking another role at Expedia where people knew who I was or had any trust that I could do the job, right? I was a very random person, I think, joining to lead Waze. So it was hard. I think I probably underestimated how difficult it would be to build trust in a situation like that. You know your own intentions, you know what you intend, but conveying that in a series of 30-minute video calls is a really difficult thing to do. So I think it was challenging, certainly getting to travel to visit. Can I tell you a really quick funny story?

Borko: Of course.

Parikh: This is travel-related, so all right, I’ll tell everybody. So you all may know that Waze, it was primarily in Israel, it was founded in Israel.

And so a lot of our engineering team is still based in Tel Aviv. And it was August of 2021, I started in June, and I just really wanted to get to Tel Aviv, I really wanted to spend time with 300 engineers there. And everything was still completely locked down, and Israel was one of the toughest places to get into. And I was one of the first people actually to visit Israel as a business traveler after the lockdown, literally the fifth person, I think. I had to get permission from the Ministry of Health. But anyways, it wasn’t enough to show a vaccine card there, you actually had to go get a serology test. So I had to go straight from the airport to the hospital and have my blood taken to prove that I had had a vaccine. And it just became a joke that I literally gave blood to be with the team.

Borko: I thought TSA was a pain. That sounds like a real [inaudible] …

Parikh: Yeah, yeah, yeah. yes.

Borko: And just one more thing about your path and then we’re going to move on to Waze, but you came in, you replaced a male CEO, I’ll say there’s a lot of white men leading positions in travel and tech. What was that like?

Parikh: I think I’ll answer it more generally, which is that as I’ve gotten more senior in my career, I certainly look around the table, the virtual table, but tables that I’m around often, and I’m the only one who looks or sounds like me, I probably look and sound different than most of the people you all have seen today. And I think it’s funny, in some ways people bring in diversity at companies because diversity means you have diverse points of views and that represents your customers and your users, and that’s great. But I think the ironic thing about that is when you’re the diverse person, it actually makes it a lot harder because everyone else has similar opinions and you come in with maybe a different point of view or a different background, right?

And so I think I’m constantly fighting to find my voice, and even if I have something different to say, that I would actually have the confidence to say it. Do you know what I mean? And so I think because I am on stage and I get to ask you guys for something, I would say don’t underestimate the impact that you can have just by amplifying someone’s voice. If someone is saying something and maybe they have a different opinion or maybe they see things differently or maybe they’re scared to say that thing, if you’re in a position to amplify someone’s voice and to help give them the confidence, please do that because it makes a difference. And I’ve had people do that throughout my career. I try to be very mindful of it myself. But it’s never super easy I would say.

Borko: Sounds like it’s very necessary, right?

Parikh: Yeah, yeah, I think so.

Borko: Let’s talk about Waze itself. So, here’s the big question that when I told people I was going to speak with you … What’s your relationship with Google? Waze, is it Google Company, is it not? What’s going on there?

Parikh: I knew you’re going to ask that. So, Waze is owned by Google, you guys may or may not know that. Waze is actually one of the most independently operated companies at Google. So that means that all the different parts of Waze, whether it’s engineering or marketing or our sales team, all report into one organization and up to me. So it is fairly independent. Now, I know probably your other question is, “But why does Google Maps have both? Why does Google have both: Google Maps and Waze?”

Borko: Yeah, I’m good. You keep [inaudible] …

Parikh: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was going to interview myself, all right. Well, I mean that’s the exact question I asked when I was interviewing at Waze too, which is, “Why does Google have Google Maps and Waze?” And so of course I was thinking about this before I came on, and I think the best way I can answer that to this room of people who work in travel is, why companies own multiple travel brands, right? So whether it’s Expedia or Booking.com, they own different brands because they serve different use cases.

For me, if I want to book a flight, I might go to Expedia, but if I want to book a hotel, I might go to Hotels.com or Hotwire because I worked there for 10 years. But there’s different use cases, right? And so what we found between Google Maps and Waze is that people use us in different ways. So you might use Google Maps as your default navigation app and you might open Waze if you’re stuck in traffic or if you’re not getting to where you need to be quickly enough, or if you’re on a road trip. So we think it’s really complimentary. And also, Google Maps is really about technology and Waze is really about community.

Borko: Well, so actually that’s what I was going to ask you next. Waze has really unique data, right? That’s part of your story and that’s all driven by your community. We were backstage, you were stopped, people are so excited, “Oh my God, I love Waze.” How do you build that kind of enthusiasm for a map, right?

Parikh: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s a great question. So I always joke, because Waze is a navigation app, why should anybody feel emotional about a navigation app? Yet people do, including me. That’s why I was really excited to join Waze.

And so, look, I think the best way I can answer that, I was talking to somebody at Waze a few weeks ago and she said something that really just got imprinted in my mind. And she said, “The thing with Waze is when I open Waze, I know I’m not alone. When I open Waze, I know I’m not alone.” And it was this very emotional thing that she said. And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And she said, “I know there’s a whole community of people who have been inputting information, who I am driving with, who want to help me, who I want to help.” And I think whether you know it or not, that has a lot to do with why people have such an emotional reaction about Waze. It’s not just a one-way app that uses technology. It is a two-way ecosystem where people actually contribute to help each other.

