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Olga Alavanou

Yazaki North America

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Executive Vice President, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Business Units, Yazaki North America
Canton, Mich.

Age: 53

Education: B.S., electrical engineering, Wayne State University; MBA, University of Detroit Mercy

What attracted you to the auto industry? I always had a love for math and science, so I pursued a degree in engineering. Of course, being in Detroit, the automotive industry was right there. When I graduated, I had an offer from Ford Motor Co.

First automotive job: Contract engineer with Chrysler in 1988 in product development with body electronics

Big break: At Yazaki, I was part of the team that was responsible to grow our business with General Motors. We developed the strategy on where we wanted to go with this customer, what our footprint should look like in the future and how we were going to execute the strategy. As part of that initiative, I got very much involved in how Yazaki is structured globally. That was an amazing experience.

What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? The downturn was certainly a tough time for all of us. We had to right-size the resources. That was something that was never done. Yazaki is very Japanese. To have to lay off people was extremely difficult. I was part of that. Since then, we have recovered. Now, the challenge is the total opposite. We have lots of business. We're experiencing growth globally with all our customers. It's extremely important how we manage capacity demands from all our customers.

What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? I had so many discussions on this lately. There's a huge decline in the number of women who decide to pursue engineering, STEM-type subjects. We have to decide how we can pursue these young ladies in high school to be more interested in those subjects that naturally will open the doors for a career in automotive. When they enter automotive, we need to understand what we need to do to keep them. There are a huge number who start, stay for a few years and leave.

It's a demanding industry — long hours, tough schedule. So perhaps, when they start managing career and family, they choose to get into a career that is going to provide more flexibility. Even though it's much easier to be promoted as a female in this industry, you still see how few of us are at the top jobs. Maybe a lot of these women do not understand how they can adapt their management style to fit in the corporate culture.

Tell us about your family. I have a very supportive family that are willing to put up with my long hours, my difficult schedule. They never complain, definitely starting with my husband, who has been extremely supportive, and my son also.

Are you able to maintain friendships? We have a very active social life. We have a lot of couple friends. If I had more time, I would have more female friends. It's unfortunate. I'm usually the one who can't commit the time. I've seen my mom, who is 75, and she has got friendships she had in high school. It's so lovely to see.

Best advice you've ever gotten? To pursue my dreams. Perhaps not to have fear. If I want something, to make it happen, to just go out and get it and to not be intimidated by the unknown and to be willing to take calculated risks in my career. Work hard and count on myself.

By Bradford Wernle

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