Denise Gray arrived at Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant in Livonia, along with nearly three dozen clients and employees, for her business dinner. A well-dressed man she didn’t know took her aside and expressed concern about the evening’s corporate host, a Korean battery company that recently made leadership changes.
Minutes later, she noticed a horrified look on the customer’s face when she introduced herself as the company’s president. The man realized Gray was the leadership of LG Chem’s Michigan Inc. tech center.
“It’s just being a female in a male-dominated industry,” Gray said. “People expect the CEO to be male or Korean or I don’t know. Just not me.”
The little girl raised at Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of McDougall and Charlevoix in Detroit, grew up to be one of the world’s most respected electrical engineers who is helping guide the auto industry into the future.
She designs, develops and manufactures lithium-ion battery systems that turn cars into electric and driverless vehicles and provide power for the DVD system playing “Finding Dory” in the backseat of SUVs across America.
Gray’s operation is a subsidiary of the $24 billion LG Chem Ltd., headquartered in Seoul, South Korea. Her clients include Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Volvo.
“My life is an example of a person who comes from humble beginnings,” Gray said, seated in a pew on a hot July afternoon. It is nearly 90 degrees inside the church. Yet she tells stories, unhurried, for more than an hour on this particular day.
Sunlight splashes through stained-glass windows as perspiration builds on her brow.
“I took calls this morning from Korea and Germany before 9,” she said, as her cell phone buzzed.
The sound of silence echoed through the nave. White silk flowers spilled over a vase near the lectern.
“This, this is my home church. No matter where I go, I come back. I was born here, raised in this church, baptized and married in this church. I christened my first child here. I sang in the choir even though I couldn’t sing at all. But at church, whether you can carry a tune doesn’t matter, because people all around just love you anyway.”
Gray tells of a mother who worked in the factory shaping hot metal as a forger, a mother who taught her children more about grace, kindness and gratitude than any finishing school ever could. Vernice Glover taught her children to dream big.
‘You have to have confidence’
In 2015, the CEO of LG Chem Power recruited Gray to be his successor.
“This is a very alpha male dominated fraternity. For a woman to be accepted and to be respected, you have to be very good in terms of your capabilities. It’s about what you’re able to demonstrate. Denise has a consistent track record,” said Prabhakar Patil.
“She’s a very capable engineer, very logical, methodical. She has a strong educational background. And when you are in the world of very new technologies, you have to have confidence.”
Gray is so skilled that GM once created for her the role “global director for batteries.” The company had just announced they were going to come forward with the first Chevrolet Volt. The critical element was the battery; more than half the cost of the vehicle. The battery for these electric or plug-in hybrid cars is a big deal. The more critical thing was, at that time, the battery that GM wanted didn’t exist.
“It was clear to all of us in the industry that the lithium-ion was probably going to be the battery of the future,” Patil said. “I am sure Denise’s strong experience doing software for hybrids as well as conventional vehicle powertrains and not being intimidated by complex new technologies played a strong role in GM’s decision to select her for the critical battery czar position.”
She looked to solve the battery puzzle, and did.
Her trajectory began with a 7th grade teacher named Mr. Oliver, who shuttled students in his personal car to math competitions after school. He urged Gray to transfer to Cass Tech High School 50 minutes across town. Eventually, she would earn degrees at Kettering University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Gray went on to a 30-year career at GM, then left to work with the Chinese at a startup in Silicon Valley, did a tour in Austria and came home to work in Troy.
“My mom always said she didn’t want me to have to work in the factories but to get a good college education, so you can work in the offices, where you can design and develop the future vehicles,” Gray said.
Too often, bleak landscapes result in bleak outcomes. Definitely not in this case. Adults and children look to this woman like a North Star, colleagues say.
‘She has humbleness’
Pastor Mason Tremble has known Gray more than 40 years.
“She’s a straight shooter. She has humbleness. She doesn’t have to sell herself to anyone,” he said. “My three daughters are engineers because Denise showed them they could be engineers.”
Zip codes should not determine destiny, Gray said.
“The hardest jobs usually offer the greatest rewards. The shorter line is usually the harder line. Take it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn.”
Everything in life is built upon the sacrifices of those who came before you, she said.
Her mother’s family of 14 left a farm in tiny LaGrange, Ark., to replace cotton picking with assembly line work.
“They came to the Detroit area because Detroit offered the possibility of having a job, a job where you could earn a good living for a family,” she said. “That’s what Detroit means for me. It means an opportunity for earning a decent living.”
Her mother attended a one-room schoolhouse. Her father, a Georgia native, served in the U.S. Air Force and worked construction.
“Mom and dad divorced when I was 5, I think,” Gray said. “It was a tough time.”
At first, Gray’s mother worked as a waitress and in a laundromat.
“It was low wages but we never knew we were in that type of income. We always felt very blessed,” Gray said. “We had warmth and support from aunts and uncles and cousins. My mother would take us to the restaurant or tell us about the job at the forge being very hot and hard work and not being as respected as you’d want.”
Gray, 55, lives in Farmington Hills now. Her mother remains in their original home on the eastside of Detroit, where she is most comfortable.
“On Sundays, if you want to have a meal, stop by my mother’s house. There’s always food,” Gray said. “Giving back means giving what you have. You may not have a lot. What you do have, you’re able to provide.”
Over the years, Gray has returned to church to mentor young men and women, to encourage those who aspire to do better, to show them hard work is necessary, in hopes they recognize they have potential – that they could make it, really make it.
