In 1984 I took a job at what was then known as New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), a groundbreaking partnership between Toyota and General Motors and Toyota’s first venture into U.S. manufacturing. I became a Latina executive in an industry where there were very few women holding senior positions. Some acquaintances called me a “trailblazer.” My family and friends used another word to describe my career choice: “crazy.”
I had a law degree from Berkeley and a corporate job handling major financial transactions in a beautiful office on the water in San Francisco. They asked me, “Why would you commute to an industrial area way out of town to take a job in car manufacturing, a business you know almost nothing about?”
For me, the choice was a welcome change and an exciting challenge – and the first of the lean in decisions I’ve had the chance to make in my career.
It was an opportunity to do something different and to help build something great. Right away, I knew that I had joined a company where if you performed well, you’d succeed – no matter your background or gender. For the first time in my professional life, I felt there were no limits.
Over the next twenty years at NUMMI, I advanced quickly, becoming general counsel and also heading up human resources and government relations. I also developed skills that led to appointments on major corporate, nonprofit and government boards. I was proud to be among a group of women throughout Toyota’s companies who were moving up through the ranks.
In 2004 I faced another “career moment.” I was settled into an exhilarating career that I loved and had three kids at home, when Toyota offered me a new position. On the table was a move to unfamiliar surroundings 3,000 miles away and a far different scope of responsibilities. But it also offered a tremendous opportunity: to lead Toyota’s national philanthropy and its foundation. I would be able to address some of the country’s most pressing education, safety, environmental and community issues, and help the company make an even bigger difference in neighborhoods across America.
I leaned in, and it has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying chapters of my career.
As a mentor to other Latinas, I encourage working women to take risks to advance their careers, to see what they can make happen and to do what they truly love. Still, even today, I am often reminded of the question my family and friends asked me so many times when I made my first big move: “Why take the risk?”
After almost 30 years, I have the best answer possible: “Because it was worth it.”