Sonia Rief, 44
Vice President, Vehicle Connected Services & Program Management Office, Nissan Americas
Location: Franklin, Tenn.
Education: B.S., mechanical engineering, North Carolina State University; MBA, University of Michigan
What drew you to the auto industry? Cars. I was racing as a hobby. I was very much excited about being in automotive because I love cars and I loved racing.
First automotive job: With General Motors at the proving grounds in Milford in 1999. I was a durability test engineer.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Deciding what’s next. The more you do, the more options you have, and the more options you have, the harder it becomes to decide what’s the right next step.
You’ve been in the industry 21 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? When I started at the proving grounds, everything was about horsepower, torque, performance. The transition that we’ve seen in recent years to performance in terms of the connected experience; and performance not just being about muscle anymore, but about range and noise. The change in what drivers today expect versus what drivers 20 years ago expected is amazing.
What work achievement are you most proud of? I was able to be a chief engineer on Rogue and that happened to be at the right time when that segment was taking off when that vehicle was taking off. I was in the right spot at the right time to be able to make some great changes. I was really proud of that.
What do you struggle with? The balance between too fast and too slow. Knowing when the right moment is to make a decision. When you have enough information, to move forward without losing the opportunity that’s in front of you.
Describe your leadership style. Collaborative. Direct. I am much more of an enabler probably than a doer. I am all about being hands-on, but also with having a very clear sense of direction.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? I think there’s an impression that it’s more difficult, or that there are huge hurdles to be faced, or that there’s an environment that’s not welcoming. Somehow we have created this vision as we talk about women in automotive that it won’t be welcoming. And that’s not the case at all. I think what we meant to discuss was that there are differences. That it’s a culture that was originally male-dominated, that that comes with some cultural norms that take time to fade away. But, that doesn’t mean that when a woman walks into automotive, or into engineering, that it won’t be a fantastic experience, that people won’t be open and that opportunities won’t be there. So, I hope that we haven’t turned people away by talking about some of the experiences maybe that we had in the past.
How do you bring your best self to work? The best self is always going to be the one who is doing more of what I want to than what I have to. So, as long as my life and my integration is about things I want to do, and I haven’t just become someone who’s doing what I have to do, then we all get the best self. Which isn’t necessarily the self that everyone wants because everyone has their own priorities.
Tell us about your family. I’m married 20-some years to my husband who has also been in automotive. We have two children. We just moved here to Tennessee about a year ago. It’s been an interesting experience with COVID and moving to a new place.
Are you able to maintain friendships? I used to talk to people a lot about work-life balance and one of them would always say, “Well, how do you manage?” I would say by being sometimes a really bad friend. You have to pick the things that are most important. And then when you go in order, sometimes those friendships end up a little bit lower on the list. So, how do I do it? In Michigan, I had a group of women that I was very close to, that was very good at making sure that they were embracing me and pushing me to be included. The easiest [friendships] to maintain are other women in automotive. We can keep communication even during the day. I would like to say that I’m great at [maintaining friendships]; I’m probably not. I have a few select friends that I make the effort to reach out to.
What’s your favorite weekend activity? Anything outside that’s active with my family. Biking, running, hiking, kayaking — anything that’s a little sweaty.
If there were 25 hours in a day, how would you spend your extra hour? I would do at least 12 of those things that people tell you only take five minutes a day. I would stretch, I’d floss a second time, I would read something motivational — I would do all those things that people tell you “it’s just five minutes.”
— Urvaksh Karkaria