Barra was born in Royal Oak, Michigan to parents of Finnish descent. Her grandfather, Viktor Mäkelä, moved to the US and married Maria Luoma, a Finnish immigrant from Teuva. They lived in Mountain Iron, Minnesota, and had three children, including a son named Reino, called Ray. Barra's father, Ray, married a second-generation Finnish American named Eva Pyykkönen, and Mary was born in 1961.
Barra started working for General Motors in 1980 as a co-op student, when she was 18 years old. Her job was checking fender panels and inspecting hoods, and she used this job to pay for her college tuition. She subsequently held a variety of engineering and administrative positions, including managing the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.
In February 2008, she became vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering. In July 2009, she advanced to the position of vice president of global human resources, which she held until February 2011, when she was named executive vice president of Global Product Development. The latter position included responsibilities for design; she has worked to reduce the number of automobile platforms in GM. In August 2013, her vice president responsibility was extended to include Global Purchasing and Supply Chain.
When Barra took over as chief executive of General Motors in January 2014, she became the first female head of an automobile manufacturer.
During her first year as CEO, General Motors issued 84 safety recalls involving over 30 million cars. Barra was called before the Senate to testify about the recalls and deaths attributed to the faulty ignition switch. Barra and General Motors also came under suspicion of paying for awards to burnish the CEO and corporation's image during that time. The recalls led to the creation of new policies encouraging workers to report problems they encounter in an attempt to change company culture.
As CEO, Barra made GM move into driverless and electric-powered cars through acquisitions including Strobe, a startup in driverless technology. In 2017 GM began to sell the Chevy Bolt EV, beating rival Tesla to the first electric car priced under $40,000 with a range of 200 miles.
In 2017, Barra was the highest paid Detroit Three executive, with a total remuneration of $21.96 million. In November 2018, Barra announced the closure of five North American plants and 14,000 worker lay offs. Her decision was criticized by President Donald Trump, who threatened to remove the company's government subsidies in response.
Boards and councils
Barra was a member of the General Dynamics board of directors. She serves on the board of directors of the Detroit Economic Club and Detroit Country Day School. She is a member of the Stanford University Board of Trustees, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, and the Duke University Board of Trustees.
In August 2017, she was elected to the board of Disney. She was the 12th person elected to this board, and the fourth woman.
Barra was ranked first in Fortune's Most Powerful Women list in 2015, up from second the year before.
She remained in the number one spot in Fortune's Most Powerful Women of 2017 and Number 5 on Forbes World's 100 Most Powerful Women List in the same year.
In April 2014, Barra was featured on the cover of Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World."
In December 2016, Barra joined a business forum assembled by then President-Elect Donald Trump to provide strategic and policy advice on economic issues. However, she left the forum in 2017, following Trump's response to the Charlottesville protests.
In Institutional Investor's yearly survey of top executives, the 2019 All-America Executive Team, Barra achieved the first place in the autos and auto parts sector.
Barra was selected for the inaugural 2021 Forbes 50 Over 50; made up of entrepreneurs, leaders, scientists and creators who are over the age of 50. In 2021, she was included in the Time 100, Time's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
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^Iacocca, Lee. "Mary Barra: The World's 100 Most Influential People". TIME.com.
^Bryan, Bob (December 2, 2016). "Trump is forming an economic advisory team with the CEOs of Disney, General Motors, JPMorgan, and more". Business Insider. Retrieved June 1, 2017.
^"National Academy of Engineering Elects 83 Members and 16 Foreign Members" (Press release). Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Engineering. February 7, 2018. Archived from the original on February 8, 2018. Retrieved April 2, 2020. For leadership in automotive manufacturing, product engineering, and product development.
^"Chief Executive Leadership Institute Honors Mary T. Barra with Legend in Leadership Award". Yale School of Management. September 24, 2018. Retrieved July 19, 2019.
^Whyte, Amy (November 13, 2018). "These Are America's Top Executives Jamie Dimon, Tim Cook, and Mary Barra are among members of II's 2019 All-America Executive Team". Institutional Investor. Retrieved March 29, 2019.
^Gross, Elana Lyn; Voytko, Lisette; McGrath, Maggie (June 2, 2021). "The New Golden Age". Forbes. Retrieved June 2, 2021.
^O'Kane, Caitlin (September 15, 2021). "Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are on Time's "100 Most Influential People" list". CBS News. Retrieved November 15, 2021.
^Bennett, Jeff; Murray, Sara (December 11, 2013). "Longtime Insider Is GM's First Female CEO". The Wall Street Journal. pp. A1, A10. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
^"Barra's Finnish roots". Yle Uutiset. December 16, 2013. Retrieved June 11, 2019.