Borko: When you put it like that, it’s kind of like when we travel and it’s all about making those two-way connections when you stay at nice hotels. What’s your vision? You’re in this not new role.

Parikh: New-ish.

Borko: New-ish, 18 months, you’re here. What’s your vision for the future of Waze? How are you going to drive this business forward?

Parikh: Yeah, spending a lot of time thinking about that. I think to answer that, I first … Can I talk about the community?

Borko: Please.

Parikh: Okay. So here’s something I didn’t really … By the way, I’m an avid Waze user. I actually wrote one of my grad school essays in 2008 about Waze, which serendipitous and also weird but true.

Borko: [inaudible] to the universe, you get back.

Parikh: Yeah, yeah, yeah, true fact, true fact. So I think we all know, or most of you that use Waze probably know that, you input information like, is there a crash ahead or police or whatever. And that helps people, right? So drivers input information. We also have this incredible volunteer community. So we have a hundred thousand volunteers around the world who have full-time jobs. They are doctors, engineers, waitresses, they have full time jobs and they volunteer with Waze. They edit our maps, they are beta testers, they are localizers, they actually work on our city partnerships. And so there’s this magic behind Waze that I think most people don’t even know about, which is community. And so I have to say, I have to talk about that before I can talk about the future because when I think about the magic of Waze, it is the intersection of community and technology that is what makes Waze magical.

We don’t have the most engineers to work on the best technology in the world for navigation. We just don’t. But what we have is this dedicated, insanely passionate group of users and volunteers who want to help their communities. So I was in Tel Aviv last week and we were having a meetup of our most senior volunteers. So the people who have been with us the longest, who contribute the most. So it was a hundred people from around the world. It was amazing.

And of course you all might be wondering, I had to ask one of them, “Why do you do it? Why do you spend so much time volunteering for this app?” And varied answers, but one of the most consistent things I heard, or one thing that stuck out on my head was somebody said, “When you volunteer for Waze or when you input information for Waze, it is the best act of random kindness. The biggest act of random kindness.” Because you input a road is closed and it may not seem like a big deal, but you’re going to impact thousands of people who are on the road in your community who may not have known that. And so the impact that you can make is huge. So …

Borko: Kind of paying it forward.

Parikh: Totally paying it forward.

Borko: Well, so speaking of impact, right, not just communities, but there’s an impact you can have on cities and on travelers. I know you’ve been doing a lot of city partnerships. Tell us about how Waze is going to work with cities for the future of mobility.

Parikh: Yeah, yeah, okay. So we have thousands of partnerships with cities. And what I mean by that is the municipalities, the transportation departments of New York City, Philadelphia, Bogotá, Kuala Lumpur, London. And we work with them for a number of different reasons. So one is they give us information, who knows best about what’s happening on the roads in terms of construction and events than the city themselves, so they give us information. Actually, they feed it into our … You’re like, “maybe they don’t know.”

Borko: Maybe they don’t, [inaudible].

Parikh: I know, yeah. If we had more time, I could talk about that too. So they give us the information, they actually feed it in via our community. Our volunteers are actually the ones that often take the information and make sure it gets on our maps. So they give us information, we give them aggregate information so we know, for example, what the most dangerous intersection is in the Upper West Side every day because we have coverage of 70 percent of all crashes that happen in the United States in real-time. And I don’t know, I’m asking my team to try to validate this, but I believe it’s the largest central repository of crash information.

Borko: I never thought of … That thought never occurred to me. You must have …

Parikh: So 70 percent right. And can I [inaudible] a sidebar just for one second? Okay. Here’s what’s really interesting. We did a study with UCLA two years ago, okay, and they found that on average, Waze knows when an accident happens five to 10 minutes before emergency services. Five to 10 minutes. And you guys know why, if you use Waze, you’re driving, you see a crash happen right in front of you and you put it in, done. We know it, right? Imagine the time it takes for someone to pull over, call 911, convey the information for an ambulance to get called and deployed, right?

Now, here’s the interesting part, and I’m going to answer your question, I promise. But here’s the interesting part. For every one minute that emergency services can get to a crash site sooner, we can save 10,000 lives a year. One minute, one life-saving minute. And when you put together the fact that we know when crashes happen in real time, and we have these partnerships with the cities, you can imagine something really simple, which is connecting the data that we have to cities to deploy emergency services. And what’s really interesting is one of our volunteer communities in Lisbon, in Portugal, organically realized this and started doing it themselves. So they actually built a real-time connection between Waze data and emergency deployment services in Lisbon, and they’ve reduced the time it takes for ambulances to get to crash sites by eight minutes.

Borko: Wow, that’s a lot of lives saved per year.

Parikh: Eight minutes, eight minutes, right, and so back to your question, what do I think we can do with cities? I think we can change the way cities move, and I think one of the things that we can do pretty easily is save lives.

