Building The Base

In this episode of Building The Base, hosts Lauren Bedula and Hondo Geurts sit down with Karen Dahut, the CEO of Google Public Sector, to explore her incredible journey from the Navy to leading Google's public sector business. Karen shares her story, highlighting the influence of her parents' service and her personal dedication to making a difference. She discusses the evolving defense industrial base, emphasizing the need for greater integration and technical program management. Karen delves into the significance of innovation, emphasizing that it is a mindset and culture. 

Together they address the challenges and importance of transparent communication within organizations, drawing from her experiences at Google. The conversation touches on the power of partnerships, the role of AI in national security, and the global perspective on technology integration.

5 Key Takeaways:
Innovation is a Mindset: Innovation is not just about doing something; it's about creating a culture where innovation is embraced, empowering individuals to think boldly and make a difference.

Transparency is Key: Transparent communication within organizations, especially regarding important decisions, fosters trust and understanding among employees, leading to better collaboration.

Empowerment and Responsibility: Empowering individuals at all levels while holding them accountable for their responsibilities can accelerate their careers and help them make informed decisions.

Prioritizing Personal and Professional Goals: Clearly defining priorities in personal and professional life and evaluating them regularly empowers individuals to make decisions that align with their values and goals.

Networking for Growth: Building a genuine network of connections is crucial for personal and professional growth. Authentic interactions and a willingness to learn from others can open doors to new opportunities and perspectives.

What is Building The Base?

"Building the Base" - an in-depth series of conversations with top entrepreneurs and leaders from tech, financial, industrial, and public sectors.

Our special guests are weighing in on a broad selection of topics such as: shaping our future national security industrial base, leadership in challenging times, experiences related to the intersection of business and national security, and personal anecdotes related to their positions of influence.

Building the base is hosted by our own BENS member Lauren Bedula who is the Managing Director and National Security Technology Practice Lead at Beacon Global Strategies, and BENS Distinguished Fellow, Jim "Hondo" Geurts who retired from performing the duties of the Under Secretary of the Navy and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development & Acquisition.

Lauren Bedula 02:44
welcome back to building the base, Lauren Bedula and Hondo Geurts. Here with today's guest, Karen Dahut the CEO of Google public sector. Karen has had an incredible career in the defense industrial base, serving as the head of Booz Allen Hamilton's global defense business prior to coming for the launch of Google's public sector business. And prior to that even served in the Navy. So, Karen, thanks so much for joining us today. We are excited to dig into your story.

Karen Dahut 03:10
Thank you, Lauren. It is great to be here. Thank you, Hondo, as well.

Hondo Geurts 03:13
Let us see it. It is good to see you here. And we usually start these off with just letting listeners know where folks come from. And as Lauren said, you got one of these interesting backgrounds starting with service to the country. And how did you get into that? And what brought you all the way here to Google Now?

