As the world’s largest automotive manufacturer, Toyota has long been hailed as an industry innovator. In 2015, the forward-thinking company announced it would commit a billion dollars over a five-year period to artificial intelligence and robotics research. They’ve also steered themselves smartly into the role of being a global mobility company. For eight years now, they’ve partnered with The International Olympic and the International Paralympic Committees, supporting and championing athletes of all mobilities, such as Amy Purdy, a world-renowned Paralympian snowboarder. To deepen their commitment, Toyota launched a global marketing campaign this year—called “Start Your Impossible”— with the aim of creating a more inclusive society for all.
Recently, at the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in Los Angeles, ABILITY’s Chet Cooper sat down with Jack Hollis, group vice president and general manager of the Toyota Division at Toyota Motor North America & marketing advisor for Toyota’s global Olympics and Paralympics sponsorship, along with Amy Purdy. They chatted about cutting-edge technology, the Olympics/Paralympics and Amy’s role in that process.
Chet Cooper: Is there a connection between your sports background and Toyota’s Olympics and Paralympics sponsorship?
Jack Hollis: It’s funny how the connection goes. I do have a background in professional sports with baseball, and my family’s been involved in professional sports. My father’s a professional golfer. My grandfather’s in the Hall of Fame for baseball, and my uncle is a baseball player. I’ve been passionate about sports but mostly about competition. I love the process. I love the discipline it takes to be an athlete. It’s an amazing focus. I tend to be more of a team sport person. I’ve learned about the idea of how to work as a team. It’s not too different. It’s still one athlete performing, and there are still teams of people that come together. I got involved when Toyota went forward and decided to sponsor the Olympics and the Paralympics.
Cooper: Was this before the Olympics and Paralympics joined forces?
Hollis: Yes. I don’t even know if Amy knows.
My background in sports helped me to be known a little bit within Toyota North America. When Mr. Toyoda made the commitment to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) under separate agreements, we were creating a new global marketing department. Now, we’ve never had a global marketing campaign, a global marketing effort, ever, in Toyota. So you need to understand we are always very regional-based. When the Olympics came on, there were questions regarding the contract; what we were going to do, how we were going to promote it.
At some meeting between our CEO, Jim Lentz, and Mr. Toyota, our global CEO, the question was brought up of: do we have anybody globally who would not only be interested, but has a passion for sports who we might be able to utilize in a role to benefit our partnership? And Mr. Lentz said, “Jack Hollis has a background,” and at that time I was the head of marketing for the US, so it worked perfectly. So that’s how I got involved. They brought me in right away. This was before the full contracts were signed.
And I have a passion! I truly love every Olympic sport, summer and winter, and continuously follow them. By learning every IOC element, by going through it all, our company started understanding my passion for the Olympics, but also an equal passion for the Paralympics. And what was interesting is, at the time, I had not spoken directly with Mr. Toyota but to other executives about our focus as a company. One thing we quickly realized was that we wanted to commit similar dollars to both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Many people questioned that, because when you look at a return on investment, the return on the Paralympic Games is not nearly as high as the return on the Olympic Games.
Cooper: Well, that’s what they said pre-England.
Hollis: It’s true. And London was what helped so much on the Paralympic side. There’s a lot of other pieces to this story that are not necessarily pertinent to what we might want to talk about, but that’s the background on me.
Cooper: How familiar were you with the Paralympics coming in and looking at this concept of sponsorship? Were you familiar with the Paralympics activities?
Hollis: On a scale of zero to one hundred, I was probably in the twenty-fifth percentile. I was aware. I had watched para-athletic competitions. And like I said before, being a sports competitor, I liked watching amazing athletes compete.
