She's worked for IBM, Chrysler and Delphi, but Gloria Lara knew she wanted to end her career helping girls. Photo by Jim Gebben
Growing up, Gloria Lara never had the chance to be a Girl Scout.
“I would see my classmates in little Brownie uniforms, and then later, in green uniforms,” said Lara, CEO of Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore since September 2010. “They got to sell cookies and go camping.”
Lara’s working-class parents couldn’t afford the uniforms and related activities. Undaunted, Lara went to her school library, starting when she was in the fifth grade, and checked out the Girl Scout handbook so she could do the work required to earn badges. Even though her work didn’t result in a badge, her self-determination taught her skills and honed her leadership aptitude.
“It made me realize there’s something out there for young girls to direct and expand their possibilities, making certain girls have access to possibilities.”
Mining new possibilities has framed Lara’s professional life. She worked for Chrysler Corp. from 1983-1992 as a competitive financial analyst when Lee Iacocca was Chrysler’s president, CEO and chairman. Lara worked with a team charged with rebuilding the company’s manufacturing process, which is chronicled in Brock Yates’ 1996 book, “The Critical Path: Inventing an Automobile and Reinventing a Corporation.”
Among the automaker’s problems were the lack of new and original products and a bland showing of its vehicles in public surveys and media evaluations.
Then there was Honda, said Lara, which had launched aggressive plans to dislodge Chrysler as the No. 3 automaker in the nation. In Yates’ book, he wrote that Lara reported: “Honda was growing 8 percent faster worldwide than Chrysler and that its expenditures in research and development were nearly double. Long-term growth through product development was resulting in modest but steady returns to its shareholders — a Honda priority, as opposed to Chrysler’s penchant for quick, temporary boosts in profits and stock prices.”
“We heard Honda had a very different engineering process,” Lara told the Business Journal. “Honda had an integrated development team, and we found out that was one of the reasons Honda was so successful. Chrysler was trying to figure out why it couldn’t sell cars to young people while Honda was eating their lunch. Finally, the first cross-functional study in the ’80s was made and asked what was Honda doing that Chrysler wasn’t doing. It started very simple: Don't make more cars than you can sell.”
Among the Chrysler team’s discoveries was that Honda’s structure was based on decentralization because centralization leads to bureaucracy and bureaucracy stifles creativity. In the end, changes in corporate culture, thanks in part to the purchase of American Motors Corp. and its infusion of talent, turned Chrysler around.
“We helped save the company,” said Lara. “We told them the ‘what.’ It’s frustrating to see companies make the same mistakes — egos get in the way.”
Before she hired on as CEO of Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore, Lara was a managing consultant of the global business services, strategy and change practice for IBM Corp. from 2007-2009. Prior to that, other senior management stints include vice president of corporate project management for Jervis B. Webb Co. in Farmington Hills, business line manager for Delphi Corp. in Saginaw, director of marketing and business development for United Technologies Automotive in Detroit, and the launch of her business advisory firm, The Lara Group LLC.
Her career might have taken a decidedly different direction if she had decided to forgo going to night school to earn a bachelor’s degree while working full time as an accountant. She earned her degree in 1981 at California State University in business administration, and then was advised to earn an MBA. She agreed.
“I only knew Harvard Business School was the best school in the world,” said Lara. “I didn’t know how to apply, but I banged out an application and got accepted. It was the first time I was in Boston. It seemed like everybody knew each other.”
Lara earned her MBA in 1983, but even then she refused to be sucked into the tried-and-true career track.
“Some of my classmates were so focused on careers and wealth, and my life is very rich — not in money but in a long-term marriage and being an integral member of my church,” she said. “Some of their lives seemed empty. It’s what’s inside you and what you impart in people around you that make you successful.”
While working her day jobs, Lara also gave of herself to nonprofit initiatives, including 20 years as a Girl Scout volunteer, most recently as a national board member for Girl Scouts of the USA and as past board chair for the Metro Detroit Girl Scouts.
It wasn’t exactly an epiphany when she decided she wanted to end her working years with a nonprofit — specifically, Girl Scouts.
“I always knew I wanted to end my career helping girls, and this is the best way,” she said. “A lot of women … say they got their start in business by learning how to sell cookies.”
She was referring, of course, to the well-known Girl Scout cookie-selling program. The purpose of having girls operate their own cookie business is to engender five skills: goal-setting, decision-making, money management, people skills and business ethics.
Lara said her staff is working to develop an app that will inform customers where and when they can purchase the cookies.
“We learn and respect our past and move to our future,” she said.
According to Girl Scouts of the USA statistics, 53 percent of women business owners are former Girl Scouts and 76 percent of all Girl Scout alumnae report that Girl Scouts had a positive impact on their lives. Moreover, 10 of 17 women in the U.S. Senate are former Girl Scouts, as are 45 of 75 women in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Locally, Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore includes 10,000 girls in 30 counties in western and northern Michigan.
“We’re part of communities where our girls do a list of community work and service that’s part of the award structure, including the Gold Award,” said Lara, referring to the highest achievement within the Girl Scouts of the USA, earned by senior and ambassador Girl Scouts.
In addition to some financial belt tightening and restructuring of staff that Lara oversaw at the local Girl Scouts headquarters in Walker, she has not been shy about seeking corporate support for the organization’s work.
“If you believe the future is our girls, we’re going to ask you to support us financially,” said Lara. “Girls will always sell cookies, and we need them to become strong leaders at home, in businesses and in communities. How do we become more visible in our communities? … Part of our challenge is not everyone has access to the Internet, so we need it to work under all circumstances. It’s a work in progress.”
Lara frames it that way because what was years ago a common practice is not anymore.
“All of a sudden we have new populations where the Girl Scouts are not a tradition,” said Lara. “We need to extend ourselves to girls of limited means who don’t know what Girl Scouts are.
“When they see someone like me speaking Spanish, they see possibilities. I want to make it possible for girls to dream and help their dreams come true.”