Borko: Yeah, why do you think that some of the mobility stuff, the way cities move, is still so disconnected from the rest of the travel industry, like airlines and hotels and stuff? Is there a way that Waze you think can bring together or …

Parikh: How do you think it’s disconnected?

Borko: I feel like there’s not a lot of connectivity between some of the online travel sites. Once you get off the plane, I feel like it’s a whole different user experience to get around locally.

Parikh: Yeah, I think that’s a great point actually. Maybe we can do something about that.

Borko: Well look, where you do it a lot is road trips. You have a lot of info on that. What do you see when you look at that kind of stuff?

Parikh: Well, I think what we’re seeing especially, was probably the same thing all of you were seeing, which is that people are anxious to get back out and do things and live their lives, right? So not only we’re seeing more people drive on the roads than ever before, what’s interesting is where they’re going is different. So we are seeing a huge increase in people going to leisure destinations, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters. People want to live their life again. And before Covid, Waze was primarily an app for commuting, going to and from work. Now we’re primarily an app for leisure and for errands. And so I think … I know Barry Diller was on earlier, I’d be remiss if I didn’t use Barry’s favorite, favorite phrase which is, “Where there’s life, there’s travel.” And I think we’re seeing the same thing at Waze.

Borko: Let’s ask … Barry Diller would say, “Where’s the revenue? How do we make money for that?”

Parikh: Oh man, I just opened myself up to that, didn’t I? Okay, how does Waze make money?

Borko: Well, how do you make money from people traveling to leisure destinations [inaudible?

Parikh: Well, I mean, I’ll talk generally. So primarily today, Waze makes money through ads and we show people ads based off of where they are, driving, right? It can be for a coffee shop, for a restaurant, for a hotel. And actually, of course, our partners who advertise with us, they want to know if their ads are actually impactful. Great question, obviously. And what we’ve found is the cost for an advertiser to get someone to navigate to their establishment through Waze is much lower than any anywhere else. And it makes sense, right? You’re already in a car, you’re already driving, your intent is very high, you’re going somewhere. So us being able to influence you to stop is pretty high.

You wanted me to talk about the … Anybody here from Booking.com? Yes, so, okay. Well, I was just telling Seth backstage that we’re working with Booking.com to advertise on Waze, so Booking.com advertising on Waze.

Borko: What interests me though in general is that you sell hotels on Waze.

Parikh: Well, we don’t sell hotels, we were advertising a link off to go to Booking.com, just to be really clear. So it’s more of a brand play and a click off, right. So my team came to me and they said that the sales team at Waze, and they said, “Hey, you know, came from the online travel industry so tell us, what do you think? Do you think that this will be compelling for a company like Booking.com having an ad on Waze?” And my first reaction was, “Ooh, I don’t know.” I think online travel agencies are very data-driven, right? You want to know that the money that you’re spending in marketing actually results in something. And I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to measure it because unlike, let’s say, a coffee shop like Starbucks, we can tell Starbucks how many people we drove to their stores.

With Booking.com, you’d have to actually click while you’re driving. So it’s different than navigating to a Starbucks, that is, you can imagine that behavior, right?. But now we’re asking people, stop and click on an ad in a navigation app and then book a hotel. So I was skeptical that this would work, but I said, “Okay, like hey, if they’re willing to do a test, that’s amazing. Let’s do the test.” And it was actually great. We saw that they were very happy with the results. I have to say I was wrong. People did click on it and people did book. And I guess it goes with the context, right, road trips.

Borko: Yeah, road trips. And I think it’s a great way to just have new ways of thinking about how to advertise travel. So I think this is going to be our last question, but I’m just wondering, you have passed the travel industry, you’re now in mobility, it’s a great throughline in your career, what lessons you think are coming about the future of travel and transportation? What’s the big thing in your mind?

Parikh: Oh my gosh. What’s the big thing about the future of travel and transportation? I mean …

Borko: Or what are you most excited about?

Parikh: Yeah, no, I’m just thinking. I think a lot of times people talk about technology and this really exciting future that technology’s going to bring, whether in mobility, that’s autonomous cars or there’s so many big, lofty, ambitious things. And I think it’s all going to be amazing. I do, I do. But one thing I’ve learned at Waze is that there is a power between when you combined people and technology. And I think that’s something that we will have to keep in mind for the future. I don’t have an exact way that that comes to life.

Borko: I think it’s an incredible answer.

Parikh: Oh good. It’s a good answer, I’m happy. I wasn’t sure. No, I actually wasn’t. But yeah, yeah, yeah.

Borko: Bringing people in touch together feels to me like it’s very much at the essence of modern travel and everything.

Parikh: At the end of the day, especially for people in travel, it is all about people.

Borko: Perfect. Thank you so much.

Parikh: Yeah, thank you.

Borko: Thank you for joining us.

Parikh: Thank you.

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Tags: ceo interviews, google, sgf2022, waze

Photo credit: Neha Parikh, CEO of Waze, in discussion with Skift senior research analyst Seth Borko at Skift Global Forum in New York City. Neil van Niekerk / Skift

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