I’m always trying to figure out what I can learn. My interest in the Paralympic Games went up immensely when I met the Paralympic International Committee (PIC) in Lausanne, Switzerland, when we brought the IPC and IOC together for a meeting. To follow up on what you mentioned a second ago, my most proud moment so far was in our marketing conversations regarding how we were going to talk about the logos. The use of the logos and the rings and the Agitos Foundation side by side was very important to us, and to me personally. I said, “If we’re going to do this, we’re not trying to discriminate or exclude, but include.” We said, “We feel like our sponsorship is for the entire entity of competitiveness, whether it be the Olympics or Paralympics.” It didn’t matter. Our big breakthrough was when we went to the IOC and looked at some of their rules. You have to get their permission, because it’s their brand; they have the rings, and that’s what they’re known for. So we said, “We would like to market parathletes in the Olympic Games and athletes in the Paralympic Games.” Again, we weren’t deciphering the exact sport they were in or whether they were able-bodied or super-able-bodied. We weren’t discriminating. We were just saying it was important to us, and we wanted to put them together.
At that time, no one and no brand had brought them together. What makes me proud is my own passion to speak to the decision-makers at the IOC and say, “We need you to evaluate this and be willing to consider changing some of those policies.” After they did some homework and some thinking. We spoke to the IPC as well, to get them to come to one meeting with Toyota to talk about our marketing ideas. To have them in the same room was awesome. It was fruitful.
Cooper: “Why haven’t we done this before?”
Hollis: Kind of. But no other marketing partner or top partner, had pushed it or said, “That’s what we want.” So I’m really proud to sit before you and Amy and say that is something I’m really excited about to have been a part of, to see the expanding of people’s minds to say, “Let’s talk about this in the bigger picture.” Because the IOS and IPS are completely different organizations.
Cooper: That’s great. The history is not good with the past Olympics and Paralympics, where the major sponsors would literally pull the wires out, unplug everything and leave.
Hollis: Before the Paralympic Games?
Cooper: Right. I remember the 1996 Games, before you were probably born. [looking at Amy]
Amy Purdy: (laughs) No, not before I was born!
Hollis: Really close.
Purdy: Before I graduated.
Cooper: At the Atlanta Paralympics, many companies just left. They didn’t want to stick around for those extra weeks.
Hollis: I’ve heard those stories, but I haven’t experienced them firsthand, because my firsthand experience was in Rio de Janeiro. And seeing Rio have a lot of support—now, a lot is relative to the Olympics still. But to hear people tell me this was more significant than in the past, and now at the winter Games being more significant than in the past. For us at Toyota, we are proud to then sponsor the broadcast of the Paralympic Games on NBC.
Purdy: Right. And to have more coverage—
Hollis: —more coverage than ever—
Cooper: That’s so needed.
Hollis: I might be wrong here—but I think by tenfold. It’s a great start and the right trajectory. But we aren’t at altitude yet.
Cooper: We’re not cruising yet.
Hollis: (laughs) We’re not cruising yet. And I believe Toyota wants to. I believe we have the intention to help get to the right altitude.
Cooper: It’s a great company to do the global reach, but also having products that are part of extending mobility. Can you talk about the iBot? The last time I talked to somebody at Toyota, they hadn’t quite signed the last little detail.
Hollis: We still have not. I’m always really good in the marketing, the strategy, and the sales. I’m not so good when it comes to the legalities of what it takes.
But I can tell you a couple things. We’re working on 17 projects, 11 of which I would call active. Each one doesn’t have what I would call an end date. We don’t have a date set for any of them.
Cooper: End date, meaning launch date?
Hollis: I mean the end date to retail them. What’s been fun is to see the tag line we created for the global movement— called “Start Your Impossible”— apply to so many things. When we were working with athletes, parathletes, exoskeletal devices, iBots, and iRoads—you saw the picture of the flying car—these are all starting things most people would have considered impossible. Our “Start Your Impossible” is putting our money where our mouth is. We have a company and a leader by the name of Akio Toyoda who clearly has a passion for taking on the greatest challenges, not just for the sake of a challenge, but that will benefit society and the lives of people.
That’s why I’m honored to represent him and the company and the vision. I truly believe freedom to move is a human right. However, some of the standard ability to move has been taken away, for one reason or another. We can’t answer every one of those, but what we can answer is, how do we enable somebody to be able to move freely, to the best of their ability? And we might even be able to add capabilities. That’s the vision around Mr. Toyoda and the five words: Ever Better Mobility For All. There’s no exclusion—it’s for all. If you say “for all,” then we need to create devices that right now—in fact, we’re not working on things where we don’t even know the challenges we need to meet.
