Mary Gresens is the epitome of a Renaissance person. For some thirty years, she worked as an engineer and business executive in the international automotive industry. In her last position, she served as President of the Automotive Division and CFO of the Schaeffler Group. She has been named Automotive Woman of the Year and recognized as one of the Top 25 Female Leaders in Europe. Mary is a professor in the Jesuit World Wide Learning program, a volunteer in various Jesuit undertakings and serves on several boards. She is also a Nia First Degree Black Belt teacher, yoga instructor, and spiritual director. Mary enjoys reading, writing, playing the piano and guitar, golf, and spending time with close friends. Most importantly, she is the mother of two children.
Q: Where were you born?
M: I was born in Portland, Maine.
Q: What are some favorite books you would recommend that other women read?
M: The Bible. I read a variety of literature, even things I don't like, but I thought about the Bible because there are so many strong women in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The message in the New Testament is so beautifully simple: to love God, love one another, and love yourself. I think of Mary, who was fifteen when the angel came calling and asked, "Will you do this?" And Mary always pondered; she didn't immediately say yes… Mary Magdalene, in the New Testament, and Ruth, in the Old Testament — the Bible is full of stories about strong women.
The reason I say this is not only because I read the Bible a lot, but it is because I think that what are missing for young women today are sagas. In our modern US culture, we do not have many word-of-mouth stories about our families or our traditions anymore. Probably the only people who pass down their heritage and tell their stories in that way, in this country, are the Native Americans.
Q: Did your life turn out the way you expected it to turn out when you started your career?
M: Yes and no. When I was an adult, my mother and my aunt told me that from the time I was a little girl I would always say, "I'm going to run a big company and I'm going to be an automotive executive." When I was studying, I did not even think about that. I just stumbled into the automotive world — but once I got in, it turned out the way I hoped it would.
Q: What advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
M: Slow down and take time to smell the flowers. I ran through college with a double major in two and a half years, graduated at the top of my class, got a job, got married, and had children. I wanted to get out into the world and be on my own. I was fiercely independent, but in pursuing that independence I sacrificed a lot along the way.
Q: What brings you joy?
M: My children and my faith. Being alone with God is where I find real peace. I cannot understand it, and I do not think I ever will; it is way beyond me. I love my children, but that peace I find when I'm alone with God is so profound and so unique that no other person or thing can give it to me. Community with others brings me joy. Being with God brings me both joy and peace.
Q: How do you find peace?
M: Many times, it is when I am walking around the lake and observing nature; these are almost transcendent moments. The sense of peace strikes me, and I pause and savor those moments. Also, I find peace through praying and practicing and teaching yoga, Nia, and meditation.
Q: Who or what inspires you?
M: The women in the Bible inspire me a lot. The older I grow, the harder it is for me to find existing humans who inspire me. I think part of it is the way our society is developing; we've become so contentious and so divided, and I find, increasingly, that there are fewer role models for women. So, I find inspiration through my faith and through my spirituality.
On the other hand, when I see young women who, despite all the terrible things that are going on, still have hope and are good individuals deep in their heart, then those are the types of people that inspire me and that I want to spend time with.
Q: What was your experience like in college, and how did it form who you are?
M: I ran through college. I studied at Marygrove (in Detroit), but I also took some classes at the University of Detroit because they had math and science classes that Marygrove did not offer. I also worked almost full-time tutoring, so I was a 24/7 person then. I think running through college cemented a lot of beliefs I had. It confirmed that I could manage a lot simultaneously, and I think it oddly confirmed that getting on the hamster wheel of "go, go, go" was the way to greater achievement.
Q: Do you think it's easier now for women in the business world than it was when you started your career?
M: Yes and no. I say yes, because I think there are so many external forces — whether quotas at companies, or the push to get women in positions — that makes it easier. But I do not think that necessarily enriches the quality of the job. Many companies are very forceful about promoting women into top positions, perhaps for fear of litigation. I think what has happened over the years, and with the #metoo movement, has created more awareness.
The reason I say no gets back to the "quality" word. I firmly believed then, as I do now, that the way for anyone to get ahead is through good work and delivering on what you say you are going to do. When I hear people talking about "leaning in," well, that is great when you are a billionaire. I was and am not. I was a single mom with two kids in a foreign country, and I know what it takes to get ahead; you must be focused and not compromise. I'm happy being a woman, and I never did anything to use my femininity to get promoted to another position.
Q: When you first started your career, was it difficult getting people to believe in you?
M: Yes, I think so, because I was usually the first woman in any of the positions I held. In the U.S., when I started out at Ford, there were other women in the management training program, but I was the first to do certain rotations — and more so when I went to Germany. At that time there were several hundred engineers in the headquarters at VW, but there were no women, except mainly in clerical positions — and, on top of that, I was an American (with my very bad German accent.) People looked viewed me as an anomaly, which I was.
Q: Could you talk briefly about your career and where you started?
M: As I said before, I rather fell into it. I was hired by Ford right after I graduated from college. Ford was looking for women to put in the management program, and I had a lot of math, so I was hired, and I rotated through the program. After about two and a half years at Ford, I was approached by both GM and Volkswagen. It was interesting to see how they wooed me. GM invited me to Flint and spend two or three days there, and everybody wore suits and we were at “their”country club. I saw myself getting into this huge machine and was obviously wanted for my gender.
