Stanford MBA Named CEO Of General Motors

by John A. Byrne on Print Print

Stanford alumnus Mary Barra is the first woman to lead a major car company

Stanford alumnus Mary Barra is the first woman to lead a major car company

Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business just landed an MBA alumnus in one of the world’s biggest jobs: Chief Executive of General Motors. Mary T. Barra, the 51-year-old daughter of a GM die maker, was unanimously chosen by the board today (Dec. 10) to succeed Daniel F. Akerson.

Barra, who graduated from Stanford with her MBA in 1990, is the first woman to lead a major car company.

A profile of her in the Stanford alumni magazine noted that Barra was little more than ten years old when she first fell in love with a car. It was a red Chevy Camaro convertible, late-’60s vintage, driven by her older cousin.  “It was just a beautiful, beautiful vehicle,” she told the alumni magazine.  “The first vehicle where I went, ‘Wow, that is cool.'”

She grew up in Waterford, Mich., where her father worked 39 years as a GM die maker. Barra went to the General Motors Institute (since renamed Kettering University) in Flint, Mich., an engineering and management school that served as a sort of ROTC for GM. She earned an electrical engineering degree there in 1985, interning at a GM plant that produced the Pontiac Fiero.

When she started at the plant as a senior engineer, GM, Ford and Chrysler were bleeding market share to Japanese competitors such as Honda and Toyota. The focus on the Fiero line was quality: reducing defects, rebuilding public trust.

In 1988, a GM fellowship took Barra to Stanford to earn an MBA. Immediately after getting her degree, she got her first job as a GM manager, running manufacturing planning. Then came a series of increasingly visible jobs, including executive assistant to GM’s CEO in the mid ’90s, fixing a troubled internal communications department, turning around an important and troubled Detroit plant, and bringing data and efficiency to the company’s messy human resources department, which earned her a spot on GM’s executive committee.

In 2011 came her biggest test: She was appointed senior vice president for global product development, determining the look, feel, and engineering of GM’s most important products, despite having very little experience in designing or developing vehicles. Her manufacturing and quality background came through, resulting in a noticeable uptick in the quality and perception of GM’s vehicles.

A recent study of the educational backgrounds of Fortune 500 CEOs showed that Harvard Business School led all B-schools with the most MBAs: 40 in all. Indeed, one in every five Fortune 500 CEOs with an MBA earned it at HBS. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School was next, with 13 CEOs, while Stanford was third, with ten.

Following the big three was the University of Chicago Booth School of Business with 7, including Chevron’s John Watson, who is the MBA who heads up the highest ranked company (No. 3) on the Fortune list. Chicago metro rival Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management is right behind Booth with six Fortune 500 CEOs, tied with Indiana University’s Kelley School with six as well, while Michigan’s Ross had five chieftains on the list. Then came Columbia Business School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School, each with four Fortune 500 CEO alums.


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