2016 Powered by Women
DBusiness readers nominated eight metro Detroit women who hold leading positions in the automotive industry, sponsorships and event planning, health care, logistics, insurance, and nonprofit organizations.
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DBusiness is hosting a special breakfast for the eight 2016 Powered by Women honorees on Aug. 30 at the Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/2bcx8jX.
Vice President Instrumentation and Driver HMI,
The Americas, Interior Division
Continental Automotive, Auburn Hills
Employees: 212,000 | Revenue: $43.9B
Jennifer Wahnschaff grew up in an automotive family in St. Clair Shores. Her father worked for Ford Motor Co. and her in-laws were employed by Chrysler Corp. She always liked cars, and was drawn to the design of exteriors and interiors rather than the engines and hardware that excited her father and brother.
In school, she had a natural competitive streak, and participated in math competitions and science fairs. At one time or another, she pondered becoming a teacher, a lawyer, a veterinarian, a doctor, and a psychologist. “Then a very close girlfriend came home from private school one day and said her high school counselor told her that since she was good at math and science, she should be an engineer,” Wahnschaff says. “I was good at math and science, too, so I decided that I would also be an engineer.”
While earning a mechanical engineering degree at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Wahnschaff co-opted through a variety of assignments — ranging from AC Rochester to Inland Fisher Guide — at what was then known as General Motors Corp. She stayed with Fisher Guide following graduation in 1992, “doing warranty and quality database functions, and writing database
programming to analyze warranty data.” At that point, she was married with one child, and another on the way.
She was later promoted to senior mechanical engineer in GM’s Interior Division, before moving to Takata in 1998 as team leader for interior seating and sun visors. In 2001, she joined Continental Automotive as a senior mechanical engineer in the instrumentation and displays business unit of its interiors division. Since then, she has advanced through numerous leadership positions and, in 2011, she moved her family to Babenhausen, Germany, where she became director of Continental’s GM and Fiat Global Customer Center.
Wahnschaff returned to Detroit in 2013 to assume her current responsibilities, which include leading her 1,600-plus-member
instrumentation and Driver HMI (Human Machine Interface) team’s product development and technology roadmap components, in addition to its overall organization. “I’m responsible for all of the electronics that help inform drivers on the road,” she says, “from the instrument cluster to the head-up display, HVAC controls, and center stack, and from design and development all the way through manufacturing.” Her OEM customers include GM, Ford, and FCA, as well as Tesla and other new electric-vehicle makers.
She describes her leadership style as very open: “I like to give responsibility to team members to help them excel and take ownership and leadership of their parts of the business as if they’re CEOs,” she says. “That allows me the freedom to work on strategy instead of operational details. And I like to mentor and develop individuals. I think it’s very important that they understand when they’re doing a good job, and when they need support or need to change, correct, or redirect.”
With divisions in Brazil, Australia, China, and Korea, as well as in North America, Wahnschaff has become adept in leading a team that’s diverse not only in gender, but also in nationality and culture. “You have to be considerate of English as a second language, and also of different cultural perceptions with how a message comes across,” she says.
She points out that she has a supportive husband to help her manage the balance between her family, career, and travel schedule. “I married my high school sweetheart in college,” she says, “and he has been an excellent support person — a mentor, a coach, and a confidant. He’s always there for me.”
What advice does Wahnschaff have for women in business? “I think it’s important to have confidence in yourself and your capabilities, as well as in your life partnership. Try to find an even balance of workload between you and your partner. Don’t try to fit into the ’80s model of doing it all yourself. And read books by other businesswomen, because some women believe that they’re the only ones who have gone through their circumstances.” — Gary Witzenburg