Allyson Witherspoon says the first car she fell in love with was the iconic Porsche 911. “As a little kid fascinated by cars and car design, the 911 stopped me in my tracks,” she says. A lifelong car lover who grew up in a family of “car geeks,” she learned how to drive stick shift on a Nissan 300Z Turbo.
Today, appropriately, she drives Nissan’s ad messages as newly appointed vice president, marketing communications and media for Nissan North America.
“I was instinctively drawn into the auto industry,” she says. “Cars have played an instrumental part in my life: They were important to my family. They gave me freedom, when I got my license. And I’ve been so inspired by cars and car design.”
Witherspoon joined Nissan’s Infiniti division in late 2013 after working on the ad agency side for automaker clients including Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. She was named one of Automotive News’ “40 Under 40” auto industry executives in 2014.
Witherspoon’s new role brings her back to the States after a stint as general manager, global brand engagement for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. She was overseas last year when Saudi Arabian women finally were granted permission to drive. “It was a humbling and profound moment. You don’t realize how much you have until you see a situation like that,” she says. “I spent time talking to female customers there, who said they were looking for two things: safety and confidence, since they’re new drivers. There’s so much pressure on them to be good drivers under this new law.”
After graduating from college with a marketing degree, Witherspoon had the opportunity to do consulting work for Mercedes-Benz. “When you’re in college, you’re not necessarily sure what you want to do with your life. For me, that first job is when everything clicked. I learned you could have a career in something you genuinely loved and were inspired by,” she says.
She credits the legendary Jack Pitney, the former BMW marketing chief killed in an accident in 2010, for teaching her “about the type of CMO I wanted to be,” she says. “Working on the ad agency side, you wanted a meeting with Jack where he’d slap the table and get excited. He was so motivating and inspirational, but so human as well.” And she says her one-time ad agency boss Lori Senecal demonstrated “how to be a senior-level executive in a man’s world. I learned a lot watching her.”
Today, as a leading woman in the auto industry herself, Witherspoon says she feels a responsibility to be a role model and to help other women. “You don’t aspire to be something you don’t see,” she says.
Increasing the role and presence of women in the auto industry is a three-pronged process, she believes. “First, you have to start young, and encourage young women who are interested in STEM to think about a career in automotive, show them they can have an exciting and fulfilling career here,” she says. “Then once in the industry, they need to be supported with mentorship programs—with both male and female mentors—that help guide women as they navigate the complicated politics of the industry.” Finally, she says ongoing training and education is critical.
Her advice to young women interested in automotive? “Go for it,” she says. “Start building a network, but remember that energy and passion goes a long way.”
She laughs. “It is important to look for people to help guide you. I was that annoying kid always asking, ‘Will you be my mentor?’” she says. “But you have to put yourself out there.”