At VW, they were looking for somebody who had broader management skills and could assist in establishing the central lab here, because they were ramping up their first U.S. plant. I viewed VW as offering me more opportunity to learn, expand, and not get caught up in a machine. That is when I decided to join VW. After about two years in the States, I was asked to head up a team to go to Germany for a year to learn about and prepare for the next generation Golf, as the company was building another US assembly plant.
So, I went over to Germany, and it was a real eye-opener. HR said, "Don't worry about your kids, we'll have nursery arrangements." Their thought was that the wives of these fellows who worked for VW would take turns watching my kids. After less than a year, VW decided to not to ramp up the second plant. I wanted to stay in Germany, as I grew to like it there, despite the challenges. I ended up staying. I left VW after some ten years and joined a consulting firm and thereafter some leading automotive suppliers. I worked on some very large projects in Europe and all over the world, and then ended up with my last job at Schaeffler, as the President of the Automotive Division and Group CFO of what was, at that time, a privately held company.
I'm an achiever, but I did not step on people. I never stopped acquiring new knowledge and skills which I needed to better perform my job, studying throughout my career and even now. I was very lucky because I had great bosses who supported me, and great mentors.
Q: How hard did you have to fight to prove yourself?
M: I never felt like I had to prove myself. I excelled at what I did, and I liked it. I loved my job. I think that was my proof, just by doing what I do well and loving what I do. I'm a pretty decent team-builder, so I worked well with people. It's building upon doing good work. I was and am not afraid to admit when I do not know something. Honesty and integrity were and are the pillars of my work.
Q: What was it like raising children while having a career?
M: Tough. For both sides. I spoke openly about this with my daughter a few years ago, and she said, "Mom, quit beating yourself up, you were so young." After my son was born, I divorced my husband, so I was 25 with two kids and on my own, and I had to make ends meet. When we went to Germany, I worked at VW but had two evening jobs and taught technical English to German engineers and I also taught aerobics. It was a struggle, balancing it all, but it all worked out in the long run.
We had a really good time because we lived so simply. One of our vacations which we always talk about was when we hardly had any money, and I was working like a dog. I borrowed a tent from friends, and I found some cheap material — it was lime green, with bonbons all over— and I made my son three little cabana suits and I made my daughter three sundresses, and we went to Italy and camped outside of Venice and had a great time. Yes, it was challenging, but we have very fond memories.
Q: When you were working full time, were you ever able to take time for yourself, or were you always doing things for others?
M: The latter, especially when the children were young. It was like having a full-time job, and then coming home and having a full-time job. Cleaning, washing, doing the grocery shopping. At that time, the stores in Germany were only open for four hours on Saturday, and they closed at 6 p.m. during the week. It was a scramble and took a lot of good planning. I think the time for myself was when I was walking with the children. The older I became, the busier I became, and the time that I took for myself would be walking in the woods on a Sunday.
Q: What are some of your self-care practices today?
M: There are a lot! I am commissioned as a spiritual director, so for me, walking with others on their spiritual journey is a form of self-care. I meditate a lot, especially while I'm walking. I also practice yoga. Yoga has become a big force in my life, as has Nia. I picture myself being a very vibrant centenarian.
Q: What role has spirituality played in your life? Do you feel more spiritual now than you did earlier in life?
M: Definitely. I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and from kindergarten on we would go to Mass every morning at 7, and you couldn't eat after midnight because you had to go to communion. And there were so many rituals that I really loved. And then, when Vatican 2 came, suddenly the altars were turned around and the nuns wore regular clothes and, when I was about 8, the church lost some of its attraction to me. Over the course of time, my parents stopped going to church; I think I'm the only one who practices right now in my family, except for my cousins.
I basically became a "cafeteria Catholic" and picked the things I wanted, like I was in a cafeteria line. Then, when I retired and went to Georgetown, a Jesuit university, I became very immersed in Ignatian Spirituality.
My spirituality is the key factor in my life; it's what keeps me going. I love my children, but it is the guide. I still do stupid things — I've done a lot of stupid things — but I know I am a forgiven and loved sinner, and that's what keeps me going. It's that light inside, that inner compass, and it has become so fine-tuned that, just like if I'm walking barefoot and I know I've stepped on a pebble, I know that inside, too.
The realization that I needed a sense of spirituality in my life really started in August of 2004. One night I came home from work, and it was 10 o'clock, and I had my late dinner, as I did most nights and as I sat there, something hit me. It felt as though there was something stirring inside of me but was more than imbalance — it was a hole, and I knew nothing could fill it. I had everything a person could want, but I was becoming increasingly distant from my children because they had moved back to the States, and I realized I had few friends because I had no time and I was a woman in that go, go, go job. I realized the hole couldn't be filled by anything of this earth; I knew that had to be the Holy Spirit. I decided in that moment to quit my job and, when I did that, I felt slowly, but increasingly that the hole was being filled by something that was not money or another person. I decided to retire and applied to a then nascent program at Georgetown – a Doctor of Liberal Studies. I moved back to the States on the day following my 51st birthday to begin a new unwritten and unknown chapter in my journey.
Q: Was your work worth the things you had to sacrifice?
M: Apart from the time spent away from my children, yes. I have had a marvelous ride. I have learned so much and I've met so many different people. I am very blessed.