Mary Barra, General Motors (GM) CEO is the charismatic woman who often says “Do every job like you are going to do this for the rest of your life, and demonstrate that ownership of it.”

Mary Barra is serving as executive vice president of global product development and CEO of General Motors. She was the first woman to become CEO of a major automaker.  Breaking the glass ceiling at General Motors was not easy. Let us explore her life journey. 

Early Life and Childhood of Mary Barra

Born in an Italian-American family, Barra grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, and graduated from Lakeview High School. In 1982, she received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute, where she was a member of the Society of Women Engineers. She was the only female in her graduating class because in that era it was rare for women to penetrate engineering and technology verticals. It was considered a man’s job. 

However, the challenges she faced couldn’t hold Mary from achieving what she desired. She got the degree and took up a job in this competitive male-dominated field. 

Mary Barra’s father served as a die maker for 39 years. Mary grew up seeing him work in the automobile industry. With his type of job, she gained exposure to the automobile and manufacturing world. Before getting into it, Mary knew so much already. Whenever she needed guidance she used to talk to her father.

Mary Barra, GM CEO

Joining General Motors 

After earning her MBA degree from Stanford University in 1985, Barra took a job with General Motors in Pontiac, Michigan. She began her career from the ground up. She moved into various roles in materials and manufacturing engineering.

Despite her knowledge, Mary’s initial phase in the company was tough. Remembering her struggle, she once said “Initially, I worked as a quality inspector in General Motors on the assembly line. Daily, I used to check fits between hoods and fenders. I had a small scale and clipboard. At one point, I was examining 60 jobs an hour in an eight-hour work shift. A demanding work like this teaches you how to value all the people who do a similar job.”

In 1990, she received corporate training as a quality engineer while working on a plant support project to develop more efficient methods for the production of GM’s Saturn cars. As part of this role, she worked closely with employees and contractors throughout the plant. She was promoted to the top job after a faulty ignition switch forced the company to recall more than 10 million vehicles worldwide.

Barra rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming the Vice President of Global Human Resources in 2008. Then she became the Executive Vice President in 2009, and President in 2010. She became chief executive officer of General Motors on January 15, 2014, succeeding Dan Akerson.

Her appointment was the culmination of a process that began in 2010 when GM’s board of directors began planning for the eventual retirement of Akerson. Barra’s appointment as chief executive received high praise from industry analysts who reviewed her record at GM and her experience in the broader industry.

Mary Barra, GM CEO

Awards and Achievements of Mary Barra

In 2015, Barra was one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” in Forbes magazine. She ranked the #3 most powerful woman in the world.

The magazine also recognized her as the “Most Powerful Woman in Business.” In September 2016, she appeared on the cover of “Time” with the title “Game Changer: The Most Powerful Woman in the Auto Industry is a Mom ” and she made Fortune’s 50 Most Powerful Women list for the third time.

Barra’s Contributions to Women

Mary Barra initiated Black Girls Code programs to support black women’s growth and women empowerment.

Black Girls Code (BGC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging girls of color ages 7–17 to explore and pursue careers in computer science. They do this through a six-week summer program and year-round programming. They serve girls in the US, Africa, and South America.

While launching, Mary Barra addressed an important issue and the reason behind inaugurating the program. She said “We’re really excited about this partnership and have been inspired by the stories of the young women who participate in the Black Girls Code. At the launch event, we met with Shonise. Shonise said she attended BGC summer camps as a kid and got a chance to see what it’s like to be a computer engineer. She’s now studying computer science at Eastern Michigan University and plans to go into robotics. Today, we announced a $5 million commitment to support the expansion of the Black Girls Code over the next five years and the launch of a Detroit chapter. According to data from the National Science Foundation, African-American and Latina students are less likely to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math classes in high school. We can do better.” 

Mary Barra is an inspiration to all women who strive to progress, grow, create an impact, and make the world a better place. She is a model in how to break into fields no woman has broken into before.  The auto industry is by excellence a man’s industry and if Barry could do it in the auto sector, any woman can do it in any other sector. 

Authored by Aashna Chawla

Edited by Yara Fakhoury

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