Karen Dahut 03:30
Well, I appreciate that question. And it really starts with my parents. Honestly, my parents are both Italian immigrants. They came to this country to make a difference to their lives in the lives of their children. They met got married at a very young age, and my dad enlisted in the Navy. And he spent a 42-year career in the Navy, going from E one to E seven, obviously Senior Chief and then oh one and retired as an O six, where he took command as his last duty station of Field Medical Service School, which is where Marines and corpsman train together. And he was a Navy corpsman when he was enlisted. So, this beautiful, full circle of life. And you know, I learned from my parents and both. It is super important to say, my dad's direct service to his country, but my mom's service of traveling the globe, not really knowing a whole lot about what it meant. I was born in Taiwan. It is often an interesting question I must ask when I go to renew my security clearance. We lived in Europe for a very long period, and we grew up mostly on the east coast of the United States. I am the youngest of three girls, which makes me my father's son And so I was the kid that went hunting with him and fishing with him and did all the boy things because my mom had said, threes it. She is going to be your all son. So not surprisingly, when I was in college, I was in college in the early 80s, which makes me old. And all my friends were going into banking. And I was a finance and a computer science major, and they were going into banking, and it sounded terribly boring to me. So, I called my dad in April of 1985. And I said, you know, Dad, I think, want to join the Navy. And he is like, let me get this, right, you are telling me this in your senior year of college, you know, we could have probably, maybe gotten some of this paid for. But I joined the Navy. And it was not by accident. My parents taught me the importance of service to our country. They taught me how important this country was to them as immigrants and their families. And they taught me that doing for others was sometimes more important than doing for yourself. And so that is really what got me into defense. And sort of, I have just pivoted my career for 30 years now, off that one idea of service. I have had the great opportunity to work across a broad spectrum of companies. I was in the Navy, I only spent about eight years in the United States Navy, I resigned my commission, I went to work for an FFRDC after that. And then I joined Booz Allen, Lauren, as you mentioned, and grew a 20-year career there leading their defense business. As I left, and then joined Google. I do not think any of that was accidental. Because I have always been yearning for the ability to make a difference to mission. I saw it up close and personal. When I was in the Navy. I was stationed at Campbell, June, which is a Marine Corps Base. And it is where SEAL Team Six trains. And so, I met many of them spent a lot of time with them. But more importantly, I learned, I mean, what it means to really serve in a big and bold way. I never had that opportunity, but I saw it through them. So, I joined and FFRDC, after my service in the Navy, thinking that maybe policy was a way to affect mission. What I quickly found is it is not at least for me; it was not appealing or appetizing. From there, I joined a large Well, renowned integrator, Booz Allen had an incredible career and opportunity to do so much around innovation and technology and mission. The one thing that I found is that I was always integrating somebody else's technology and not building it myself, which led me to Google, this opportunity is so expansive. And the ability to bring the world's greatest technology company and their technologies to bear on the mission is just something that excites me every day.

Lauren Bedula 08:19
What an incredible story. And thanks for sharing it, Karen, you have had the chance to watch, both defense priorities evolve over the past several decades, and the defense industrial base as well, alongside that, and I think we are at a very pivotable pivotal time right now with regards to the industrial base, and you are taking charge in an important way. And you mentioned technology, innovation, and mission. And I know that is key to what you are doing here at Google. I want to dial it back, though, and talk a little bit about how you have seen the industrial base change and what you think is so critical today to meet the evolving threat landscape.

Karen Dahut 08:54
Yeah, it is such a good and important question. I will start with I think part of the challenge we have today in our country. Politics not withstanding is that the average American citizen does not really understand the role of government. And the role of government is in creating security and defense of our country. And I always go back to I had the opportunity to campaign during a presidential campaign does not for a candidate private time, obviously. And I was going door to door as you do talk to Americans about their concerns. Nobody talks about China. Nobody talks about Russia, The war in Ukraine. They talk about their own safety, their own security, the safety of their family members. And I will never forget I had this one very elderly gentleman answered the door. very politely and he said to me, I know why you are here. I do know how I am going to get to the polls on Election Day. And I do know who I am going to vote for. But he said, I have a question for you. My question is, how is your person going to make a difference in my life, because I have lived here for 40 years. And it was not a nice area. It was not a, you know, highly economically desirable area. And he said, I have lived here for, you know, my entire life. And regardless of who is in the White House, it has not made a difference for me. And so, I share all of that, because I think that we have a responsibility, government leaders, industry leaders to tell the story of why the Department of Defense is so critically important to individuals, to communities to our country. And I think we have gotten away from that. Former CNO, Mike Mullen was a dear friend and mentor. And I remember he said something to me back many years ago, and it stuck with me, he really was not in favor of Base Realignment and Closure when it first came up as an opportunity to cut cost across the department, because he thought it was so critically important that Americans see servicemen and women in the grocery store, in their church pews, you know, walking the streets of the baseball fields, and that the more bases we eliminated from Middle America, the less people would understand. And I think he is right. And I think that has come to fruition. So now to your real question, Lauren, around the defense industrial base, I think that I say all of that about where we are as Americans, because I think we have lost this sense of service and sense of mission and real devotion to our country. And I think the industrial base can really help with that. There are ways to serve that are not purely, you know, raising your right hand, and, you know, committing to defend the Constitution of the United States, you can serve in a lot of different ways in government service, of course, but also in large OEMs, large integrators, large technology companies, small businesses, small innovation companies, and we need all of that. I think what has changed around the defense industrial base, is that as the systems we are using, whether it is weapon systems or financial systems have become more complicated, the need for greater integration and greater technical program management is even more significantly important. And I think the role of government has changed. I think the role of industry has changed. And we have not elevated the conversation to talk yet about how do we integrate all these capabilities. One of the things that I am really trying to push forward on with Google is what Google brings to the table is extraordinary technology. We are not a services company. We want to work with our partners that really no services, know how to deliver services know how to deliver integration services. We want to work with small businesses and small innovation companies that maybe they bring a unique, you know, technology to bear. So how can we help drive that integration by demanding that we do not be the integrator? And I think that is a super important point for the defense industrial base and how we continue to work together.

