Mary Teresa Barra, an influential American businesswoman, has been at the helm of General Motors since January 2014, making her the chair and chief executive officer (CEO) of this global automotive giant. Her journey to become the first female CEO of a 'Big Three' automaker has left an indelible mark on both General Motors and the automotive industry as a whole.
Mary Barra was born on December 24, 1961, in Royal Oak, Michigan, to parents of Finnish descent. Her grandfather, Viktor Mäkelä, immigrated to the United States and married Maria Luoma, another Finnish immigrant. The family resided in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, and Mary's father, Ray, married Eva Pyykkönen, a second-generation Finnish American, leading to Mary's birth in 1961.
Mary Barra's educational path laid a strong foundation for her future career. She graduated from the General Motors Institute, now known as Kettering University, in 1985. During her time at Kettering University, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and was inducted into the engineering honour society Tau Beta Pi.
To further hone her skills and knowledge, she pursued a Master of Business Administration degree at Stanford Graduate School of Business, funded by a GM fellowship, which she successfully completed in 1990.
Mary Barra's journey at General Motors began at an early age. She joined the company in 1980 as a co-op student when she was just 18. Her initial responsibilities included inspecting hoods and checking fender panels, jobs she used to pay for her college tuition.
Her dedication and hard work paid off, leading her to various engineering and administrative positions within the company. She even managed the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.
In February 2008, Barra took on the role of vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering. Over the years, her responsibilities grew, and she assumed the position of vice president of Global Human Resources in July 2009. She held this role until February 2011, when she was promoted to executive vice president of Global Product Development, where she played a crucial part in reducing the number of automobile platforms at GM.
In August 2013, her responsibilities were extended to include Global Purchasing and Supply Chain. When Mary Barra took over as the CEO of General Motors in January 2014, she made history as the first female head of an automobile manufacturer.
As CEO, Mary Barra faced significant challenges, particularly during her first year at the helm of General Motors. The company issued 84 safety recalls involving over 30 million cars, leading to Barra testifying before the Senate about these recalls and the related fatalities due to faulty ignition switches. There were also suspicions that GM was paying for awards to improve its image during this period.
The recalls initiated changes within the company's culture, encouraging employees to report problems they encountered. Under Barra's leadership, General Motors also entered the realm of driverless and electric-powered cars through acquisitions, including Strobe, a startup in driverless technology.
In 2017, Mary Barra stood out as the highest-paid executive among the Detroit Three, with a total remuneration of $21.96 million. However, her announcement of the closure of five North American plants and 14,000 layoffs in November 2018 drew criticism from then-President Donald Trump, who threatened to cut the company's government subsidies.
Mary Barra's vision extends to the future, with a clear focus on accelerating General Motors' electric vehicle (EV) plans. Her goal is to exclusively offer EVs by 2035.
Mary Barra's influence transcends her role at General Motors. She has served on the boards of various organisations, including General Dynamics, the Detroit Economic Club, and Detroit Country Day School. Her contributions have also extended to academia, as she is a member of the Stanford University Board of Trustees, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, and the Duke University Board of Trustees.
In August 2017, she made history again by becoming the fourth woman to be elected to the board of Disney. Her contributions extend even further, as in March 2022, she was appointed to the Homeland Security Advisory Council.
Mary Barra's exceptional career has earned her a host of awards and honours. She was listed on Forbes' Most Powerful Women list and recognised as the fourth most powerful woman in 2018. She has delivered commencement addresses and received honorary degrees from prestigious institutions like the University of Michigan and Duke University.
She has ranked first on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list and remained in the top position for years. Time Magazine featured her on the "100 Most Influential People in the World" list. In 2021, she was included in the Time 100, an annual list of the 100 most influential people globally.
In addition to her professional success, Mary Barra received the Larry Foster Award for Integrity in Public Communication at the 2023 Arthur W. Page Center Awards.
Mary Barra's life extends beyond her career. She is married to Tony Barra, whom she met during her studies at Kettering University, and they have two children and two dogs. Their family resides in Northville, a suburb of Detroit, with Mary also owning an apartment in Downtown Detroit.
In terms of financial success, Mary Barra's estimated net worth exceeds $36 million as of 2023. This figure reflects both her remarkable career and her significant contributions to General Motors and the broader corporate landscape.
Mary Barra's journey as the first female CEO of a 'Big Three' automaker symbolises the potential for change and innovation in the traditionally male-dominated automotive industry. Her leadership and influence extend beyond the boardroom, and her commitment to advancing electric vehicle technology is shaping the future of the automotive industry.