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
Alicia Boler Davis has spent her whole life 'being the first'... among the first in her family to go to college; the first Black woman to become a plant manager with General Motors; and most recently, the first Black woman to become part of the Amazon S-team, the exclusive inner circle that advises founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.
“I’m acutely aware that this may be significant for others. They may be inspired by what I’m doing, especially Black students or professionals, and women. It may inspire them to be bolder, to dream bigger or just open their minds to greater possibilities.” – Alicia Boler Davis
Alicia spent her childhood fixing broken items in her home. She attended a high school program at the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) and decided that she wanted to work there. She completed her bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at Northwestern University and followed this with a master's degree in engineering science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master's in business administration at Indiana University.
In 1994 Alicia joined General Motors as a manufacturing engineer. Soon she became a plant manager and the very first Black woman to do so. Later, she was appointed Vice President of Customer Experience at General Motors in 2012; promoted to Senior Vice President for Global Customer Experience in 2013 and promoted again to Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing in 2016 - leading 180,000 employees.
Through her time with General Motors, Alicia credits support from many levels of leadership “who pushed [her] out of [her] comfort zone, who brought opportunities to [her] that [she] was not even considering or who challenged [her] to think bigger than maybe [she] was even thinking at the time.” She adds that colleagues and leaders like General Motors chairman and CEO Mary Barra would often “stand up for [her] and talk about why they thought [she] was ready or why [she] could do something, and it made a huge difference in navigating [her] career.”
Leading Through a Pandemic – after 25 years at General Motors, where she rose through the ranks to ultimately run its 170 factories, Alicia joined Amazon to run its network of more than 175 warehouses in 16 countries. When she was barely a year into the job, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Almost overnight, the focus on Alicia’s work sharpened tenfold as she and the company were called to deliver essential items to a world sheltering in place. The items on Alicia’s to-fix list grew by the second: inundated supply chains; overwhelming demand; a lack of resources, both human and machinery, to fulfil orders — and, of course, the safety concerns of warehouse workers facing a deadly and unpredictable virus.
By August, after months of leading through multiple operations crises, Alicia was recognized for her achievements and promoted into Amazon’s exclusive S-team, the largely White and male inner circle that advises Bezos directly. Alicia’s addition makes her only the fourth woman and the first Black leader to become part of the executive group.
“I’m not in this role to sit at the table and agree with everyone. Driving change takes a lot of courage, and it takes the willingness to challenge an organization regardless of how big it is.” – Alicia Boler Davis
#16 Angela Hwang, Group President of the Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group
Angela received her Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Biochemistry from the University of Cape Town and her MBA from Cornell University. Growing up as a young Asian girl in apartheid South Africa shaped her worldview as it is today and has underscored the importance of equity in everything she does.
Now, Angela is a member of Pfizer’s Executive Team and Group President of the Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, which comprises the entire commercial organization of Pfizer. Her organization of 26,000 colleagues across 125 countries is responsible for bringing over 600 innovative medicines and products to patients. Angela has been with Pfizer for 23 years, working across all geographies and therapeutic areas. She is motivated by the common purpose that all Pfizer colleagues share, to bring breakthroughs to patients, regardless of where they are in the world.
As Group President of Pfizer Biopharma, Angela leads 7 commercial business units. Together, these businesses strive to deliver transformational medicines that address major global health priorities in cancer, rare disease, inflammation & immunology, primary care, infectious diseases, and preventative care with vaccines.
Leading Through a Pandemic – as the president of Pfizer Global Biopharma, Angela was at the helm of leading Pfizer into bringing the first coronavirus vaccine to the US market. In 2020, more than 420 million people benefited from the Pfizer Biopharma vaccine to improve their health and, in some cases, save their lives. Now she is already working on Plan B: to determine if a third booster shot proves effective against this and future variants.
“We are initiating a booster study for those who have received the first and second doses. They are now going to receive a third dose in some time frame, somewhere between six to 12 months. In addition to that, we are also working on understanding whether we may need a new vaccine altogether with a different genetic sequence. And so both of these approaches is what’s going to allow us to deal with the new variants.” said Angela.
‘We need to find the courage to embrace failure and bet big on ourselves” – Angela Hwang
Rikhi is a graduate student at Georgia Tech studying Aerospace Engineering and an international student from Singapore. She is passionate about systems safety and advocating for the wellness of gender-minorities and international students in STEM. You can find her blogging at her neighbourhood black-owned coffee shop drinking copious amounts of dirty chai’s. You can follow her at @RikhiRoy on Twitter and Instagram and read her work at www.a-balancing-act.com.