Denise Carlson, 51
Vice President of North American Production Innovation Center and Executive Lead of Diversity and Inclusion, Denso International America
Location: Southfield, Mich.
Education: B.S., chemical engineering, Michigan State University; M.S., chemical engineering, Michigan State University
What drew you to the auto industry? I really wasn’t looking to be in the automotive industry. My background is chemical engineering. When I finished my degree, I had job offers throughout North America. I aligned that with really wanting to be close to family in Michigan and focused to finding a job in that area. It wasn’t an obvious choice to pick automotive, but I stayed in automotive because of the challenges. There were so many challenges. That was very exciting and the job that I wanted to do did allow me to travel, both in North America and internationally. That really was a big reason to be remaining there.
First automotive job: In 1995 I hired into Nippondenso, which back in 1996 had a name change to Denso. I hired into a very Japanese-centric company, not knowing it was Japanese-centric because there was nothing but newspapers back then. There was no Google, there was nothing to actually figure out what I was doing. I was just really excited to be in there after having spent a day with the team, looking at what we were going to be doing in material research and development.
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Big break: It was one that I actually initiated. I recognized that I enjoyed Denso and to expand my career at Denso, I needed to go to Japan. I asked for an assignment to go to Japan. The leadership team recognized that “She has a chance to help us continue to grow and inspire others, not just here in the U.S. but also globally. So let’s find a job.” They created a position for me to go overseas. By being overseas and having that global mindset and having opportunity for global face-to-face discussions with key leaderships when I wasn’t quite seen as the leader, really helped me formulate not just my career but some of the direction that the company is going, which was really exciting.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Being a female engineer in a male-dominated Japanese company has probably been the biggest challenge. It plays out in so many ways. My first time really experiencing this was when I was expecting my first child. I said to my Japanese leadership at the time, “I’m either going to need four months of leave, I’m going to need to be working from home — which 20-plus years ago wasn’t something that was readily done — or I’m gonna have to bring my newborn into work.” When I said that last statement, his jaw just dropped. It was priceless. But it was really good because it was a challenge and a recognition that “Hey, she’s coming back.” And “Hey, she’s doing work.” Leading up to all of these push points, for our company, was not heard of. We didn’t have a lot of female engineers. We didn’t have female engineers who had children. It was a first. That was probably the biggest thing, and through that I had the opportunity to push through a part-time policy for engineering staff. I had to quit three times to do it. I turned my letter of resignation in three times, but we finally got it worked out so that we were going to have a part-time policy.
You’ve been in the industry 25 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The reverse mentorship. As technology is changing, the acceptance of the younger, more innovative voice over the last five years or so, and the inclusion of that voice, has really been the biggest change. When I started in automotive it was very hierarchical across the board. But having the awareness of the younger, the more flexible work force and being able to allow them to have the voice and help guide, that’s a huge change point.
Describe your leadership style. I’m an empathetic leader; I try to understand where people are at and where they’re coming from. But I’m also really driven, so I like to give them challenges too. I challenge myself, and I like to see challenges to my team.
Are you able to maintain friendships? Yeah, I’ve got a small tribe and we’ll talk through different things that are going on. That helps. My best friend from college is also in the automotive industry. She lives nearby, and through raising kids and being able to have someone who understands and can dialogue through and share concerns, that has been really important.
— Jack Walsworth