November 14, 2017
Manufacturing Insights

GM executive creating diversity in manufacturing

Courtesy/General Motors

Worcester native Ken Barrett, the global chief diversity officer for General Motors, is delivering the keynote speech at the Abdella Center for Ethics lecture on Wednesday. The center was established at Barrett's alma mater, St. John's High School in Shrewsbury, in 2003. In addition to 20 years in the U.S. Navy, he has 14 years of executive experience promoting diversity and inclusiveness in the Navy, Department of Defense and at General Motors.

Barrett on Tuesday sat down to answer some questions from the Worcester Business Journal.

Why are issues like diversity and inclusiveness important in an industry like manufacturing?

It's important in any industry, not just manufacturing. It's important for us as a consumer-type company creating incredible vehicles for customers to make sure they're actually representative of the customers we hope to sell to.

It's important for us to have a workforce with cultural competency inside the organization to actually connect with the consumer and put the customer at the center of everything we do.

What has GM done regarding diversity since you've been in your current role?

It's not just about me coming in and being the first chief diversity officer. GM has a long history of really focusing on diversity and including throughout the organization. We were the first company to have a supplier diversity program, which really promotes minority and women suppliers.

We were the first company to have a minority dealer development program, and the only to have a women's dealer development program. We were the first company to have an African American on the board of directors. We were the first automaker to have a woman CEO.

Can you point to any specific vehicles or designs marketed for a specific demographic?

It's not just about one vehicle. There are certain vehicles over time that may have been a bigger draw for women. We've done quite well with respect to the Buick Enclave, being able to market that specifically. It's not about each individual demographic, but what type of products you could gravitate toward to make sure you're not missing a market. For us, it's about trying to be as inclusive as possible.

What diversity and inclusion experience do you take from the U.S. Navy to your role in the private sector?

For my first 20 years in the Navy, I was a ship driver by trade. I kind of shifted more toward a human resources type of role, recruiting in the Southwest. I had the fortunate opportunity to come and work on the Navy's staff in D.C. They asked me to be a diversity director for the Navy.

I had the opportunity to look at different types of things, like expanding roles for women in the Navy. We added women to submarines, where they've never been able to serve before. We looked at work-life balance things and were able to give some people time off to be able to start a family, take care of sick relatives or whatever it may be.

As the diversity director for the Department of Defense, a big thing going on was the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, which afforded the opportunity for LGBTQ members to openly service in the military.

Coming to GM, it was a different type of concept where you weren't only focusing on employees, but also looking at the business.

Worcester is a very diverse community. What experience, if any, did you take from your hometown?

I consider Worcester as a great place to grow up. There are so many different demographics: Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Polish, you name it. Many different groups come together to be able to work very hard. It's a strong working-class town that's been able to keep its distinct unique flavor and do great things.

What do other companies need to do to by way of diversity and inclusiveness?

You have to be intentional. GM is a global company, and we're looking at talent from all around the world. You need to make sure you're not just going to the same pond to search out talent. You can find it in every place around the globe.

This interview was edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Zachary Comeau.

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