I can’t really talk about what products we’re ready to end. I can just tell you there’s a start, and when we’re talking about ‘Starting Your Impossible’, that’s what we’re doing. We’re living it out.
Cooper: I know inventor Dean Kamen really wanted the iBot to work. Have you ever tried it?
Purdy: Yeah. The iBot is the standing wheelchair.
Cooper: Dean Kamen also created the Segway.
Purdy: The gyroscope, right? It’s always keeping you upright.
Hollis: Right. I’ve tested it. I’ve sat in it.
Cooper: The slimmer, newer one?
Hollis: Yes, the brand-new one.
Purdy: I’m surprised it’s taken so long. That will be life changing for so many.
Cooper: It’s so different when you’re at eye level and you’re talking to people.
Hollis: I got to meet Dean, a wonderful man.
Cooper: Did you get to go to his place on the island?
Hollis: No, I wish! They brought it to our new headquarters in Plano. I probably could have pushed myself 100 percent and literally thrown myself off the chair. But a normal person can’t get out of it. The way the technology works is if you move, it will hold you. It’s always balancing. So there are a lot of things we’re working on, none of which is sellable.
Cooper: What other robots you did experience? [Amy]
Purdy: The selfie bot?
Hollis: The human assist robot, which isn’t available yet.
Cooper: What’s the coolest thing that’s available right now you can talk about?
Hollis: None. (laughs) The iRoad, that’s a product we have in Japan. It’s a single-person little pod you sit in. It is driven by your body lean. We’ve had it here and shown it. It has a steering device. That’s probably the closest, I would say, because we have it in Japan.
Cooper: So people are buying it and using it?
Hollis: No. None of these are for retail yet. It’s very much like hybrid technology in vehicles. You have a beta program for a while. We worked on it for about 20 years before we retailed it. The fuel cell we were working on for about 20 years, and we’ve just started retailing it now. When you look at certain technologies, if it’s going to be a Toyota product, it needs to meet all the requirements we have regarding quality, dependability, durability, reliability, and safety. With every one of these products, they’re almost like their own trials, and they all work great. But until we sign the ink and see how they’re scalable, to be able to reproduce at a cost a consumer could purchase, we wait until the time is right.
Cooper: What are you doing with autonomous driving—where you don’t have to have somebody drive the car?
Hollis: That’s part of the mobility platform we were discussing. I guess from an autonomous standpoint, here’s the issue, and here’s the hard part of answering anybody’s question about it: When most people see autonomous driving, the default thinking is, “Oh, that means when I can sit in the car with no steering wheel and the car drives me somewhere.” Most people think that. Eventually, a while from now, that will occur. How many people are willing to pay for that? That’s the question. What is the value? Is it worth it to you for $100,000? $500,000? What would it take?
Right now, when you consider just the cost of the test vehicles, it’s extraordinary. So while the technology continues to get better and better, it’s a long way off. Right now, autonomous elements are already in our cars. That’s what people forget. “Autonomous” means a vehicle is doing things for you that you’re not.
Purdy: Like parallel parking.
Hollis: Yes, parallel parking and rear traffic alert.
Purdy: When cars are next to you, you get an alert, too. There are sensors.
Hollis: Yes, just on the side. There are center trace assist and bicyclist detection. These elements are all autonomously happening that you’re not able to do with your own senses. In truth, autonomous driving is already here. The difference in the elements of autonomous driving that you’re talking about—bringing autonomous driving to a level five—is in the future.
Cooper: They have levels?
Hollis: Yes, one through five, five being the maximum.
Cooper: So we’re at a one right now, maybe one and a half?
Hollis: (laughs) I don’t have the determination of the exact numbers, but there are different elements, one through five, and different pieces. But what you’re talking about—and everyone always tries to talk about, is level five. What we need to talk about right now is the gap, the bridge, to get from here to there. It’ll be a while. How do we help the driver be a better driver today? Well, we have cruise control, driver assist, where you’re monitoring the speed of the car in front of you. That’s part of the technology about making you a better driver. Like I said, you have the cross traffic alert and the sensors. That’s what we’re a part of—making the driving experience better and safer every time. Because ultimately, Mr. Toyoda has made the comment that the goal one day for the whole industry should be to have zero fatalities through traffic accidents. Is that possible? I don’t know, but what are we going to do? People have said it’s impossible.
