Lisa Drake, 48
COO, North America, Ford Motor Co.
Location: Dearborn, Mich.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, Carnegie Mellon University; MBA, University of Michigan
What drew you to the auto industry? It was my visit after I interviewed on campus with a Ford recruiter. I was really excited. I hadn’t flown much, so this was a big deal. I grew up in Pittsburgh, so I was used to manufacturing with the steel industry; my dad worked in a steel mill. I pictured the auto industry sort of like that. I had never worked in my college years; I had always done campus research. I never did internships. So I never worked for a company. I thought a company was a building; like, you’d go, park and walk in. I landed at Detroit Metro and I was in a cab to the Dearborn Inn. The first thing I remember is that huge tire on I-94. Something about it just said, “This is the hub of automotive. You have arrived.” I remember taking pictures with a camera, because it was before cellphones, because I wanted to show my family. I stayed at the Dearborn Inn and when I was driving down Michigan Avenue, every building had a Ford oval on it. I couldn’t believe it. I did some walking around the campus and it was like a little village. I realized there was this immediate sense of community. I was going to go work in a community, not a company. I did interview at other companies; that experience was strikingly different than the one I had when I came to Dearborn. I was not predispositioned to the auto industry. I had colleagues at Carnegie Mellon who would take the internal-combustion class. I had no interest, although my uncle raced cars and my dad and my brother always tinkered with cars. I was a bit nervous about picking Ford. But the minute I started, I fell in love with it and I’ve never had a reason to leave.
First automotive job: I started June 20, 1994, as a powertrain engineer.
NEWSLETTER: Sign up for Lead the Way, our monthly Leading Women Network newsletter highlighting ways to educate, mentor and empower women in automotive.
Big break: The first was when I moved into electrification [in 2007]. I was horrified. I didn’t know the first thing about batteries. When I got over there, I became chief engineer of all the plug-in hybrids and battery-electrics. I remember the first meeting, the team was teaching me all the technology. I went home and had to pull out my books from school and follow these guys, but then I realized, I’m not going to be able to keep up this way. There’s another reason I’m here. I realized they had the best technology, but they weren’t good at putting it into a product program and selling it to the company. That’s what I was good at. We ended up putting multiple vehicles in the cycle program. That’s when I realized what my value was. The second time was when I moved from purchasing to product development. That was not the norm. I had been in PD for 20 years and moved to purchasing and boy, it really accelerated my career.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? My biggest challenge today is giving more women the same great experience Ford was able to give me. I’m one of the fortunate ones who persevered and got to where I am. But for every one of me there’s 100 women that are opting out or aren’t getting the right opportunities or don’t have a great mentor.
You’ve been in the industry 26 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? I love the advancement of electrification. I was part of it back when it wasn’t very popular. Now it’s at the forefront. Between EVs and our AV future, I love Bill Ford’s TED Talk from 2011 where he talked about the correlation of mobility solutions breaking the barriers of poverty in cities. When we can unlock that, those bigger visions he has are what I love about the change at Ford. That’s the best transformation I’ve seen, this tangible commitment to doing things better for the world.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? Right now it’s pickleball. I love to kickbox, but we just picked up playing pickleball.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year, and what did you get out of it? She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. It was inspiring to see those women reporters and how strong they had to build the case to go and have the conversation with [Harvey] Weinstein and his organization, or even [The New York Times].
— Michael Martinez