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Diversity and Inclusion: The Industry’s Superpower

By Karen Dybis

Of all the rapid-fire changes in the automotive industry, one truism prevails: Finding the right talent and promoting diversity and inclusion is the difference between being “your father’s car company” and becoming a mobility leader.

The traditional automotive industry is stereotyped as being a “boys’ club” and not diverse in its talent. But with new programs, investment, and industry support, officials say Michigan’s automotive and mobility companies are working to change this view of the industry, keeping them competitive for the long term.

Companies today have innovative mentoring programs, diversity-focused boards and advisors, empowered employee-resource groups, and leadership programs that improve diversity and inclusion from the factory to the C-suite to the boardroom.

Improving Business Outcomes

Michelle Sourie Robinson comes at the issue with fresh eyes – the attorney moved to Detroit five years ago to become president and CEO of the Michigan Minority Supplier Development Council (MMSDC), a nonprofit organization that promotes the economic growth of its members and the minority-owned businesses that serve them.

The MMSDC seeks to create innovative and efficient suppliers, Sourie Robinson says. Names such as Dave Bing, Vinnie Johnson, and Andra Rush – all of whom owned supplier companies that served the automotive industry – became well known and economically successful because they were strong businesspeople and had champions within the original equipment manufacturers, she says.

“That’s not happening at the same level today,” Sourie Robinson says. “It’s understandable – the entire marketplace has changed. But we have to make deliberate, intentional decisions and invest in opportunities that I think make all of our businesses better. A lot of different voices make us all better.”

Ensuring the diversity of a company’s employees represents the local community, as well as the nation, can be challenging, but having diverse voices helps companies to better understand their consumer bases and improve products.

“As we change our industry from traditional vehicle manufacturing, the ideas and innovation coming from a lot of different voices are exactly what we need and I think that’s coming through in our products,” says Kristen Tabar, group vice president of Vehicle Development and Engineering for Toyota Motor North America Research and Development.

Supporting Women in Stem

At General Motors Co., the company is focusing its diversity and inclusion efforts through its corporate giving arm into STEM and educational programs, boosting Michigan’s future while developing that all-important talent pipeline.

GM is supporting both its local partners, such as the Robotics Engineering Center of Detroit, as well as bringing fresh and proven programs to Michigan, says Hina Baloch, manager of Global Social Impact and STEM Education at GM.

“We wanted to bring the best-in-class nonprofits and partnerships to the city of Detroit. Everybody’s putting a stake into it,” Baloch says, resulting in successful launches such as AI4ALL and SMASH Academy, a three-year, STEM-intensive residential college prep program that empowers students to deepen their talents and pursue STEM careers.

Eastern Michigan University’s (EMU) College of Engineering and Technology runs the successful Digital Divas program, encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM. In its decade-old legacy, the bi-annual, daylong program has introduced nearly 7,000 participants to careers and college programs in STEM.

Initiatives encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM help to break down gender stereotypes, strengthening inclusivity in tech careers.

It’s Never Too Late to Start

Bringing in people from all roles and responsibilities is key, says Cheryl Thompson, founder and CEO of the Livonia-based Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement (CADIA), a nonprofit focused on diversity and inclusion in the automotive industry.

“Everyone recognizes they need to do something. The difficulty is where do you start,” Thompson says.

CADIA’s goal is to double the number of diverse leaders in the automotive industry by 2030. Thompson seeks to achieve that mission through programs like the D&I Roundtable series, which brings companies together to share best practices, and RevUp events, which feature industry experts, panel discussions and case studies in ally-ship, talent acquisition, and cultural awareness.

“We don’t want to blame and shame. That doesn’t work. We want to meet people where they’re at, and that’s an evolution,” Thompson says.

Karen Dybis is a freelance writer, author, and speaker in Metro Detroit.