Purdy: ‘Start Our Impossible’.
Cooper: That was a setup there.
Hollis: Amy and I have been together long enough, we kind of know—
Purdy: —to finish each other’s sentences.
Hollis: (laughs) Exactly.
Cooper: (laughs) Tell us about the mobility challenge?
Hollis: The commitment to the Olympics and the Paralympics is part and parcel to our launching or expanding our company from global automotive to global mobility. What better way to announce our expansion of a company than eight years committed to the greatest sporting event in the world, the Olympics/Paralympics? And it’s not just about the Games that last a month between the two every two years. It’s about the process of working with people, listening to people and learning, and then promoting what we want to do during those Games as well as between the Games.
So the big news, I would say, as we look towards 2020 to the Tokyo Games, which will be right in Toyota’s back yard, is how do we take these devices and passion for connecting people, and put them into Toyota’s land in Tokyo? How do we partner with people who can teach us? What Toyota does, in my opinion, better than any automotive manufacturer, is to listen extremely well to our customers, our partners, and our dealers and answer the questions or concerns society has. We were partners with Amy well before the commitment to the Olympics and Paralympics. So with that, I’d be happy to transition to Amy.
Cooper: Before we move on, tell me about your baseball background.
Hollis: I’ve always considered that if I were really any good, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today! (laughter) I would have been down that career. I have a passion for baseball—I love the game. I grew up here in Southern California, played in high school and in college. I graduated from Stanford. I won a national championship in 1988 and was drafted multiple times out of high school.
Cooper: What position did you play?
Hollis: I was a center fielder, outfielder, in total. I got a chance to play for the Cincinnati Reds, which was a team I was ]passionate about when I was a kid. They were the rivals of the Dodgers at the time, so I had a chance to play for a team I had always hoped to play for.
Cooper: Did you get on a baseball card?
Hollis: I did! I have two of them.
They’re both minor league cards. I made the minor leagues not the major leagues. That was one of those things where you try really hard. I loved the process. I can always look back and feel very happy that people could work as hard as me, but no one was working harder, and I loved that. I love to work hard at stuff. But in the end I got injured, but I could also look at myself in the mirror and say I gave it everything I had and I was one. Many of my good friends had made it. That was good. I was super-comfortable with that.
At the same time, I had a great degree from Stanford. I met the woman I wanted to marry. I had job offers in different kinds of places. That was all before I even met Toyota. I had met a guy through a golf tournament who ended up being the president of the company, but I just knew him as a golfer. He said, “Hey, if you’re ever interested, when you’re done with your baseball career, look us up. I like hiring athletes, especially team athletes, because you’ve learned how to work as a team.” And I said, “All right.” He said, “Have you ever been a captain?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve been the captain of every team I was on.” He said, “Call me some time.” And five years later, between the end of college and baseball, I called him, and he said, “Sure, come in for an interview.” At that time I still didn’t know he was the president of the company. And then I found out the day I showed up for my first interview. They said, “How do you know such-and-such?” I said, “I just knew he was a man who played golf.” That’s how I ended up at Toyota. It was pretty cool.
Cooper: Good story!
Purdy: This was great! I love this storytelling and hearing more about you. It’s cool.
Cooper [to Amy]: How’d you meet Jack?
Purdy: We were talking about that recently, when exactly we met. My involvement with Toyota began in 2011, after my TED talk. When did my article in ABILITY Magazine come out?
Cooper: In 2010.
Purdy: This was right before my TED Talk. It really changed my life forever. It was such a big platform to share my story and what I was doing with Adaptive Action Sports (AAS). But even before TED, I was doing all this stuff with our organization.
Cooper: Oh, now it’s Ted?
