New Genesis marketing chief Wendy Orthman says she had an epiphany when she was in her late 20s.
Orthman had been in the car business for several years — “since before I could legally drink,” she says — starting as a college intern at General Motors in the late ’90s. Back then, she says, “There was a look and style of what made a car person: a Midwestern guy in khaki pants with a logoed polo shirt. I had spent the first nine years of my career trying to fit in. They’d hand me the polo and I’d put it on— trying to make myself a ‘serious’ car person who looked good in a polo.”
Then at one meeting, standing as the “only girl in the room, I realized people would come in and say hi to me first,” she says. “It hit me that maybe the fact that I was different was a positive. Maybe looking different — with my red hair and freckles — being naturally gregarious, laughing louder and being a different style of leader could be the key to my success.”
After that epiphany, she says she swore off polos, and leaned into dresses and heels. But it wasn’t just about the clothes. “It was really about being at peace with who I am,” she says. “I think that was the turning point in my career. People started looking at me differently.”
Orthman joined Genesis as the luxury brand’s executive director of marketing in March, after a stint in Yokohama, Japan, as global head of brand, marketing and communications for Infiniti.
Orthman, an Illinois native, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and advertising from Michigan State University. After that college internship, she stayed at GM, where she helped launch the Hummer brand, and subsequently worked in communications for Chrysler and Nissan.
In every role, she says she’s tried to find one female and one male mentor. “Mentorship has been so important to me,” she says. “I look for both a woman and a man, so that I get not only the female perspective, but so that I have someone to explain how the guys in the office are thinking.”
She credits an early supervisor at GM for “cracking open the world for me.” Orthman says, “She provided an example of how to be a successful woman in the corporate world, and taught me things about how to navigate the car business that I still use today — things I still pass on to others.”
Orthman’s advice to young women in the industry is: “Embrace who you are. Being different is your secret weapon. Don’t shy away from it or try to diminish it.”
She says she’s thrilled to be working again on a new auto brand — in many ways harking back to her Hummer days. “Genesis is growing so fast that it feels we’re in startup mode in so many ways,” she says.
“I’m so lucky to be working in the car business right now. If you look back at the late ’50s through the ’80s, in the car business really the only thing that would change from year to year was the size of the engine. But beginning in the late ’90s, and over the last two decades, it’s been a wild and fascinating ride, keeping up with the pace of change in the industry — the technology as well as the culture,” she says.
“So much change has happened, but one of the most exciting changes has been in the boardrooms and hallways at automakers. Today, it’s much less frequent that I’m the only girl in the room. Now I can look at not just one, but multiple generations of women I’ve had the privilege of watching grow and become leaders in this industry. It’s been amazingly rewarding.”