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CEO Profiles: General Motors’ Mary Barra

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Mary Barra’s promotion to the CEO of General Motors was game changing; in her role, Barra is the first female CEO in the automotive industry.


A Michigan native, Mary Barra was born in Waterford. Her father, Ray Makela, was a factory worker at General Motors, giving her a taste of the company from a very young age. In fact, Barra received her Bachelor’s of Science degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute, now known as Kettering University. In 1990, while working at General Motors, Barra returned to school at Stanford University for her Master’s in Business Administration.

In 2016, Barra was named the World’s Most Powerful Woman by Fortune; Forbes ranked her fifth on a similar list in 2015.

General Motors

Mary Barra began her career with General Motors (GM) at just 18 years old. As she began her adult life, Barra enrolled in a co-op program at GM to help her pay for her college tuition at General Motors Institute. The duties included inspecting hood and fender panels of Pontiac Grand Prix vehicles at the plant in Pontiac, Michigan. During her inspections, Barra ran into continuous defects on the vehicles; “It was not a good time for GM quality,” she admitted.

When she graduated with her undergraduate degree, Barra accepted a position at GM as a senior engineer. Through her time at GM, Barra was able to show off her leadership abilities, earning confidence from executives at GM. To nurture that leadership potential, GM offered her a fellowship to attend Stanford Business School for her Master’s degree in Business Administration.

After her hard work at Stanford, Barra’s MBA landed her a promotion at GM to Plant Manager. In her role, Barra was able shine with her leadership skills and problem-solving abilities. Eventually, she took on an additional role on GM’s executive committee. While this may have been an exciting role, it was far from easy. There were problems left and right, including manufacturing problems that spanned back to her days in the co-op program.

In 2011, Barra was promoted to Senior Vice President of Global Product Development. As Senior VP, she had a significant impact on the design and quality of GM vehicles. According to Business Insider, her introduction to this role resulted in a significant increase in the brand’s vehicle quality as well as the brand’s image.

After continuous sucess, Barra became GM’s CEO in January 2014. This decision made history, making Barra the first female chief executive officer in the automotive industry.

During her time at GM, Barra has held at least 10 different positions at the automotive manufacturing company.

Barra was elected as Chairman of the GM Board of Directors in 2016.

Other Endeavors

After graduating from Stanford’s graduate program, Barra decided to remain involved at the university. The GM CEO currently serves on the Stanford University Board of Trustees and the Stanford GSB Advisory Council. According to GM, she also remains involved in local Detroit affairs, serving on several committees: the Board of Directors of the Detroit Economic Club and the Board of Trustees for Detroit Country Day School. Bringing her automotive experience into a more diverse view of transportation, Barra is currently co-chair of the Department of Transportation‘s Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation.

Barra is also a member of The Business Council and Business Roundtable. Outside of automotive, she serves on the Board of Directors for General Dynamics and the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Sources: General Motors, Business Insider, Forbes, CNN