Maryann Combs ‘87 earned a 2017 Global Leadership Award from the Society of Women Engineers for her work as a global executive and mentor in the automotive world.
Her work in two decades at General Motors has spanned several different roles, but along the way she has mentored men and women in STEM careers.
Combs, the executive director of global validation at General Motors, leads a team of about 1,500 engineers around the globe to ensure cars, trucks and crossovers meet government and regulatory standards and customer requirements.
The global validation team has gone through a transition in the five years since she took the helm, she said. They had to focus on creating validation procedures for the increased amount of software in vehicles. In 2014, General Motors had an ignition-switch recall, Combs said, and her team realized they needed to validate how systems in the vehicles interact. Now they look at not only whether each part works, but the failure modes from system perspective that could occur and use simulations and physical tests to ensure system failures are addressed prior to releasing vehicles.
Previously, she worked for five years in China as the president of Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center (PATAC), which is a 50-50 joint venture company supporting SAIC General Motors that manufactures and sells Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac vehicles in China. Combs helped build up the resources and grow the team to design, develop and validate vehicles for Chinese customers and grow the capabilities of the joint venture development center to work with GM global development centers.
“I was glad to have opportunity professionally and with my family. We work all the time with people in other countries, and it opens your eyes dramatically to live there,” Combs said.
People in China often have different needs for vehicles than people in North America, she said. For example, when she moved to Shanghai in 2007, many vehicles sold were to people who employed a driver. That made it essential to have radio, window and temperature controls in the back of the vehicle and comfortable seats and enough leg-room. In the United States, the backseat of a car is often of lesser importance.
In the past decade, more Chinese have started driving their own cars and manufacturers have introduced a variety of products and a range of options, including controls in both the front and back seats. Another example is the interior smell, she said. The desired “new-car smell” in China is different than in North America.
Combs has mentored many people, especially women, throughout her career. When she started at Kettering, there were few women in engineering and even fewer in electrical engineering, she said. The men who mentored her through her progress from an engineer to a manager and then an executive were fabulous, she said, but it would’ve been nice to get insight from women. She decided to mentor women and men across the world through GM.
“I enjoy doing it. It’s very rewarding to see others develop and succeed,” she said.
Combs described her experience at Kettering as “fascinating.” Her family didn’t have financial means to pay for her education, and so she had to find her own way. The co-op through Kettering afforded her the ability to work, which motivated her to attend.
“It was a perfect solution for me,” she said. “It worked out fabulously.”
Kettering also offered small class sizes and a good student-to-teacher ratio.
“I love that there was practicality to it,” she said. “What we learned doing school sessions we got to practice in the co-op.”
The education prepared her well for her future career as she was working on design and testing at GM Truck Group. The company gave her valuable and progressive assignments over time.
Combs advises students to make the most of each day.
“Learn whatever you can each and every day and have some fun along the way as well,” she said.
That makes life better and also opens doors, she said.