The Women in Autonomy (WIA) Steering Committee is made up of passionate leaders and change makers in the automotive and autotech industries. Their guidance and expertise enable us to develop and execute thoughtful, engaging programming, as well as to extend our impact to ensure female voices are better heard and represented.
Steering Committee member Manuela Papadopol is CEO of Designated Driver and serves as an advisory board member for Automobility LA, pioneering the event’s Top 10 Automotive Startup Competition. Prior, she led the global marketing effort as Director of Business Development and Communications at Elektrobit, and served as Global Marketing Manager at Microsoft, supporting Windows Embedded Automotive, Ford SYNC and other automotive initiatives.
Manuela was invited to speak as a panelist at Women in Autonomy’s inaugural event, Driving the Future of Transportation. Since joining our Steering Committee, she’s facilitated bold growth goals and strategies, leveraged her extensive network to help WIA forge vital connections and partnerships, and guided our expansion beyond the Bay Area.
Read on to learn about why Manuela chose to get involved with Women in Autonomy, what she sees as the biggest obstacles women face in the industry, and her advice when looking for a mentor.
Q: Why did you choose to get involved with WIA?
When I was invited to speak at the inaugural panel and met the WIA team, I was drawn to their passion for diversity and equality, but also to their commitment to create events which have dual roles: networking and professional development. I remember that our attendees were predominantly women, but we had also a few men attend. It is so important when we are talking about inclusion to have representatives from all genders, backgrounds or job levels. That’s what WIA brought and I am thrilled to be part of the Steering Committee to help shape the organization even further.
It’s going to be a long time before we achieve gender parity on Boards in the US: an estimated 40 years at the current rate. And it’s going to be a long time before we close the gender pay gap globally: an estimated 170 years—much longer for minorities or women of color. In a world where women receive just a single-digit percentage of venture capital funding, despite posting significantly better returns than men-only teams, we need to have our voices heard and I hope that together and with initiatives like WIA, we can close these gaps.
Q: What's the biggest obstacle women face in the automotive and autotech industries?
It is really hard to identify “one big obstacle”. Each person is different, we have different drives and expectations. For some women, the biggest obstacle is themselves, being afraid or shy to ask for a promotion, or a bigger challenge, or to lead a team. For others, it’s the environment and mentality of the leadership team that believes in the “this is a man’s job” idea. I have been in the position where one of my employees wanted a promotion, but couldn’t articulate why she deserved it, what she could do once in a new role, how this new role would grow the business. We sat down, created a list of goals for the year, and planned on how to achieve them. If we do this, what would be the benefit for the organization, not just for her? It is a balance we need to have. In less than a year, she was able to overperform, inspire her colleagues (men and women alike) and we promoted her to lead the marketing organization. This woman had her confidence buried, but surfaced once she was empowered to share her ideas and implement them.
From my experience, having worked in auto and tech my entire career (leading marketing at BMW, Daimler, Microsoft, and Elektrobit), some of the biggest obstacles were related to people assuming that I am not technical enough to join a negotiation or customer meeting - that if you are in marketing, you can only talk about events or public relations. I have worked hard in proving myself and proving to others that I do deserve a seat at the table, creating close relationships with development teams and educating myself with the deep technical aspects of our products, while contributing to strategy and product planning. I was the first woman in marketing to be granted a patent at Microsoft. I am constantly learning and surrounding myself with knowledgeable people that both challenge me and appreciate my ideas.
Q: What's your encouragement to women?
The pressure women face is tremendous. Be bold, but not too bold, because you’ll be called a b*tch or high maintenance. Self-validation is more important than any other validation. So: Be bold. Be persistent. Have a plan and go for it. Show benefits for both yourself and the company on why your ideas should be implemented. Never stop learning, use what you learn in your hobbies and apply it at work. I am a snowboarder and mountaineer, and I often face challenges on the mountain that force me to learn how to prepare for crisis, how to react and come up with a fast plan, how to work and rely on a team, how to choose a team, how to look ahead and predict danger or enjoyment.
Q: We know the importance of role models and mentors. Who has been your biggest advocate or teacher?
I have looked for support and given support my entire career. I love mentoring and being mentored, even though I am doing this in a non-formal structure. I appreciate any organization that encourages and facilitates mentorship. I owe so much of my success to the amazing women leading She’s Mercedes. Through their networking events, I got to meet women from all industries and backgrounds, and the ability to share my experience and learn from theirs was invaluable.
Susie Wolff is such an inspiration for women and men alike. She transformed her passion (car racing) into work and a platform to launch young girls into racing. She was the first formula 1 test driver and now she is Team Principal at Venturi Formula E Team. Oh, and she’s also a mother. I admire her commitment to building future leaders and her initiative “Dare To Be Different”, which has the goal of bringing more girls into the world of motorsport – not just in the driver’s seat but in all areas of racing, from engineering to media training.
When looking for a mentor, my advice is to find someone you admire as a human being, someone that shares the same core values and offers you the opportunity to grow.
Q: Where do you see the most growth opportunities in the industry?
We live in a software-defined world and all industries will benefit from it. We are facing some of the biggest challenges now due to COVID-19, but it also allows us to re-prioritize and innovate. For us at Designated Driver, we see the role of teleoperator as key. We build software for teleoperations that will be used in direct-to-consumer grocery and healthcare deliveries, in agriculture and mining, and public transportation.
Software will continue defining all industries. Within the next year, we will experience “the new norm”. Robotics will move downstream, from warehouses and factories to backrooms of retail operations. We are already seeing a shift in the automotive ecosystem, and we will continue to see consolidation between carmakers, suppliers and technology providers.
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