Women to Watch: Mary Barra

Throughout the year, we highlight inspirational women who are making strides in society, corporations, or just who deserve attention for their accomplishments as a woman. We continue our Women to Watch series in October 2021, highlighting CEO Mary Barra. Many may know her as General Motors’ (GM) current CEO, but there is so much more to her story than just where she’s risen to today. As one of the first women to lead a “Big Three” automaker in the United States, there’s a lot that we can learn from Barra as a businesswoman, philanthropist and as one of TIME’s most influential people of 2021.

Mary Barra in Her Early Years

As a Royal Oak, Michigan native, Mary Teresa Barra was no stranger to the automotive world. GM was just right around the corner, with its headquarters just a few miles away in Detroit, Michigan. Barra was immersed in the auto industry at a young age via her father, Ray, who worked at the Pontiac car factory in Detroit. Her love for cars began at just 10 years old when she fell in love with a late ‘60s cherry red Chevy Camaro convertible.
At the age of 18, Barra began working at GM to help fund her way through college at General Motors Institute. Her position involved inspecting hoods and checking fender panels at the factory. She later enrolled at General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, to obtain her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, Barra went on to earn her MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 1990. After finishing her MBA, she continued to work her way through a variety of different positions at GM, including as vice president of global manufacturing engineering, vice president of global human resources, and vice president of global purchasing and supply chain. Throughout these positions, Barra gained a passion for the GM brand and the overall quality of the automobiles coming out of the factory.
In January 2014, history was made when Barra was named CEO of GM — becoming the first female CEO in the automotive industry. After 33 years of experience working in many different disciplines at the company, this promotion was well deserved and Barra was more than qualified for this role. Throughout her long career at GM, she has encouraged women of all paths to go after what they want in their career.
“The biggest message I have for young women is, Don’t start cutting off branches of your career tree unnecessarily early,” Barra said in a TIME magazine interview. “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.”

Giving Back to Detroit — Professionally and Philanthropically

Barra has made a commitment to give back to the Detroit community through GM’s social investment targeting Detroit area nonprofits that help students, workers, and more. In September 2021, GM made a $50 million donation to Detroit nonprofits and made a huge wave in the community. That helps provide children access to better education and also a support system for those who are seeking jobs.
Aside from her aspirations at GM to make an impact in the community, Barra has also made many historic strides in the corporate sector. Barra has been appointed the first woman to take over the lead as chairman of the coalition of chief executives at Business Roundtable starting January 2022. She continues to make history as a woman C-suite executive, introducing GM’s first all-electric vehicle and motivating the company to lead the charge to win the electric vehicle race. As she’s progressed over the years within her role at GM as a woman CEO, it’s clear to see that she will continue to transform into a powerful woman leader.

More Women to Watch

Mary Barra has just scratched the surface on what she can contribute to leadership within the workspace and GM as a company. Look for our next Women to Watch profile highlighting empowering women in the world. You can catch up with the last Women to Watch, Mackenzie Scott. As a renowned philanthropist, she has given millions of dollars to organizations for the betterment of communities and those in need.

Learn more about Hope Smith and her philanthropic efforts that have made a difference in the lives of many children throughout the world with Unlikely Heroes. Her luxury skincare company, MUTHA™, continuously makes donations to organizations that she holds close to her heart.

Learn more about Hope’s philanthropic efforts and look forward to next month’s Women to Watch article.