10 things you didn't know about Robyn Denholm, Elon Musk's new boss at Tesla


If you read past interviews given by Tesla's newly appointed Board Chair Robyn Denholm, you'll find one common thread running through them: the need to take calculated risks. 

By now, everybody knows that Robyn Denholm has been appointed the new Board Chair at Tesla. She replaces Elon Musk, who resigned in September as part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which found the company guilty of not having disclosure controls and procedures after Musk tweeted that he was planning to take the company private. He was also fined $20 million for his actions.

Robyn Denholm

The welcome-aboard tweets, company statements and media reports didn't say much about the new woman who will now be the top boss at one of the world's most watched companies. Her track record in finance and accounting at some of the world's best technology and automotive companies means she has all the right qualifications for the job. As an Independent Director on Tesla's Board since 2014, she's hardly an outsider. We scoured around to find out a little bit more about Robyn Denholm and here's what we discovered.

Her first job was at a gas station: The 55-year-old has had an illustrious career at top global companies, but her first job was pumping gas at the petrol station her family owned in Australia's New South Wales. She later helped out with bookkeeping too. 

Loved the sciences, but switched to finance: While in high school, she loved the sciences and wanted to do something in medicine. But as she told Women Worth Watching in a 2010 interview, "...a work experience programme in a hospital made me realise I should pursue an alternative course, fast! So I turned to another area of interest – economics and business. Learning to adapt early and quickly taught me that I could make choices and follow my interests with confidence."

Took risks in shifting industries: After spending nearly five years with the Big-5 accounting firm Arthur Andersen, Robyn switched industries and joined carmaker Toyota in Australia, where in just seven years, she became one of the top executives in the country. She then moved to the technology industry, first spending 11 years at Sun Microsystems, where she moved from a finance role to become  Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategic Planning. An interview with the Voice Plus blog quotes her as saying:

"I don't jump out of planes or bungy jump or any of that stuff... But I do take professional risks. You make the best decisions you can with all the information you have - and you have to move quickly. You're not pushing hard enough if you never make mistakes."

She wasn't kidding. When she joined Juniper Networks as CFO, she was also returning to finance and accounting, and played a key role in turning around the company. When she left, it was as Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Operations Manager.

Instituted a scholarship at her alma mater: Robyn credits the time she spent at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with giving her not just a Master’s degree in Commerce but also equipping her with what she needed for the work she was doing and for the grounding she needed to start her career. Years later, a conversation with people in their alumni network saw her instituting a scholarship for a disadvantaged student at the Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW. 

Robyn also has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Sydney and is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants ANZ.  

Loves (Tesla) cars. When she had a Tesla Model ‘S’ on order, she was approached by Tesla to the Chair of their Audit Committee. Earlier this year, in an interview she revealed she was onto her third Telsa. "I am a car enthusiast and am passionate about innovation, so Tesla is the perfect board role for me."

She's also clearly excited about the company itself. "I love being on the Tesla board as it marries many of the things I am passionate about, such as energy and technology, given my prior board position at ABB and my roles at Sun and Juniper...The exciting thing at Tesla is that it is a company that is disrupting whole industries rather than just a specific technology and it is a very fast moving environment," she said in the same interview. Incidentally, Robyn was the first woman to be appointed to Tesla's Board.

Decided to take a break from a break: In 2016, after leaving Juniper to take a year off and play golf with her husband, she was offered the job of COO at Telstra. It was an offer she couldn't refuse. As she told Women Worth Watching about her life philosophy: 

Living life to the fullest means there may be intense periods in any one facet but it is part of a spectrum of things that I have passion and enthusiasm for, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Cruise control?

When you are a professional who's ready to take risks and can spot the right opportunities, the money should follow. According to a CNBC report quoting a Tesla spokesperson, when Robyn leaves Telstra she “will receive 8,000 stock options each year and a cash retainer of $300,000.” Then there's the $4.9 million she makes as Independent Director at Tesla. She also reportedly owns 20,000 shares of Tesla (currently worth approximately $7 million). At Telstra her annual compensation was around $2 million. The contrast in pay was called out in a lawsuit brought against the Board of Tesla for failing to control Musk. The complaint filed on behalf of shareholder Zachary Elton in late October, also questioned her independence as a director given that she earned more from Tesla than she does at her day job at Telstra. 

Media reports are already referring to her as the person who has the job of reining in a person(ality) like Elon Musk in a company that has been plagued with accusations that its Board is too closely aligned with its founder because of business and personal relationships.

The months ahead could well prove to be turbulent, or she could be just what the doctor ordered at Tesla. At any rate, only time will tell whether or not this calculated risk pays off for Robyn Denholm.



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