“As I grew up, the values I had were hard work, diligence, respect,” she said. “Earn everything that you have. Depth of knowledge is very important.”
Deacon Willie Fred Hardy listens intently as Gray asks about family and parish members and recent sermons. She mentions his son, who attended Bible study with her. Michigan State trooper Frederick Hardy was killed in the line of duty. A church hymnal carries his name on the red cover.
“The church used to be packed, I mean packed. We don’t have so many now as time go by,” Hardy said with his Montgomery, Ala. accent.
The church has bars on lower windows now. Razor wire lines the fencing. Empty fields dot the area for blocks; a place where bunny rabbits hop through a desolate urban landscape.
Legendary boxer Joe Louis and his mom lived in the neighborhood, Hardy said proudly. “We’ve been up and we’ve been down and we’ve been up. God’s still blessing us.”
Throughout the visit, Hardy peppered Gray’s remarks with “Ay-men.” He created a soothing cadence to the exchange.
She joked that her makeup was melting in the heat and wondered how much she really cared. Gray has focused less on beauty care than electrical development, software engineering and powertrain and batteries.
She oversees a team of about 150 people now. Looking back, the path wasn’t so obvious.
“There were question marks all over the place. Who are the suppliers? What’s the technology? How do we control costs? How do we integrate?” Gray recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s just deal with it.’ I’m not afraid of tough challenges.”
Working for a company that’s 12 hours ahead of the U.S. means starting as early as 6:30 a.m. and working until 10 p.m.
Recently Gray was honored with the 2017 Women of Color Technologist of the Year Award, which recognizes women who work in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as it applies to industries including space, surveillance, military defense and automotive.
“I never wanted to be honored just because I was an African-American female,” she said. “I hope all the things I do are because I’m able to contribute to the task at hand in technology development, leadership, working with industry on bringing technology to fruition. All I ever wanted was to be known for what I do, to be the best engineer I can possibly be.”
People tell her she inspires their sons and daughters. She focuses not on skin color but on children who show even a little bit of interest in math and science. She has learned that brilliance can come from those we least expect.
This is a woman who was so broke when she started her job at GM that she took the bus to work. Later, she played key roles in developing the Chevrolet Corvette, Chevrolet Silverado and launching the groundbreaking Volt.
“She is always smiling and lighting up a room when she walks in,” said Dan Nicholson, vice president of global propulsion systems at GM, who worked with Gray. “She also has a great way of getting to the heart of the matter, telling the truth even when it’s uncomfortable. But in a way that people are able to hear.”
He said no one is surprised by her rise to the top of industry, no one.
“I think of Denise as a great leader of people in technology,” Nicholson said. “The fact that she’s a woman and a woman of color, that’s not how I primarily think of Denise. I think of her as an important role model. We need more engineers, in general, and more female engineers, specifically.”
He noted she’s “a great wife, mother, aunt. She demonstrates work-life balance.”
Gray takes great pride in being known for commitment to family.
Tesla exec intrigued
Sometimes Detroit executives generate interest among Silicon Valley leaders, as happened with Gray and Martin Eberhard, a Tesla Motors founder.
“I had heard first about Denise when I was CEO of Tesla, and she had been running the battery program for the Chevy Volt. When I heard that she had resigned from GM and was coming to work at a Silicon Valley startup, I reached out to her to see if she had time to meet me,” Eberhard wrote to the Free Press while sitting in a rooftop bar overlooking the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. “I was mostly intrigued by why she would be leaving GM, seemingly at the top of her game. But it really stuck with me as I have pushed American and German car companies to accelerate electrification.”
He continued, “My expectations were high because of the engineering I saw in the Volt. But she was, if anything, more impressive when I met her than I had expected.”
Gray explained that she was up against a glass ceiling at GM, Eberhard said. “But not because she was a woman, and not because she was black. It seemed that having a degree in electrical engineering (as opposed to mechanical engineering or any of the more traditional automotive fields) was insufficient for further advancement at GM. Her passion was for electric vehicles.”
The two engineers have remained friends over the past decade.
“I have watched her successes with interest and admiration,” said Eberhard, now chairman of Tiveni Inc., which focuses on advanced automotive battery systems. “Denise does not need all the qualifications ‘Women of Color Technologist.’ She is a great and inspirational technologist full stop.”
While industry observers say Gray would be an ideal candidate to take the helm of a multi-billion dollar automaker, she hopes instead to one day create a pipeline of young engineers to fulfill industry demand.
She wants to focus on inner city kids, and girls like her. She wants to tell them about revolutionary technology that’s rapidly growing because of the support for better fuel efficiency, less carbon monoxide pollution, an alternative to the internal combustion engine. She’s always looking for a way in.
When most people go to Palo Alto, Calif., they network with tech executives and entrepreneurs; Gray uses her connections to take Tesla and GM vehicles to an East Palo Alto school investing in children more often exposed to gunfire.
“If you do the right thing, good things will come to you,” Gray said. “We are where we are by the grace of God and the goodness in our heart to give back.”
So she doesn’t worry about being mistaken for a secretary or a clerk. She doesn’t get angry, and she urges those around her to have faith in each other.
Gray will continue to show up for business meetings and get approached by men requesting coffee or tea. She will smile and quietly alert staff to fill the orders.
“I try to introduce myself early,” she said, “before they can make assumptions.”
Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @phoebesaid.
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