Taking the wheel in 2014 as the first female CEO of a major international automaker, Mary Barra has driven General Motors to a succession of firsts in the automotive industry in a few short years. Born into a Motor City family, she began working as a college co-op student in the Pontiac Motors Division. Thirty-eight years later, as GM's Chairwoman and CEO, she envisions an all-electric future for the company and plans to steer it into the driverless car space.

Female CEOs of large companies are still rare, particularly in technology and manufacturing companies. The girl who grew up admiring Firebirds and other sports cars is now in charge of making them for the world — and she plans to leave quite a legacy.

Portrait image of Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors.
Source: By US Government via Wikimedia Commons

The Road to CEO

Barra is no stranger to the automotive field. She grew up as Mary Makela in Waterford, Michigan, with a father who worked for GM as a die-maker for 39 years, about the same amount of time Barra has now worked for the company. After graduating high school, she started working for the Pontiac division as part of a co-op program through General Motors Institute — later renamed Kettering University — in Flint, Michigan. The GM-funded trade school was a natural fit for someone interested in engineering and cars. She started in a loud metal-stamping factory that molded steel into Pontiac parts.

She earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering, and the company paid for her to attend Stanford a few years later, where she earned her MBA at the college's business school.

From there, it was back to Michigan, where she had several roles, from working as a plant manager at Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly to heading up corporate communications and the global human resources department. She also held various executive positions in product development and manufacturing engineering. The wide-ranging experience gave her a broad background and understanding of how the huge global company operated.

When Barra made history by taking the helm of General Motors as CEO on January 15, 2014 — adding Chairmen of the Board to her title two years later — she had spent her entire 34-year career working to achieve that goal. Now she’s making innovative strides in the auto industry.

Front view of a silver 2017 Chevrolet Volt hybrid car on display at an auto show on a busy afternoon.
Source: By Mariordo under CC BY-SA 4.0

Finding New Direction

Arguably, there's no more innovative time in the auto industry than the present. Hybrid cars have been on the road for a while, and electric cars are increasing their road presence. Barra is leading GM into a future of all-electric cars, but that's not the only innovation. She's also leading the way for GM to create autonomous vehicles, cars that drive themselves. Autonomous cars, which use artificial intelligence and other smart technology, could potentially decrease the number of accidents and make the road safer. Barra's motto is "Zero crashes. Zero emissions. Zero congestion."

Barra has her finger on the pulse of another change: Young people aren't purchasing as many cars. Instead, they're living in cities and relying on public transit, ridesharing, or rentals for their transportation needs. Barra's goal is to sell fewer cars but make more on each sale. She's also developing new technologies and businesses to meet customers' actual needs — while pulling the plug on unprofitable endeavors.

Although Barra is known for placing customers at the center of everything GM does, she realizes that car manufacturers still need to look at the bottom line. She's been direct about cutting poorly performing divisions and accepting responsibility for car malfunctions that have caused accidents and injuries. Her approach saved GM money while improving quality and safety, which is important given the company's — and industry's — financial history, which includes a bankruptcy and government bailout.

Giving Back to Girls

Barra recognizes the people who supported her during her rise through the ranks at GM and wants to do the same for girls interested in science, technology, engineering, and math, also known as STEM fields. She supports Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that helps middle school and high school girls learn more about computer science. The organization has programs in various schools and cities, and Barra was instrumental in getting the Detroit program started.

Someday, there may be other women heading global auto manufacturing companies, and they are certain to look to Barra as a role model.

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