Starting a business hasn’t always been on Asma’s radar. When beginning her career as an IT Engineer in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Asma never imagined she’d end up in Ann Arbor, Michigan working alongside a Silicon Valley startup to improve autonomous vehicle technology. 

In 2016, a chance meeting with a startup founder threw Asma Almutairi, a graduate student pursuing a Master’s of Systems Engineering and Design at the University of Michigan, headfirst into the world of entrepreneurship. She hasn’t looked back since.

“I was lucky to meet a founder of a startup in my country, Saudi Arabia,” said Asma. 

In 2016, Asma attended a startup competition in Saudi Arabia to gather some inspiration and meet other entrepreneurship-minded people. While there, she connected a woman and her mother. She didn’t know it at the time, but this connection would radically change her future for the better.

Two years after the startup competition, Asma found herself feeling stuck in her corporate job. Hoping for a new and exciting opportunity, she reached out to some of the people she’d previously met in the startup space.

“I was looking for a new challenge. I didn’t like my corporate job.”

She reached out to the woman from the competition. “It turns out the woman’s father, Ghassab Al-Mandil, was launching a startup. I sent him my CV, he asked me for an interview, and then he said, ‘OK, you start tomorrow!’”

The startup, Jahez, focused on providing solutions for food delivery. Asma’s background in computer science made her a perfect candidate for a position in IT. The company was just getting started when Asma got on board as one of its earliest employees.

“I was the 8th employee to join the IT team and I was the first female to join the startup.”

By 2021, the 12-person team had exploded to a company with more than 200 employees in two countries. It became the first startup in Saudi Arabia to enter the Saudi Stock Market. Today,  Jahez is one of the most valuable public technology firms in the Middle East.

“This opportunity helped me see how beautiful, stressful and rewarding the entrepreneurship world could be,” said Asma.

When Asma came to the University of Michigan to pursue a Master’s of Systems Engineering and Design, she had another chance encounter that changed her trajectory – this time in the Duderstadt Library on North Campus.

“I am a curious person and I love to be aware of my surroundings. So, most of the time, I would check out some offices in any building I enter. One time, I passed by the Center for Entrepreneurship’s office. I got curious and googled CFE.”

Most of the CFE’s offerings resonated with Asma, but she was especially interested in the TechLab at Mcity program. 

“I was really interested in autonomous vehicle (AV) technology before, but I didn’t know that there are actually a lot of companies working on real projects. I thought it was still a novel idea.”

TechLab showed Asma that not only was AV technology being implemented in industries across the world, but that she could actually be involved in this work. 

“My background is computer science. I thought that I needed to be a mechanical engineer in order to work in AV. When I joined TechLab,  I realized that my background as a software engineer in computer science would actually help me greatly!”

Currently, Asma is working as part of the 2022 TechLab cohort. Her team collaborates with Deepen AI, a data company focused on “unlocking the potential of machine learning and AI for autonomous systems.”

Asma and her team are currently creating solutions to help Deepen analyze Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) measurements received from customers. Using that data, they generate test scenarios that influence the way the vehicle responds to certain situations on the road.

The work has been inspiring for Asma, who now hopes to one day forge her own path in the AV industry.

“My next step is to work in the Autonomous Vehicles startup industry to learn more and gain experience. After that, I will work on starting my own startup in the Autonomous Vehicles business. I will definitely apply what I’ve learned from the CFE!”

When it comes to her time with the CFE, Asma feels that her experience has prepared her for what’s to come.

“I wish that my university had a similar center when I was an undergraduate student. I would have learned all the skills and mindset that I need to navigate the  harsh-reality of the entrepreneurship world.”

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