Hondo Geurts 13:46
Yeah, you know, I could not agree with you more of the danger of a population getting separated from its military and being viewed as, as two separate entities. And I also like you are thinking on this, how do we bring the industrial called network together? And you have seen it for many sides? As you are thinking about small innovative companies, there is a little bit of thought sometimes in the DOD, the only innovative people can be a small business. So, if we give lots of money to lots of small businesses, we will get innovation. I think there is some challenges with that. What is your sense of it, kind of from your perch here at there is Google and there is how are you thinking about how to take advantage of those small businesses, which may have ideas but not scale?

Karen Dahut 14:34
It is the scale question. I mean, I had the great pleasure of working very closely with General Mike Murray when he was standing up army futures command. And what I shared with him is what I will share here today is that innovation is a mindset. It is not that you do It would or you do not do it, but you create a culture, where is it I will is embraced, and this ability to shoot for the moon and fail this ability to empower the lowest level of individual. And so, companies either have a culture that embraces innovation, or they do not. I mean, I think Google is a good example of a company that has embraced innovation for its 25-year history. But there are certainly fantastic small companies that that do the same. And so, the challenge is not to say what companies are or are not innovative, but how do you create an ecosystem where you can bring the best thinking together, to build programmatically that can reach scale, a small, you know, technology company in Silicon Valley that has a great idea, or really, technology is not going to be able to support the scale of the United States Navy. But working with a Google on a great integrator and maybe you know, the great technical program manager from the government together, they can create those programs that really make a difference. And I think we too often think about, it is either A or B, rather than saying it is a and b.

Lauren Bedula 16:23
It is something that is coming through very clearly, Karen is your view on the importance of partnerships, which is great to hear. And I think important, as we see this evolution in the industrial base, and maybe not always as natural in the industrial base. I want to hit on something that comes up quite often on our show, which is several years ago, Google employees voiced concern about supporting the national security community and related efforts. And a lot has changed since then, both in our world and at Google. Can you talk a little bit about the organization you are leading and the shift Google has made since then?

Karen Dahut 16:55
Thanks, Lauren, I appreciate the question on Project Maven, which I know, I spend a lot of time telling this story really, without even being prompted, because I think it is important for people to understand our own journey around support to the mission. So, Google has been supporting the mission, the Department of Defense since 2008. We are only 25 years old this month two days ago, we turned 25. So, two halves of the lifetime of the company. And I would answer your question in several different ways. But I will start here, innovation is our culture. And I think most would argue that Google is one of the world's most innovative companies. And that is not accidental. It comes by creating this empowerment that I talked about earlier. And so, we have empowered the most junior employee to have an opinion on our technology, on how we lead in technology and how we deliver it, and what we are delivering. So, it should not come as any surprise that they speak up. And they have an opinion. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Google's culture is TGIF, which every Friday in the early days, our CEO at the time, would stand up before all its employees and answer questions. And they were very pointed and targeted questions. So, what happened specifically with MAVEN is we agreed, as a company to do important work for the department. And it is work we would continue to do today, or we asked to do that. Our opportunity where we failed, I would say is that we were not as transparent with this incredibly empowered population about our decision, why we made that decision. And what we learned from that is that it is not the decision to do that work. This was a work for the Department of Defense. It was the fact that we did not really share that openly with the team. And I think there was some concern about what would the reaction be. So fast forward a few years from the Maven experience when Google decided to stand up Google public sector to specifically serve the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, state, and local governments, etc. We were incredibly open about this. We are standing up a separate LLC under the Google umbrella, it is going to be called Google public sector. We are bringing a board on board to govern our business. That board is chaired by General Dave Goldfein, the former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and this is the kind of work we intend to do. And by the way, we will apply AI principles to any work that we choose to do around AI and that will be governed by GPS, there has been crickets from Googlers because of that complete transparency that we, the way we handle the stand up of GPS. So, I think we learned a lot as a company. Our people are equally still as empowered as ever. They have strong opinions, and I think it is what makes us better.

