What attracted you to the auto industry? My dad worked at a GM plant in California as a line worker. He brought home that love of vehicles and cars and the company. When I decided to go into engineering, he kind of pointed me toward GMI. My first time visiting GMI was when I went there to start school, sight unseen. That was a bit of culture shock, going from L.A. to Flint, Michigan.
First automotive job: I started the ergonomics program at what was then Oldsmobile in Lansing, Mich. At GMI I did my thesis on ergonomics. At that time (around 1983), people didn't know what ergonomics was. I worked with the medical department in the plant to look at medical records to see what jobs were injuring people. It was a cool job.
Big break: I was chief engineer of our Lambda crossovers (Chevy Traverse, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia). I did it from 2004 to about 2008, when I went to Mexico. It was an incredible experience because it was an all-new architecture, platform and plant at Lansing Delta Township.
I really grew from that experience. You're not just managing from an engineering aspect. You've got to understand the whole business. So I went from being somebody in engineering to somebody who got exposure to the broader base of leadership. Because as a new program, we had a lot of reviews with top leadership. That really moved me into a broader leadership role.
What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? It was probably when I went to Mexico. It was that move from being an engineer to being a managing director. You are kind of running your own company, with P&L responsibility. And there's the government relations aspect. The people in Mexico saw me as GM. The exposure to dealers and the sales side of the business was new for me. And I was doing all of that in a new country while learning a new language. To top it off, the economy fell apart.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? There have been many leaders who I've worked for who've helped to guide me and push me out of my comfort zone. But, frankly, my family has been a big influence as well. My husband, Tom, worked at GM and retired a few months ago. He's been very supportive.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? Role models are important. I think just the fact that [GM CEO] Mary [Barra] is in that job and is so visible even beyond the auto industry. She's become a bit of an icon, which is cool. We need those role models because a lot of women would not even think of the auto industry.
I also think we've got to encourage girls to go into STEM. The numbers are atrocious when you look at the shortage we are going to have of women and minorities with STEM college discipline.
Tell us about your family. My parents were immigrants. My mother came from Nicaragua, and my father was from Cuba. I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to go to school in Michigan, and then I met my husband, Tom, at GMI. We got married when we were still in college. My daughter is 24 and an engineer as well.
What's your favorite weekend activity? Going to our lake house. Spending the weekends there has been great. We'll go in the winter sometimes, too.
Are you able to maintain friendships? Yes, definitely. One of my best friends from California I've known since I was 5. And I have a lot of friends here at GM.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Hillary Clinton. I just have a lot of respect for her.
What's your guilty pleasure? Chocolate and champagne.
When and where was your last vacation? We went to California in August for a week to see my dad.
Name one talent you wish you had. Remembering names. I'm not very good at it. I've tried tricks to get better, but I'm still not as good as I'd like to be.
Best advice you've ever gotten? To make moves outside of my comfort zone. I have always been slightly hesitant when somebody wants to give me a new job. There's always the voice in the back of your head saying, "You don't have experience in that," or "I'm not sure you can do that." I've had to get over that.
But on several of my career moves, I've had people who've helped to push me out of my comfort zone. And every time, it was a great thing. As women, I don't think we do that enough. We tend to think, "OK, I'm really good at this. I'm recognized for it." And it's really hard to move, whether it's for a new job or a new country or whatever. That's one thing that probably doesn't enable enough women in other roles.
By Mike Colias