Charly Mwangi, Senior Director, Engineering, Tesla at Gearbox!

“Being an African and talking about technology, no one believes you. When I started at Toyota, people didn’t trust me to explain how the printer worked!” says Charly Mwangi, Senior Director of Engineering at Tesla.

Dr. Kamau Gachigi hosting a talk with Charles Mwangi at Gearbox

Dr. Kamau Gachigi hosting a talk with Charles Mwangi at Gearbox

Charly went to school in Nairobi. He attended Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. When he was 24, he got a scholarship to carry forward his civil engineering studies at Tennessee State University. Comparing his education in Nairobi and in Nashville, he finds his technical background outweighs his American counterparts’. Simply put, “school is way harder here [in Kenya]”.

In 2003, Toyota’s head hunters were sent to “recruit diversity” on the majority black campus of Tennessee University. They selected two African students, one from Cameroon, and one from Kenya. The school sponsored them both for visas and Charly launched his career as a manufacturing engineer for Toyota Motor Corporation. Time was short, as he was set to graduate -and thus lose his visa sponsorship- in 2005, and Charlie made the best of it. Spending all his free time reading and documenting as much knowledge as he could, he earned the nickname “Old man Toyota”.

In 2006, after graduating, Charly launched a second job at Nissan, who offered to sponsor him for a work permit. He proved his worth during his first year as a graduate manufacturing engineer, but Nissan were late to submit his visa, and in December 2006, he was on the verge of being kicked out of Mississippi. At the time, Nissan had an expatriation program for engineers with 6 years of experience inside the corporation. Reluctant to lose him, they fast tracked the rookie engineer though the program and sent him to design automated processes for building the body of Nissan cars in Kanagawa, Japan.

Ever since he started working, Charly made a point of interviewing with one company a year. This allowed him to evaluate his self worth on the job market and the opportunity cost of remaining in his current position. In 2012, that company was Tesla. Even though Tesla was created in 2003, 9 years later, they still acted as a start up. During his interview, Charly was told “in 6 months, you might not have a job [if you come for us]”. So he went and integrated a company whose take rate is lower than Harvard’s.

Tesla has two main focuses: energy and cars. Charly was hired as a body manufacturing engineer for the latter division. After six years in the company, he leads a team of 400 passionate engineers. “The best engineers are mission driven”, and as a manager, Charly spends a lot of time making sure that his guys can see the link between what they do and the difference they are making.

Electric vehicles represent roughly 1% of the world automotive market today. According to Charly, Tesla’s aim is not to be the only player on the electric market, but to act as a catalyst to launch this change. “Things change at Tesla all the time”, because they invest in the future. Today, a car is the second most expensive expenditure in a household, but on average, it is only in use 8% of the time. With Tesla investing in automation and self driving technologies, they are opening the door for a smarter and more efficient sharing economy in the automotive market. “My daughter is 5”, says Charly, “and I expect she will never have to pass a driving licence. She will never own a car. She will simply hold a participation in a self driving Tesla car -laughs-”. The future as he sees it, is to call upon your car like you would order an Uber, and have it drop you off before it leaves to pick up someone else. No more traffic jams. No more parking spots.  

An automated future.