First Contact

Why 9/11 Inspired Trae Stephens to Work on the Future of Defense Tech

Trae Stephens is a co-founder of Anduril. It’s a defense tech company valued at around a billion dollars. But what inspires a man to work on technologies that could shape the future of defense — and war — for years to come?

Trae tells Laurie Segall it can all be traced back to a single day in his childhood — 9/11.

Read an edited transcript below, or listen to the full interview on the First Contact podcast.

 …I knew at that moment that this was going to be the career that I was going to work on.

Laurie Segall: Why do you do this?

Trae Stephens: It’s a sense of duty to be honest. I mean, it would be crazy to make it about some sort of sacrifice because I think being an entrepreneur is a ton of fun and I think if we’re successful, there’s financial reward for our employees, for our investors, certainly for the founding team. So I’m not gonna act like a martyr. But at the same time, these are really hard problems and we’re not building an app to share 140 characters in a slightly better way with our friends. Like this isn’t popular.

And I think we have to unify around the idea that it’s really important. And going back to September 11, 2001, sitting in my principal’s office, I knew at that moment that this was going to be the career that I was going to work on. I didn’t know that this is what I would be doing specifically but I can’t imagine going to work every day and not thinking about how I can be helpful to our national security, to the priorities that are set forward, and the values that our national security stands for.

Laurie Segall: Why did you know that that was gonna be all you’re gonna do the rest of your life?

Trae Stephens: I think part of the lie that’s being told to the world, particularly by the kind of modern culture, whether it’s like Millennial, Gen Z, whatever, is that there’s absolute equivalence in all things like morality, culture or whatever. And I think events like 9/11 kind of stuck with me as this realization that there’s a real world out there and we can’t just hide in this little bubble of comfort and say like, “Um, actually, everyone’s the same, like everyone believes the same things. Everyone values the same things,” because I just fundamentally think that there’s something about democracy. There’s something about capitalism. There’s something about the freedom that we’re afforded that’s worth defending. And without that, you end up living in these authoritarian, oppressive societies where none of those values can be exercised. And I don’t really care if I can open Twitter on my phone and yap at people about the political issue du jour, but I do care a lot about my ability to exercise freedom of speech and that’s something that is not protected in many places in the world.