Updated: May 16, 2021
In a year that resulted in an upward of 500,000 deaths across the United States and a much-needed racial reckoning – most of our instincts were to simply keep ourselves and our family’s safe, support small businesses and continue to be anti-racist. Doing more felt like we were stretching ourselves by the very fabrics of our being.
However, even if the world momentarily held its breath – Fortune didn’t miss a beat. Just like any other year, they still published their ‘Most Powerful Women’ list. And to meet the moment, they incorporated the use of each executive’s influence in ‘wielding’ their power for ‘good’.
“In this moment of crisis and uncertainty, we asked: Is she using her influence to shape her company and the wider world for the better?” – Fortune
Every year since 1998, Fortune has ranked the Most Powerful Women in Business using four criteria: the size and importance of each woman’s business in the global economy; the health and direction of the business; the arc of her career; and her social and cultural influence.
And every year, I excitedly read the excerpts elaborating on why these women were particularly noteworthy. After scrolling through many excerpts of economists and lawyers making their mark on businesses across the world – I began to seek more representation from women in engineering. Wanting to see the paths similar to mine, I craved for a mention of an engineer in there somewhere. Amongst the 50 women, there were 3 engineers in the top 20 women listed - leading General Motors, Amazon, and Pfizer. For the Engineering Gal seeking a path to the Fortune ‘Most Powerful Women’ list – this one’s for you:
#2 Mary Barra – Chairman and CEO – General Motors – first female CEO of a major automaker
Born in Michigan, to parents of Finnish descent, Mary Barra first started working for General Motors as a co-op student. After graduating from the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, she spent three years as a senior plant engineer at General Motors before taking some time out to pursue an MBA at Stanford.
She immediately returned to General Motors and began a long, impressive climb upwards from senior engineer. Within six years she became the executive assistant to the firm’s chairman and vice-chairman, and now through spending more time with executives than engineers, began exemplifying her ambition to one day occupy a top-management job. Knowing her credibility would be boosted by having dual expertise in management and engineering, she acted accordingly. By 2003, she was managing an assembly plant. A year later, she became executive director of the vehicle manufacturing engineering division. And by 2008 she was promoted to vice president in the global manufacturing engineering division.
What happened soon after was a transformative moment for the company, which, in its most troubling times, allowed Barra to make the most of a particularly challenging opportunity and come out on top.
As the 2008 financial crisis hit, it became clear that General Motors was in trouble. And in 2009, despite being one of the US’s two most iconic carmakers, General Motors had little choice but to file for bankruptcy. It was at this point that Mary jumped division again, becoming a vice president in the human resources department. At this unsteady time in the company’s history, any senior HR figure who navigated this situation well would inevitably be well thought-of. But Mary was no ordinary HR exec: as a former engineer herself, she knew the ins-and-outs of the firm intimately, and made difficult decisions strategically. Having successfully handled the company’s HR during the recession, Mary moved into product development for three years before taking the top job in 2014 – the first GM CEO in 60 years who did not come up through the finance department.
Leading Through a Pandemic – With Mary at the helm, converting an auto plant to build critically needed medical equipment showed General Motors how fast it could get things done alongside Ventec Life Systems. The challenge: To take Ventec, which was building about 200 to 300 ventilators a month, and scale it up to producing 10,000 a month in a retooled General Motors plant in Kokomo, Indiana.
“The biggest message I have for young women is, Don't start cutting off branches of your career tree unnecessarily early. Sometimes women say, I know I want to have a family or play in the local symphony, and they start pulling themselves out of their career path. You don't have to take yourself out of the running before you even start.” – Mary Barra
#12 Alicia Boler Davis – VP of Customer Fulfillment, Amazon