Purdy: (laughs) Yeah! I was invited to do a TED Talk, and after my talk, in the audience, this amazing man came up to me. His name was Keith Dahl. He was the first one standing in this long line of people. He introduced himself and said he was inspired by my talk, and if I ever needed anything—he gave me his business card.
The card had Toyota on it. He said, “If you ever need anything,” and I saw Toyota, and I said, “Oh, my gosh, I need a new car,” because at that time I had a beat-up Ford Explorer I had driven to the ground for speeches and AAS. I don’t even know how many hundreds of thousands of miles I had on that truck. It was falling apart. So I said, “I need a new car, because I have a speech in LA next week, and I don’t even know how I’ll get there.” And the next week I had a new car, a Rav4.
Purdy: And the week after that, I had a Toyota van for our AAS athletes.
Cooper: “And in two months I had a Lexus.”
Purdy: (laughs) And I just worked my way up! What’s amazing is I didn’t really have anything to give back to Toyota at that point, it was just because they believed in what I was doing.
Cooper: That’s really nice!
Purdy: And they wanted to partner with me and my mission. There was no real idea at that point of where this was going to go. I wasn’t in the Paralympic Games yet, snowboarding wasn’t yet part of the Paralympic Games, so I couldn’t be looked at as a pro athlete, even though adaptive snowboarding was a huge part of my life and my organization. But I couldn’t be put on the pro athlete side of things with Toyota.
Cooper: So he had a vision.
Purdy: He did. It started a little abstract. He just knew he wanted to be involved with me. I loved what Toyota was about; it’s a forward-thinking company, and obviously these people were willing to support me when nobody’s watching, when I didn’t have anything to give back. That really stood out to me.
Luckily, maybe eight months later, we found out that snowboarding would be in the Paralympic Games, which gave me a platform to go down to compete and win a medal. At that time Toyota wasn’t a partner with the Olympic or Paralympic Games. I was going to my first Paralympic Games in Sochi. Although I partnered with Toyota, I still couldn’t represent Toyota, as I wanted to. I couldn’t wear Toyota on my helmet. I couldn’t say, “This is who helped me get here.” And they still stuck with me, which was amazing, because once again, they were supporting me when nobody was watching. It shows the integrity of the company, and the people within the company, who believed in what I was doing.
For me, it was amazing when things started to come together. I would start to give back more to Toyota because I was starting to get more opportunities and more platforms, and together we were able to do so much. For example, I did that TED Talk, and then Toyota invited me to do a speaking tour with Oprah. This was after I won my medal in the Paralympics.
Cooper: And people know her, right? She’s pretty popular.
Purdy: (laughs) Right.
Hollis: Really? (laughs)
Purdy: And that was a very serendipitous experience as well, because I was on Dancing with the Stars. They’d asked me who my icon was, because they had a week called Icon Week, and I said, “Oprah.” And they said, “Do you know anyone a little less known than Oprah, because we’re not getting her on the show?” I said, “No. If you want to know who I look up to, whose career has inspired me, it’s Oprah.” She ended up not only a fan of the show but voting for Derek and me on the show. She ended up calling me while I was on the show. It was aired on TV. And then Toyota, which was already my partner—
Hollis: —and partners with Oprah—
Purdy: —saw that we were talking—
Cooper: Wait a minute. Oprah snowboards?
Hollis: You didn’t know that?
Purdy: (laughs) Maybe she needs to.
Cooper: So she independently got a hold of you, without knowing there was this connection?
Purdy: Not even knowing there was a connection. It was one of those serendipitous moments where Toyota’s watching TV and sees that I’m now talking to Oprah; They had a partnership with Oprah and me, and decided to pull it all together and have me on her Life You Want speaking tour, where I was able to help women in each market that we were in to pursue her dreams by getting a grant through Toyota for those women. We would do it at each one of Oprah’s conferences.
So it just came together perfectly. And it’s amazing, because at first it was a little abstract. What does this partnership look like? But it’s always been completely organic. It started and developed organically, and now, to have Toyota as a huge Paralympic partner, I can now represent them head to toe, which is amazing. But also, my organization benefits from Toyota and the partnership as well. We were able to get adaptive snowboarding into the Toyota Dew Tour for the first time.
