Jessica LaFond, 45
Vehicle line executive for future large SUVs, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
Big break: Working as chief engineer of the Chrysler Pacifica
Around the time of Chrysler’s bankruptcy a decade ago, Jessica LaFond remembers walking into the building and noticing how quiet it was. She could sense the sadness.
But it was during those tough times when LaFond decided she wasn’t going anywhere. She was going to stick around and make a difference.
Good thing she did, because LaFond would later take on the chief engineer role for the 2017 Pacifica, a key nameplate that shape-shifted from a crossover to a tech-laden minivan with a hybrid touch.
She says ushering the Pacifica from the early development stages to its launch has been her greatest accomplishment to date. She’d worked on particular components for new models before then, but never oversaw a project for an entire vehicle from beginning to end.
“Getting it all set up was difficult. Establishing what the vision of the vehicle was intended to be, building all the fundamentals into it as we stretched quite beyond what the Chrysler Town & Country was at the time,” LaFond said. “Obviously, you run into engineering challenges along the way.”
She added: “I still smile and count them on the road. Every time I talk to my parents, they say, ‘Hey, I saw a few today.’ ”
The Pacifica gig prepped LaFond for her new role as vehicle line executive for large SUVs, which she began in January.
She is in charge of development for big-body utility options such as the upcoming Jeep Grand Wagoneer. She’ll take them from the formative stages of getting approved and shepherd them to launch.
LaFond was focused on software development in her high school years, taking a part-time job in the field back then. But she ended up switching to mechanical engineering at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. Her interest in automotive began to spark early in her senior year.
She was hired out of college by Chrysler 24 years ago and went into the automaker’s Institute of Engineering, a prestigious training program for new graduates.
LaFond, 45, pointed to Phil Jansen, FCA North America’s head of product development, for helping her find her voice as a leader while managing the Pacifica project.
Under Jansen’s tutelage, LaFond said, she learned how to make sure her voice was heard “in spite all of the conflicting feedback we were being given at the time to define what the product was going to be.”
“As a female in the auto industry versus a male, I’ve learned that I have to execute it in my way,” she said. “I like to make sure that I keep the entire team moving forward in one direction by coaching and encouraging them, even if you don’t know how exactly you’re going to get there, with a style that is supportive and encouraging along the way.”
— Vince Bond Jr.