Recently named one of 100 Leading Women in North America’s Auto Industry by Automotive News, Leah Curry says it’s not uncommon for her to be the only woman in the room. As vice president of manufacturing at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Inc. (TMMI) in Princeton, she jokes that “you don’t have to wait on the bathroom.” But one thing Curry takes very seriously is inspiring young women to pursue careers in manufacturing—a sector hungry for the female perspective.
“Women have more than 50 percent of the buying power in purchasing cars, so we need to reflect our customer base,” says Curry. “We need to bring those thoughts into the manufacturing process; we really want to have more diversity of thought.”
The industry magazine says its list reflects progress in female executives establishing a stronger foothold in the sector. Six female chief executive officers for automakers and suppliers are on the 2015 list, up from two five years ago. Ten more have executive officer titles or own their companies. While Curry agrees the number of female colleagues is climbing, progress is slow; she believes young women typically pursue what they see more prominently in society.
“I still think it’s that stigma; growing up, you want to be a doctor or teacher—things you’re exposed to regularly or you see on TV. How many TV shows are set in a manufacturing environment?” says Curry.
“Do you ever hear a kid—boy or girl—say, ‘I want to be in manufacturing when I grow up?’ I don’t think there’s enough awareness about what it’s like inside a manufacturing environment. They don’t even understand what we do here.”
Curry has made it her mission to help them understand. She holds leadership roles with several local work force efforts that encourage young people to pursue manufacturing.
“She’s a great coach. She’s relentless about preparing the work force of tomorrow,” says TMMI President Norm Bafunno. “She’s had it be her priority to encourage high school students to consider careers in manufacturing. It’s not just window-dressing, high-level stuff; she’s in there trying to expose young people to these types of careers on a first-hand basis.”
Curry says she strives to introduce them to “the fascination of what goes on inside the four walls of a manufacturing operation.” But even when she achieves her goal and female workers land on the payroll, she believes women can often be their own worst enemy.
“I think sometimes women feel like, ‘I need to know 100 percent of this before I’m ready to do it.’ But you’re not going to know it all. We want them to take on the challenges of learning,” says Curry. “I think that’s what holds them back a lot of times; the fear of accepting that challenge, because they don’t know everything.”
TMMI leaders believe Curry’s technical capabilities, inclusive leadership style and ability to teach and coach employees set her apart. Curry says “mentorship is a big deal to me,” and believes it doesn’t have to happen in a formal environment.
“Sometimes it takes just one person to believe in you,” says Curry. “If one person sees you have capability and says, ‘I believe in you,’ that’s all you need sometimes to get started toward the next level.”
Curry recalls two people who had great influence on her career path, and she hopes to be a rung on the ladder for young women.
“Manufacturing is very dynamic, exciting and changing every day. This next decade of technology is like the race to the moon was; we’re going to see huge changes,” says Curry. “I can see women being a big part of it. We need their diversity of thought to help take [auto manufacturing] to the next level in North America to really compete on a global level. I want them to have confidence in themselves that they can be part of this growing industry.”
Curry says she learned at her previous job that a woman’s worst critic is sometimes herself.
Bafunno says Curry has successfully led new model launches and site expansions at TMMI.