Hondo Geurts 20:26
Yeah, I think, you know, in hearing that, obviously, it is, it is great to hear you looking at it retrospectively. And, and it is how do you learn from that, and again, the power of our democracy is, we do not force people to do things, they, you know, they have a choice, they should know the choices they are making. And I think that is a powerful lesson. As you are now looking to stand up, GPS, and you are getting, you know, you guys are putting a great team together. What is your view on bringing in new talent? Are you seeing notice, still, I think some sense that young people do not want to work in national security. I am sensing that changing significantly. Probably Ukrainians help that, what are you seeing kind of at the ground level in terms of folks wanting to come? You know, especially from areas that may not have been so naturally involved in national security,

Karen Dahut 21:20
I think that there is still a strong sense of wanting to serve in meaningful ways. And you must make it real for Dahut 21:20 people. You know, when we chose to support the Ukrainians, in terms of our own technology, providing maps technology, to allow people to find escape routes from the country, the air raid alerts that we created to support the Ukrainian people from across Google people came out of the woodwork wanting to support those important missions and to support the people of Ukraine. So, I do think there is a strong sense of service and mission. And what I see for Google public sector is, it is the perfect place to be at the intersection of mission and technology, because there are brilliant people that have spent a lifetime in the army or the Air Force or in government service, or, you know, in Colorado State Government that understand those missions closely and have worked in technology that want to find another way to serve. And I think we are creating a team that really has that intersection, and at its heart mission and technology. And I, I honestly believe that when you talk to people about what we are trying to do, and the difference we are trying to make, they get it they understand, and they are like, yes, I want to be in. And so, I am super excited about being able to recruit that talent. I also think that if you look at the amount of capital that is being invested into the defense industrial base, meaning small startups that are starting as well as you know, in the intelligence community and supporting the intelligence community, since Diu, was started under Ash Carter to even just last year, that amount of capital being invested being invested has Diu been quadruple what was originally being invested in this area. And so, I think that is another great example, you do not have to serve in the military or in the government, but you can start a great company, that is, you know, building incredible mission technologies that was going to make a difference for the world.

Lauren Bedula 23:39
I want to footstep, your point about transparency, because I think it has been such an important enabler to drive talent and partnerships and to allow for that shift that you've Bedula 23:39 talked about. And you have also talked about the importance of creating that culture and a mindset to enable innovation and leverage technology. Can you talk about where DOD is getting that right, today? You mentioned Diu, but any other examples that come to mind?

Karen Dahut 24:04
Yeah, and I go back to my days of working with general Murray at army futures command, it is hard. I mean, you know, culture is, you know, the long the hard great saying of culture eats strategy for lunch every day. And I think that is super, super true and hard So, to change. So, I think there are areas where the department is getting it, right. What the national defense strategy, I think, for example, the sense of urgency around great power competition. That is right. Now, back to my earlier comments, we need to find a way to take that message to the American people so that they understand what standard and digestible chunks increasingly the threat is not kinetic, it is non kinetic. Its cyber people do not really understand that. How do we make sense of that? So, I do think focusing there is enough orthant and being aware finding a way to communicate that to the American people so that they really support and understand it so that when we go to look at the defense budget, people understand it and see the difference we are making. I think Diu you mentioned Lauren, and I go back there, I think Doug back, I am super excited about Doug. And taking that role. I am excited that they moved it up, again to the secretary level, and working directly for the Secretary and focusing on scaling innovation, not small projects that have discrete starts and stops, but really scaling those innovation and those technologies to make a difference. I think that is, that is a great example. I think, under Deputy Secretary Hicks, there has been a great empowerment of the CO coms, which I think is desperately needed at the end of the day. That is where we are going to, if we must go to war, God forbid, that is where we are going to fight. And they need to be empowered to bring in the right technology and get the right data and have access to the right situational awareness. So that empowerment is we are super true. And of course, lastly, CTO and the focus on AI, you knew that I am with Google, I am going to have to talk about AI at least one time. You know, I think it is the most transformative technology, Sundar has said this, that we are working on, but I think it is also the most transformative technology for the department. We must be careful; we must be responsible, thoughtful about how we deploy that technology, but it can do amazing things. I will just give you an example. Without talking about a Department of Defense example. There is a company in Asia, that has developed a dating app using AI. And what it allows you to do, if you are a young personal person that is interested in finding a mate, you can go onto this app, and you can send yourself and another person's AI out on a date together, that person comes back and reports thumbs up, thumbs down, that person was a loser or that person was great. Wow. And so, you know, this is the power of AI that is incredibly capable of being that is accomplished. And so, you know, think about what we could do with that, so that we are not putting men and women, you know, in harm's way. But we are really using AI in a more powerful way to support rather than necessarily just, you know, augment what can be done.

