Jennifer Wahnschaff, 52
Senior Vice President and Head of Continental Intelligent Transportation Systems, Continental
Location: San Jose, Calif.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, Michigan State University
What drew you to the auto industry? I grew up in southeast Michigan. For me, it wasn’t about whether or not I would work in the automotive industry. It was more about which one would I choose.
First automotive job: It was a co-op job. I went to Michigan State, and I worked in a plant near Grand Rapids, running design experiments in manufacturing for hydraulic valve lifters.
Big break: Moving to Germany. That brought me closer to the center point of the business and broadened my experience, and gave me the opportunity to work in a completely different culture. It really helped me bring together all the things I had learned to that point.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? I had an opportunity to take a promotion and work at another company, but to do that, I had to change up who would take care of the kids in the morning. It’s funny — I had got the kids up, got their outfits out, made them breakfast and lunch and even made a little note for their lunch. A couple months later, I had a holiday and learned my husband had completely turned everything around. The alarm went off, and they did it themselves. They said, “Daddy, you can get up now. Your coffee is ready.” He said, “I am teaching the kids independence. You should be happy!” It really taught me a lot about delegation. When you delegate something, they won’t do it exactly as you do it. But as long as the key objectives get met, that’s OK.
You’ve been in the industry 31 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? It’s been taking a very traditional business — Continental has been incorporated almost 150 years — and pushing into mobility services, working with car-sharing companies, fleet-service companies and bringing that into the automotive space.
What work achievement are you most proud of? Taking this role. It feels like I went to an internal startup. One of the key things we needed to do was manage that internal startup and turn it from idea generation into generating revenue within a very fast point in time.
Describe your leadership style. One of the things that I find so important as a leader is building other leaders and identifying people who have potential and working with them on leadership skills.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? While it’s been rewarding, changing locations is also disruptive. It was quite tough for me to leave Detroit when I did to go to Germany or to come here. In both instances, I had a parent pass away.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? In places I work across the globe — Romania, Mexico, China — there’s a higher percentage of women in STEM careers in those countries. It piqued my interest, so I ask, “How did you get into engineering?” Nine times out of 10, the answer is, “Well, in my country, engineering is a really solid job. You can work for a really good company, and it’s a stable, attractive career.” So here in the U.S., we need to have more role models brought into schools so parents and career counselors can encourage men and women, especially women, to get into engineering.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? I don’t believe in such a thing called work-life balance. There’s more than two facets of life. There’s friends, family, spirituality, yourself. If you just focus on two aspects — is it work or not work? — you lose out on the full, to use a Continental term, the tire of balance in life.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? My husband and I took up ballroom dancing a couple of years ago. When we got to the empty-nest phase, I made a list of hobbies we could do together. We have to arrange the dining room to have our Zoom ballroom dance class, but it’s well worth it.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? I usually listen to five different books at a given time on Audible. It just depends on my mood. I just reread Escape Velocity, which is a great book. But it’s hard to pin it down to just one.
— Pete Bigelow