Electrical engineering alumna sets example for female empowerment and global influence in automotive industry
Note: This is the first in a three-part series of feature stories highlighting the achievements of the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame class of 2016.
Olga Alavanou, BSEE ’88, has never been afraid to take risks and step out of her comfort zone. It is an attitude that has served her well and allowed her to diversify her skills in a career spanning nearly three decades. The most important risk taken, however, may have been the first one.
Alavanou was 18 years old when she came to the United States from her native Greece. The only person she knew was an uncle living in the Detroit area, which at least gave her a good starting point on her new adventure.
She originally enrolled in an English as a second language program at Wayne State, where she not only was able to explore urban living and American culture, but also dive into a wider range of educational options in order to foster her strong interest in math and science.
“My professors fueled that interest and provided me with guidance and mentorship to pursue a career in engineering,” said Alavanou, one of three inductees in this year’s College of Engineering Hall of Fame class. “Of course, living in Michigan, the automotive industry was a natural choice.”
Having become a Wayne State alumna and a full-fledged Detroiter, Alavanou broke into the industry as a product development engineer for Ford Motor Company and worked for two other automotive suppliers before joining Yazaki North America, a tier-one supplier of electrical distribution systems, instrumentation and electronics.
Shortly after completing her M.B.A. at the University of Detroit Mercy, Alavanou began her tenure at Yazaki in 1998 as a sales manager, and today sits as the executive vice president for the company’s Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler business units, responsible for global customer strategy, development, engineering, quality and manufacturing planning.
“I think it’s important to be willing to step up and take the tough jobs, and do them well,” said Alavanou.
Her roles and assignments have taken her all over the world, and her cross-cultural perspective can be traced back to principles of her education at Wayne State.
“WSU gave me the opportunity to study and interact with so many different students and teachers from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds,” said Alavanou. “It taught me early on to work well in diversified teams.”
Alavanou is also cognizant of the need for more females in STEM fields. She anticipates that there may be a shortage of engineers in the future, so not putting a focus on the cultivation of such a large segment of the population is shortsighted.
“In order to attract more women in the field, we must expose them to women role models,” said Alavanou, who was named to the Automotive News Top 100 Leading Women in 2010 and 2015. “They say you have to see it to be it.”
She takes her own role model status seriously and has a passion for talent development. Last year, Alavanou joined the board of directors for Winning Futures, a nonprofit organization focused on mentoring young people.
“I believe it is very important to provide mentorship to students where it’s needed, and early on, in order to create enough talent in the pipeline,” said Alavanou. “Then industries need to attract, develop and retain that talent. This is how future leadership will be created.”
A key message Alavanou projects to those young people and others is that there is no substitute for hard work and professionalism in the pursuit of one’s dreams.
“Set goals and focus on executing those goals. Accept feedback — even when it’s critical — and use it to improve,” said Alavanou. “Respect people, do the right thing, accept responsibility when things go wrong and give credit when things go right.”
Alavanou and fellow inductees Kathy Kay, BSCS ’83, and Jeff Yanssens, BSME ’83, will be enshrined in the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame at the college’s annual awards dinner on Thursday, November 3, at 6 p.m. at the Detroit Institute of Arts. To make a reservation, visit specialevents.wayne.edu/hof2016.
The Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame was founded in 1983 to recognize and honor distinguished alumni who, through their leadership, entrepreneurship and innovation, have made significant industrial, educational and societal contributions to the engineering and computer science professions. The Hall of Fame celebrates the rich history of the College of Engineering and provides exceptional standards by which Wayne State University engineering students can measure success.