DALLAS — Toyota graciously opened its doors to our sold-out Leading Women Dallas conference audience of 340 last week — a greeting so rich with Texas hospitality you'd think the former Californians grew up here.
The carpet rolled out was Toyota red; the level of professionalism and warmth was Texas-sized.
But one participant put the spurs to the industry.
"We are not where we need to be as it relates to women taking the lead," the speaker said from the podium, clutching her notes and red reading glasses. "Women are underrepresented in our industry."
And then Kim Pittel, a 36-year veteran and group vice president at Ford (yes, that Ford) did something that even had the locals wide-eyed.
She backed it up. By showing real numbers. From Ford.
In 2016, she said, Ford's work force was 27 percent female. Two years later, it improved all the way to 28 percent.
The figures were big, bright and blue.
"To understand where we are at is the only way to grow it," said Pittel.
Mark this moment in a movement that began 19 years ago when we first honored the 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry: A Ford employee came into Toyota's gorgeous glass house and threw a rock directly back to Dearborn.
And if that move sounds historic, it's because it was.
Pittel — the company's top executive for sustainability, environment and safety engineering — claims Ford, for the first time in its history, will be "very transparent on gender." The aim will be to soon reveal publicly how it's going to get where it needs to be.
Pittel presented a level of openness in front of a room of peers and competitors that could be the impetus to truly accelerate her own company's efforts and perhaps those of an industry.
It took guts. And, privately, the Toyota folks said they were grateful for the transparency and the conversation. Some said afterward they'd be happy to swap more learnings with Pittel on female leadership and an inclusive work force.
And that may have been the big differentiator in the Big D — an inflection point.
In a world where the path appears foggy, there's no question this industry is already sharing mobility solutions, electric architectures and powertrain options in an attempt to find a clearer path.
The cross-cultivation is historic and unprecedented — except when it comes to workplace improvements, including diversity of thought. More sharing like last week needs to occur.
Building trust across companies and among leaders is key for this movement going forward.
It's about mentors and sponsors —in some cases, at a company that's not your own. It's about building personal boards of mentors and the kind of vulnerability that Pittel showed.
It's about the power of change and the people who drive it.
"We need to help each other," Pittel said later. "And men need to help us as well."
After Pittel's talk, she was approached by multiple people seeking her guidance — likely some who don't work at Ford and likely don't drive one.
The message was sent. A movement, perhaps, redefined.