Appointed the first woman Chief Financial Officer of the 110-year-old General Motors, Dhivya Suryadevara made history on June 13. The Chennai-born, Harvard Business School (HBS) graduate is vice-president of corporate finance at GM, America’s No. 1 automobile company. Joining the company 14 years ago, Ms. Suryadevara, 39, moved in the fast lane and top gear, steering many critical turns for the behemoth.
Why was she picked?
Her appointment makes GM one of only two Fortune 500 companies that have both a female CEO and CFO. Hershey is the other company with the same distinction. GM CEO Mary Barra said: “Dhivya’s experience and leadership in several key roles throughout our financial operations position her well to build on the strong business results we’ve delivered over the last several years.”
How has the journey been?
Ms. Suryadevara has not given any interview since her appointment as CFO, but she has shared the story of her journey from Chennai to Harvard and then the rise through the cut-throat, male-dominated world of American corporate hierarchy. She lost her father at a young age, and it was her mother’s responsibility to raise her and two sisters. “…which is difficult to do anywhere, let alone in India… Her high expectations made us want to do better, and we learned that nothing comes easy. You have to really work hard to get what you want,” Ms. Suryadevara told Real Simple magazine. She received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in commerce at the University of Madras before moving to Harvard at the age of 22. “That was my first time. It was overwhelming. I was very far from home, and there was definitely a culture shock. At that time, HBS took people with a certain amount of work experience, and I had worked through undergrad but had come straight out of college,” she said in the same interview.
Financial woes also followed her to Harvard. “I didn’t have much money when I got here. My friends would take school trips, but that wasn’t an option for me. I was living on debt the whole time. Everything was funded with student loans that I had to pay back. In those circumstances, you’re under a different amount of pressure to find a job,” she said. She worked for UBS for more than a year, before moving to GM at 25.
What happens at GM?
She has her task cut out to help the CEO in GM’s existentialist fight to outlive the contemporary era of technological disruption, which is different from the automobile revolution a century earlier. GM’s acquisition of Cruise Automation, its investment of $500 million in the ride-hailing company Lyft, and taking in $2.25 billion investment from Japan’s SoftBank for GM’s autonomous vehicles division in recent months are all part of that. Ms. Suryadevara has been instrumental in all these moves. As VP, finance, and treasurer, Ms. Suryadevara controlled a large part of the company’s finances since 2015. She has also been managing the company’s $85 billion pension operations.
She told Crain’s Detroit Business last year. “There’s certainly uncertainty on how [autonomous vehicles, electrification and ride-sharing] will play out, but we think it’s going great.” Automakers “are going to be disrupted; we don’t want to be the one that’s disrupted. We want to be the disrupter, but with a strong balance sheet,” she said.
Mother of a 12-year-old girl, she has been living between New York and Detroit for several years now. She uses the frequent travel time to clear her emails, and keeps the weekends for the family. She wants to keep her work meetings short, but is also a self-admitted micro-manager of things. She knows she does not have the time to cook and is okay with that.
She had not specifically aspired for anything, she told Real Simple . “What I did know is that I liked anything challenging and complicated,” she said. Now, she has the job.