Cooper: Tell me about the Dew Tour.
Purdy: It’s similar to the X-Games.
Hollis: Mountain Dew, sponsored it.
Purdy: The Dew Tour, is a winter and summer action sport event where you have all the pro snowboarders come out and all the competitions going on, like the half-pipe. We partnered with Toyota two years ago and got adaptive snowboarding into the Dew Tour for the first time, which is great, because now we’ve got a place. The Dew Tour is the most visibility most adaptive snowboarders get, because it’s televised, and it’s re-aired. Once again, as Jack was saying, elevating the Paralympics up to the Olympic able-bodied level is one of the steps along the way. It brings visibility to our sport and to our athletes and allows other people out there with disabilities who strive to be potentially in the Dew Tour or be in the Paralympics and see what we’re doing.
So we’ve been able to do so much together, and it’s allowed me to go to amazing places in my life. Toyota’s been able to bring me to bigger, better places.
Cooper: It sounds like it—
Hollis: “Let’s go places!” (laughter)
Purdy: And ultimately inspire other people. That’s what it’s all about. That’s how my relationship has been ongoing for many, many years. They’re more like family to me than a sponsor. I don’t even consider Toyota a sponsor; they’re more a partner of mine. We’ve been able to do a lot together. I’m excited for the future. Being part of a brand that’s so forward-thinking and so innovative and wants to help so many people and come up with solutions is a blessing for me and really cool to be a part of.
Cooper: What a great story. Somebody should do a story on this.
Purdy: (laughs) Hey, good idea! We’re with you. We share your thoughts.
What I love is, they weren’t seeking me out. It was an organic connection.
Hollis: The organic nature of it is what I appreciate. The idea that Toyota has always been about building relationships with our guests, our customers, our friends, and to build a relationship with Amy that started organically, to see where it’s gone and not knowing where it will end up, but knowing we can continue to benefit from one another. Toyota has always been about never trying to be in a partnership where we’re kind of getting over on somebody else or they’re getting over on us. It’s always about how do we grow each others’ brands, each others’ businesses together? And winning at the same speed? And Amy’s story’s perfect. It started as, “How can we maybe do something together?” It wasn’t a strategy up front. It was, “Hey, I’m really interested. If you need something, let’s talk about it.” It is a bit corny, but you don’t know until you start something. Not every relationship works like this. But because it does, it is worthy of storytelling, of sharing with a table and enjoying the fruits that come from it.
Cooper: If you look back would you do anything differently?
Purdy: In my life? Oh, my gosh! I don’t even know. That’s kind of a broad question. My brain automatically goes to the Paralympics, that somehow I could have won gold. (laughter)
Hollis: I would have carved a little harder—
Cooper: That one turn—
Hollis: I’m going to ask this question a different way. I asked her earlier, because I am fascinated by it. What would you tell your 21-year-old self, coming into maturity?
Purdy: That you can be anything you want to be at any time you want to be it. There are no rules. I became an athlete at 30. I’m 38 years old now. I wasn’t an athlete when I was younger. I didn’t grow up as an athlete. It wasn’t until after I lost my legs that being in the Olympic or Paralympic Games became a possibility for me, something I strived for. A lot of times people would think that by the time you’re in your thirties, you’re already set with who you are, but that’s not true. I became more of who I’ve become from 30 on. I think you can be anything you want to be at any time you want to be it. You can change your mind. There are no rules to how you’re going to live life. You don’t have to fit some kind of norm. You can just follow your passions, and if you work hard enough at it, you can become very successful.
Cooper: So pre-30 you’d have said, “Don’t wait until you’re at any particular age, just go for it”?
Purdy: Yes, just go for whatever it is you want to do and when you want to do it. You could be 60 years old and decide, “Hey, I’ve never snowboarded before, let’s do that.” “Hey, I want to run a triathlon.” You can be 70 years old and decide to go back to school. I think we get stuck in ideas that life goes a certain way, and we have to fit a certain norm. My life has been completely the opposite of that. I’ve become even more successful when I’ve just followed my heart and been empowered by the choices I’ve made. There have been no set rules.