Long before she ran a multibillion-dollar global company, General Motors CEO Mary Barra was a Girl Scout Brownie awestruck by the GM cars her father would bring home from the automaker’s Pontiac factory where he worked.
Barra’s father, Ray Makela, would talk to her about his job as a diemaker as the two spent hours in his basement workshop where “we would take things apart. I was probably better at taking things apart than putting them together, but you learn things when you take things apart,” Barra said Wednesday during the Awesome Girls: Engineer Your World webinar for the Girl Scouts of the USA.
Barra, 58, learned she wanted to be an engineer and she credits her parents for supporting her decision to pursue the unconventional career at the time.
General Motors Co. Chairman and CEO Mary Barra speaks before the 2019 contract talks for a new national agreement on July 16 at the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center 2019. (Photo: Kathleen Galligan, Detroit Free Press)
“My dad worked for GM for 39 years. He taught me the love of engineering and cars and my mom said, ‘Mary, you can do anything and be anything. You’ll have to work hard, but you can be anything you want to be,'” Barra said. “I liked math and science in school and so engineering seemed like a natural pathway for me when I started college.”
Joining Barra in the webinar was Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA and former NASA engineer. The two answered questions from Girl Scout members and the public about being women in male-dominated fields and their career paths. They each offered advice to young women on the value of a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
“The auto world is considering how people move … and that is changing. We’re looking at different propulsion systems, ones that are friendlier to the environment,” Barra said, referring to GM’s push to be all-electric one day. “We need more women who are studying STEM in school and in college because — we need you.”
$1 million partnership
GM and the Girl Scouts, of which there are 1.7 million girls, launched a partnership at the end of July to encourage girls to become leaders in STEM-based careers, most of which are usually male-dominated, a GM spokeswoman said.
The automaker gave the Girl Scouts a $1 million grant to help the organization develop STEM programming for the scouts, which includes some supplemental STEM courses that any girl, not just Girl Scouts, can take. GM also helped develop the curriculum for automotive badges the Girl Scouts can earn.
GM’s head of industrial design, Sharon Gauci (left), participates in the Girl Scouts Design Day hosted by General Motors at the GM Design Dome in February 2020. GM Design helped develop the curriculum for the new Automotive Design badges for Girl Scouts in kindergarten through fifth grade. (Photo: Courtesy/General Motors)
Scouts in kindergarten through fifth grade can participate in the new STEM programming available through local troops. The girls can then earn automotive engineering badges in designing, engineering and manufacturing vehicles.
“They’re not just badges, they’re kind of like credentials,” Acevedo said during the webinar. “They’re bullet points for your resume.”
The rocket scientist
A former Girl Scout Brownie herself, Acevedo first got interested in science when she went camping in her home state of New Mexico and was “looking up at the starry night and my camp leader sat down next to me” and discussed astronomy.
“When I look at the Big Dipper, I still think of her today,” Acevedo said, because that troop leader was the first of many people in her life to support her interest in engineering, particularly space exploration.
“I got so good at it, I became a rocket scientist,” said Acevedo, a former NASA engineer who once wrote algorithms for the Voyager 2 spacecraft, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As a Girl Scout, Acevedo got her first taste of engineering by earning science badges for building model rockets, she said.
“Engineering is a doorway to how you think about solving problems in the world. I started off in manufacturing and the problem there was, how do you make systems more productive, more efficient and more effective,” Acevedo said.
Later, when she moved into management jobs, she said she applied those engineering problem-solving skills to people: How do you help people to be more productive, more efficient and more effective?
But she admits it was challenging at times often being one of just a few women in the room.
“There weren’t a lot of people who looked like me when I started,” said Acevedo, who added that her role models were the famous American nurses Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. And, along the way, Acevedo said she had a male boss who guided her.
“It’s so important to have mentors in your life,” she said.
‘Find your passion’
Barra joined GM in 1980 in the Pontiac Motor Division. She was a Kettering University co-op student. She graduated in 1985 with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. Five years later, she earned an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
In 2014, she was named CEO of GM, the first woman to run a car company. In 2016, she was elected chairman of the board.
But the most pressing question for Barra during the session came from a Girl Scout in kindergarten or first grade who asked Barra if she gets to test drive all of GM’s cars.
“That is one of the best parts of the job. I do get to test drive all of our new vehicles and I get to look at them while they’re being designed and to make suggestions on functionality and how they are designed,” Barra said.
Barra said she hesitates to name her mentors and sponsors because she’s had so many during her 40-year career at GM she is afraid she’d leave someone out and “hurt their feelings.”
But she said the best way women can get sponsorship from managers is do the job really well.
“Commit yourself to what you’re doing like you’re going to do it for the rest of your life,” Barra said. “That kind of commitment is how you get noticed, then people want to help you and give you more projects.”
Her parting advice to girls was to try new and different things.
“The more things you do, the more confidence you’ll gain,” Barra said. “Find your passion because when you’re an adult you’ll be doing it all your life, and science and math will play some part in it.”
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Contact Jamie L. LaReau at 313-222-2149 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.
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