Hondo Geurts 27:46
Thank goodness, that app did not exist when I found my wife, I might still be you are using that. Yeah, but you do mention you talk globally. And Google is a global country company. And one of an enduring strength of a democracy's ability to work with and attract partners. How is how are you sensing the Doodies ability to work across this? What What's your kind of view of how to better enable working with partners and allies as well as integrating technologies that they may develop into products that are useful for the joint and coalition force?

Karen Dahut 28:23
I love that question. And, of course, it is data, data it is. And I think where we get into challenges with, you know, allies and partners, is sharing of systems and sharing of data. Where I think Google is super differentiated in this space is when we start talking about cloud services and cloud capabilities. We define that by logical separation, not physical separation. And what that means is services can be available, where and when we want them to be available, without needing a physical instantiation of a data center. So, I think the way that we work with allies and partners is to be much more open and sharing of data and capability, but protecting it in the new and creative ways where we can protect it. You cannot have complete lockdown of data and systems and openness with allies and partners, you need to meet somewhere in the middle. And I think they are not just Google, but there are capabilities and technologies that are really enabling this incredibly powerful opportunity to share capabilities that will make us just a better a better operating force, if you will.

Lauren Bedula 29:48
I want to go back to your story. Karen, you talked about your dad is such a powerful influence on your career path. Mentors have a way of doing that and we often like to ask our guests if you have had had any mentors that had shaped who you have become today or, as you are here setting an example for so many others trying to follow in your footsteps?

Karen Dahut 30:08
Well, thank you. And I have had innumerable mentors, too many to count. And I was a pain in the ass if I am being very honest, as I mentioned, you know, a real Italian through and through strong opinions, often wrong. And so, I needed people around me to really help teach me. And so, when I think about that question, while I have had many, there were two that stand out in remarkable ways to me, one who is no longer with us, but he was the consummate businessman. And what he said to me is, Karen, you are always being asked a business question. Do not think you are not being asked a business question. Understand what business question you are being asked, and then go sort out the appropriate answer. And that has served me so well, because you know how it is, you are in meetings, and you are just somebody asks you a question. And you kind of answer off the wall, without really understanding the question that is being asked. So that has served me well not to be quick to answer. Really think about what am I being asked? And to make sure I am being, you know, advised by the smartest people to answer the question. So that was sort of the business side, on the I am more personal side I had had, and continue to have an important mentor to me, who never offered me what I would call ruinous empathy. Meaning, oh, Karen, I know you are a new mom, you have got two young kids at home, and you do not have to take this on. You know, you do not have to do this. And I think a lot of women get trapped in this idea of ruinous empathy. I think people really think they are giving you good advice, but what they are really doing is derailing your career. And so, he was super hard on me in a good way, by saying, look, you have a personal life, I understand your marriage, you have two young kids, but you have got this job. And I need you to do these things, you need to figure out how to prioritize, I am not going to tell you how to prioritize. But this is what I need you to get done. And I just feel like, while he was always there to guide me, and course correct me, not allowing me to take a pass really helped accelerate my career. Now, I want to be careful with this conversation. Because I think, you know, a lot of women will hear that as harsh reality. I am not saying that at all. I think women must be in control of their careers. And we may, incredibly, rightfully choose to take off ramps, and go, you know, spend time with family maybe take a half role or, you know, take time away. And I applaud that. And women need to be empowered to do that. But make it your decision. Do not allow somebody to give you advice. That means you are taking yourself out of the game without you really realizing you are taking yourself out of the game. And so, his directness with me, his not offering me ruinous empathy, I think made a difference to me. It allowed me to make decisions for my own career and where I wanted to go and what I wanted to be and so I always applaud him for that. And he is still he is still with me today.

