Alicia Boler-Davis had been thriving at General Motors for more than 15 years when she faced her most daunting challenge yet: manage an assembly plant and work as vehicle line director and chief engineer for North America small cars.
While never losing her trademark confidence, she had a pit in her stomach the first six months. The easiest move would have been to retreat to a more comfortable position.
Unsurprisingly, she held on.
“I truly had to trust and rely on the team while I was learning, and I was transparent,” said Boler-Davis said. “I had to learn a different way of leading, and I made some mistakes. But I had to keep going and build my team. I learned a lot from that, and it became the core of who I am as a leader.”
Throughout her skyrocketing career, Boler-Davis has not only preached courage and boldness, she has evinced it writ large.
After her 1994 start with GM as a manufacturing engineer, she has held many positions of increasing responsibility, including senior vice president, Global Connected Customer Experience; U.S. vice president, customer experience; and manager of plants in Lansing and Arlington, Texas. She was one of the first African-American women to become a GM manufacturing plant manager.
In 2016, she rose to her current title as executive vice president of GM global manufacturing, a monumental role in which she leads 165,000 employees at 150 facilities in 20 countries. That’s in addition to the responsibility for 40 labor contracts. She is a member of the senior leadership team and the GM Korea Board of Directors. Boler-Davis reports directly to the top boss, GM chief executive and chairman Mary Barra.
On Saturday, the woman who logs thousands of miles annually will sojourn in Washington, D.C., to receive the prestigious Black Engineer of the Year Award. Winners are chosen by a committee of about two dozen leading scientists and engineers from the federal government, academia and industry. There is no nominating process; the coveted award is discretionary.
It will be presented by the Council of Engineering Deans, made up of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. About a third of African-American engineers in the United States graduate from HBCUs.
“I’ve had an opportunity over the past two years to attend the event,” said Boler-Davis, who is the sixth woman to win the award in the honor’s 32-year history. “I left there feeling very inspired and energized. So, to think I would be awarded this honor, I am excited and humbled.”
In 2006, GM board member Linda Gooden became the second woman to be so honored.
“Alicia’s education, business acumen and humility make her the perfect role model for many young women and people of color,” Gooden said. “She’s perfect for this role because she is smart, she demonstrates selfless leadership, and she has achieved sustained career success.”
Boler-Davis’s win is especially notable considering the dearth of female employees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. In 2015, women comprised about 15 percent of engineers and architects, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For women of color, the gap is even wider: they make up about 10 percent of working scientists and engineers.
This is why Boler-Davis supports organizations like STEMpowered, which aims to foster the scientific and mathematical curiosity of Detroit girls.
“In order to fill these jobs we must provide mentorship, encouragement and support,” said STEMpowered co-founder Madeline Brockberg, now a STEMpowered board member and emergency medicine resident at Boston Medical Center. “It’s wonderful to see women like Alicia dedicate herself to this cause. How can a young woman envision herself as a mechanical engineer if she’s never met a female mechanical engineer?”
Indeed, Boler-Davis makes time to speak not only to college STEM majors, but to girls who are interested in math and science, and even those who aren’t. She encourages them to dream big and fearlessly. She also encourages young engineers to, while giving their teams credit, promote their on-the-job wins, something women don’t naturally do, she said.
“I feel that part of my purpose is to inspire people to overcome challenges,” said Boler-Davis, who has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University, a master’s in engineering science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a master’s in business administration from Indiana University.
“I think that if people can use my life as an example of what’s possible, I think I have a responsibility, especially for women and minorities, to do that. I take it very seriously.”
She didn’t have it easy by any means. Boler-Davis was 5 when her mother and father, married at 16 and 18, respectively, split up. Although her father stayed in the picture, she and her three siblings were basically raised by a young mother who worked long hours. Both parents had high standards: they taught their children to make good choices and to be accountable.
“We didn’t have a lot,” she said of life in the Romulus townhouse. “If an iron or a washer broke, I would cut some cord, get some wire, and patch it together and repair it, because I knew we didn’t have money to fix it. I was always like that, very hands on. I understood how things worked. Mom was very grateful. I did it for her and did it for me because I really liked to do it.”
Most Christmas mornings she even handled toy assembly. The youngster’s acumen didn’t go unnoticed. One day, a middle school teacher told her she should be an engineer.
“I didn’t even know what that was,” said Boler-Davis, whose husband, Fitzgerald Davis, is a telecommunications entrepreneur who worked for 25 years at AT&T. “I used to walk around saying I’d be one. It’s very interesting how things get planted.”
Despite the family’s limited means, there was never any discussion about whether the children would attend college, particularly when Boler-Davis’s brilliant, studious older sister went off to Harvard University.
“She was the first in the family to go (to college). Then, it was like, ‘OK, where am I going to go,’ ” said Boler-Davis, the mother of two teenage sons and an adult stepdaughter.
Her start in the working world was not seamless. After putting her chemical engineering degree to use in the fields of pharmaceutical and food products, she signed on at GM, switching her perspective from product to manufacturing.
“I was initially discouraged,” said Boler-Davis, named in 2013 by Fortune magazine as one of the auto industry’s top 10 most powerful women. “But I learned lots about myself and grew to like it. My core skills of solving problems and asking questions, along with my people skills, allowed me to be successful.
In a field dominated by white men, Boler-Davis also has had to navigate a career as an African-American woman. At times, the road has been fraught. Still, she persevered.
“My parents instilled the belief that I could do anything, that I was smart enough and good enough,” said the Rochester Hills resident who was once invited to sit in the presidential box during a State of the Union address following a visit by President Obama to one of her plants.
“Yes, you may have to be better than others, work harder than others, and continually improved yourself, but that’s OK. I didn’t grow up as a victim or thinking I couldn’t do something because I was African-American or a woman,” she said, adding that she’s sometimes been met with surprise regarding some title she’s held.
In her current role, Boler-Davis, always an organized person, describes herself as a hands-on leader who doesn’t micromanage.
“They see that I’m in the game,” said the woman who loves adventure, learning to ski while in her 40s. “I think of myself as a servant-leader who sets aggressive goals. I collaborate and enable. It’s hard work, but I want people to enjoy what they’re doing. Then let’s get together and do tomorrow even better.”
Mary Chapman is a Detroit freelance writer.
Name: Alicia Boler-Davis
Title: Executive vice president global manufacturing, General Motors
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Northwestern University; master’s degree in engineering science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Master of Business Administration, Indiana University