Grace Lieblein, the highest-ranking Hispanic woman at General Motors and the company's first Latina vehicle chief engineer, started her career in the auto industry as an 18-year-old co-op student in the assembly division at General Motors. Her father was an hourly employee at GM's Los Angeles plant and she proudly says she grew up with GM blood in her veins. She's now responsible for overseeing all aspects of engineering for GM's current and future front-wheel drive trucks, including several products that will compete in the fast-growing crossover vehicle segment. She returned to Los Angeles from Detroit recently to witness GM CEO Rick Wagoner and golfer Tiger Woods unveil her latest project – the 2008 Buick Enclave, the brand's first luxury crossover SUV.
What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering?
I was good at math and science, and my dad worked at the plant here in L.A. I also had a brother-in-law who was an engineer and he talked to me about what engineers do. At the time, it sounded so interesting and I decided to do it. … I went to the General Motors Institute, which is now Kettering University.
Were you intimidated going into a male-dominated industry?
It sounds a little corny, but my parents have always told me that I could do anything. My father's words were, "You have to get an education," and my mom would say, "You can be whatever you want to be." When I started looking into engineering, I never had second thoughts like, "Oh man, that's a male-dominated profession." It never occurred to me because of the way my parents brought me up. But once I started going to engineering school, I quickly noticed I was in the minority. But that didn't bother me either. You quickly get over that.
You were an ethnic minority, too.
Oh, definitely. Especially as a Latina, you get funneled into a smaller group the more you look at it. I know that women are now less than 20 percent of the total engineering graduates, and I just saw a statistic that said Latinas are in the less-than-5-percent range.
What aspects of being Hispanic have helped you succeed?
We Hispanics tend to be very compassionate. I know it's a generalization, but it's part of who we are. So, that's always been part of my style. I'm very comfortable with teams and people. And as I became a leader, I think I brought a view of compassion to the organization.
When someone identifies you as the highest-ranking Hispanic woman at GM, how does that make you feel?
What I feel more than anything is a sense of responsibility because, I believe, part of my job is to make sure I help other Hispanics and women, making sure that we're taking young Hispanics and women and putting them on the right career paths. Rather than something to gloat about, I see [the ranking] as a huge responsibility. People look up to you, they want your advice, and want your help. It's part of my job to do that.
What advice do you offer young women or young Hispanics when you mentor?
I tell them that it's important to fit into a corporate culture. You have to embrace your company's values because if you don't, you're not going to fit in, regardless of who you are. But, beyond that, I encourage people to use their individuality as their strength. What we don't want is a bunch of cookie-cutter people. … If everyone comes from the same area, or comes from the same background, or comes from the same perspective, you will not be able to solve your problems very effectively.
How do men and women differ among automobile consumers?
One difference used to be fuel economy. Up until about three years ago, when you looked at what women look for versus what men looked for, fuel economy was near the top of the women's list and not the men's. Now, given the current gas prices, it's about even. Safety is another huge priority for women.
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