Rekha Wunnava, 50
Global Director, Automotive Design and Build IT, Ford Motor Co.
Location: Dearborn, Mich.
Education: Bachelor’s in commerce, Osmania University, Hyderabad, India
What drew you to the auto industry? I started in the auto industry by accident. I used to work in the IT software and services industry, and it was through one of those consulting engagements that I came to Ford. Once I spent a couple of years here, it was just the sheer joy and passion associated with the Ford brand — family, trust, loyalty; those are the things that kept me here. All that based on the foundation of the mission of driving human progress through the freedom of movement. It just gives you that greater purpose to be part of something that’s bigger than me.
First automotive job: I came in through a consulting organization in 2000. I joined as a permanent employee in 2003. Across both of those jobs, the first role I had was in enterprise architecture within the IT organization.
Big break: I had the opportunity to work directly with Marcy Klevorn, who was our chief information officer at the time, to create and shape the vision for Ford IT in terms of what we wanted to become, how we wanted to work and the culture transformation that needed to occur across our global IT organization. It was a great opportunity to have an end-to-end view of the entire organization.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? The fascinating thing about the auto industry is that technology is shaping our future. It’s causing disruption and driving the future of our industry. It requires traditional IT organizations to work in partnership with the functional leaders to redefine their business models. What ends up happening, it creates a good kind of tension because the functional leaders need to accept and allow and get used to the fact that their IT partners will help shape their organization. For the IT organization, it requires us to step up a notch and look beyond technology at what are the real-world business applications that these technologies can create? It gets challenging when you have to do something that has not been the norm of how organizations have worked for many decades.
You’ve been in the industry 20 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? The culture. I’ve seen us evolve from having been a very hierarchical culture where people with more stripes were the ones speaking at meetings and making the decisions and those who were in subordinate roles looked up to the senior leaders as the voices to be heard. That very much used to be how Ford was in the past. The big shift I’ve seen the past few years is our drive toward becoming a more empowered organization where you drive autonomy to the edge of the organization. It’s a realization that we need to work in more agile ways.
Describe your leadership style. I’m inclusive; that’s the first word that comes to mind. I’m always looking for input from my entire team, and my team’s globally distributed from Australia to Dearborn. It’s very important to me. Personally, I’ve lived and worked in four countries: India, the U.K., the U.S. and China. That sense for global inclusion is very strong because I know how, for instance, the U.S. is perceived in other parts of the world — that that’s where the headquarters is, and that’s where they make the decisions. I want to make it a point to make sure I’m inclusive and empowering and give them the autonomy to do the work the way they see fit, with my role being to remove any obstacles that get in their way and create a buffer between them and the senior executives so they have the air cover to do their work. I’m most comfortable when I’m surrounded by a group of people and we have real, candid conversations. Communication is key.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? Technology is driving where we’re going and how we’re going to evolve. My encouragement to young women seeking a tech career is to really pursue that because it’s disrupting every industry, including automotive. One of the things I heard from a recent group of summer interns was that they had no idea the cool technology work we were doing right here in Michigan in the auto industry. I think we need to get the word out there for people to see what this industry’s becoming.
What’s the best part of your day? In the morning, when my husband, Raj, and I are in the house. We have two golden retrievers, Amigo and Leo. Just being able to sit down with a cup of tea, the two dogs and us brings a lot of peace. It’s a great way to start the day.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? I’m a simple person. I’m a warm weather person. I like to be outside, even if it’s something like grilling or hanging out with the dogs. I try to find ways to at least virtually connect with my friends and family. I’m also a Bollywood fan, so a good Bollywood movie and a glass of wine is something I find to be very relaxing.
— Michael Martinez