Lauren Bedula 33:54
Well, I have to say that's particularly helpful advice to for me, and I have never heard it before. I am eight weeks into motherhood here. So, I am scribbling all this down and really appreciate it Karen and maybe I will ask you a follow up to for our listeners at how you think about managing personal and professional goals and balancing stress so that you can keep up.

Karen Dahut 34:15
Yeah, I have always been super transparent on this point. I have four priorities in my life. And I tell everybody, this, I love my job. I have always loved my job. Regardless of where I have worked. I love being in this world and in this community and doing what I do. I love my family. It is my number one priority. I have never made any bones about it. I tried to take care of myself, we talked about running earlier and you know sort of what that does, but taking care of myself and I really care about my community. And at any given point in time in my life. Family has been a higher priority than maybe you know other things and I have had to take either an off ramp or I have had to, you know do something I did have to take an off ramp once Um, and it did not harm me because I was super transparent about it. And I think that women, sometimes, and I hope you are not doing this, Lauren rely on others to prioritize for you. And I really encourage you to think about what it is you need today. It does not mean it is what you need for the next 20 years, but it is what you need today, to take care of your eight-week-old, and to really, you know, be present. And that may be different, you know, six months from now or nine months from now. So, I think my advice is always be very clear on what your priorities are. evaluate them on a regular basis to make sure they still make sense for you. And make sure you are enjoying what you are doing.

Hondo Geurts 35:52
Yeah, you know, on your decision, yes, write down your decision is, whatever that is. That is right. And I am going to, I am going to pivot a little bit though, to, you know, one of the strengths and we have worked together for years and years, and I have always found your ability to network in a positive way to set you apart from many others. And, and so what is your perspective on that maybe either from a business side or a personal side of, you know, sometimes network gets viewed as you are trying to schmooze people and all that. And, and I always found, you know, you are very authentic. In those relationships, what advice would you give to folks either if they are just coming up, or maybe they are more senior have the power of creating a great network,

Karen Dahut 36:41
it is probably the one of the most important things you can do as a professional, to accelerate and build your career, but also most importantly, to learn. I am where I am today, not because of my talent or capabilities. And I am this is not modesty; this is absolute candor. I am where I am today, because of the people that have surrounded me throughout my career. And some of those have come through relationships that I have had for 40 years. Some are new people that I have met along the way. And I think that you can learn from everybody always being open to learning from others, is critically important and critically important to being able to accomplish our jobs. I will tell you, one of the most interesting things to me about the transition from Booz Allen, to Google is how little I knew about the technology company world. I thought I knew a lot. I am here to tell you; I did not know a lot. And I have taken the opportunity to really learn from the people here at Google and Google public sector, but more broadly in the technology, community, and they have really embraced me and taught me a lot. So, this idea of having a great network, it is so critical to continuing to grow your professional career.

Hondo Geurts 38:14
Many senior leaders think as they get senior, they must learn less. And I found it is exactly the opposite.

Karen Dahut 38:20
100% agree. How do you ever

Hondo Geurts 38:23
tool you what is your tool to force yourself? Not to get comfortable?

Karen Dahut 38:28
Well, I've, you know, the good thing is I have never held a job for longer than about three years. Every, even while I was at Booz Allen, I rotated career jobs every three years. So, I think that really helps, right? Where you are being forced to learn something new. That is great. Secondly, there are always people more expert in the thing you are dealing with than you and go seek those people out and ask questions, really seek knowledge, and ask questions. And I am a voracious reader. I love reading listening to podcasts like this one, as well as listening to books on tape, etc. So, I think that is another way I think, bottom line Hondo it is just keep learning.

Lauren Bedula 39:14
Well, Karen, you have made so many great points. A few that stand out to me. I love this idea of culture eats strategy for lunch every day had not heard that. And I think it is a great point, and how transparency and partnerships are key to get us to where we need to be in terms of our industrial base. Thank you for coming on our show and sharing your story and your advice with our listeners. This was a great discussion.

Karen Dahut 39:35
Thank you all so much. It is my pleasure.