By Phoebe Wall Howard
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet Denise Gray, one of the world’s most respected electrical engineers who is helping guide the auto industry into the future.
Denise Gray arrived at Buca di Beppo Italian Restaurant in Livonia, Mich., along with nearly three dozen clients and employees, for her business dinner.
A well-dressed man she didn’t know took her aside and expressed concern about the evening’s corporate host, a Korean battery company that recently made leadership changes.
Minutes later, she noticed a horrified look on the customer’s face when she introduced herself as the company’s president. The man realized Gray was the leadership of LG Chem’s Michigan Inc. tech center.
“It’s just being a female in a male-dominated industry,” Gray said. “People expect the CEO to be male or Korean or I don’t know. Just not me.”
The little girl raised at Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church on the corner of McDougall and Charlevoix in Detroit, grew up to be one of the world’s most respected electrical engineers who is helping guide the auto industry into the future.
She designs, develops and manufactures lithium-ion battery systems that turn cars into electric and driverless vehicles and provide power for the DVD system playing “Finding Dory” in the backseat of SUVs across America.
Gray’s operation is a subsidiary of the $24 billion LG Chem Ltd., headquartered in Seoul, South Korea. Her clients include Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, and Volvo.
“My life is an example of a person who comes from humble beginnings,” Gray said, seated in a pew on a hot July afternoon. It is nearly 90 degrees inside the church. Yet she tells stories, unhurried, for more than an hour on this particular day.
Sunlight splashes through stained-glass windows as perspiration builds on her brow.
“I took calls this morning from Korea and Germany before 9,” she said, as her cell phone buzzed.
The sound of silence echoed through the nave. White silk flowers spilled over a vase near the lectern.
“This, this is my home church. No matter where I go, I come back. I was born here, raised in this church, baptized and married in this church. I christened my first child here. I sang in the choir even though I couldn’t sing at all. But at church, whether you can carry a tune doesn’t matter, because people all around just love you anyway.”
Gray tells of a mother who worked in the factory shaping hot metal as a forger, a mother who taught her children more about grace, kindness and gratitude than any finishing school ever could. Vernice Glover taught her children to dream big.
‘YOU HAVE TO HAVE CONFIDENCE’
In 2015, the CEO of LG Chem Power recruited Gray to be his successor.
“This is a very alpha male dominated fraternity. For a woman to be accepted and to be respected, you have to be very good in terms of your capabilities. It’s about what you’re able to demonstrate. Denise has a consistent track record,” said Prabhakar Patil.
“She’s a very capable engineer, very logical, methodical. She has a strong educational background. And when you are in the world of very new technologies, you have to have confidence.”
Gray is so skilled that GM once created for her the role “global director for batteries.” The company had just announced they were going to come forward with the first Chevrolet Volt. The critical element was the battery; more than half the cost of the vehicle. The battery for these electric or plug-in hybrid cars is a big deal. The more critical thing was, at that time, the battery that GM wanted didn’t exist.
“It was clear to all of us in the industry that the lithium-ion was probably going to be the battery of the future,” Patil said. “I am sure Denise’s strong experience doing software for hybrids as well as conventional vehicle powertrains and not being intimidated by complex new technologies played a strong role in GM’s decision to select her for the critical battery czar position.”
She looked to solve the battery puzzle, and did.
Her trajectory began with a 7th grade teacher named Mr. Oliver, who shuttled students in his personal car to math competitions after school. He urged Gray to transfer to Cass Tech High School 50 minutes across town.
Eventually, she would earn degrees at Kettering University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Gray went on to a 30-year career at GM, then left to work with the Chinese at a startup in Silicon Valley, did a tour in Austria and came home to work in Troy.
“My mom always said she didn’t want me to have to work in the factories but to get a good college education, so you can work in the offices, where you can design and develop the future vehicles,” Gray said.
Too often, bleak landscapes result in bleak outcomes. Definitely not in this case. Adults and children look to this woman like a North Star, colleagues say.
‘SHE HAS HUMBLENESS’
Pastor Mason Tremble has known Gray more than 40 years.
“She’s a straight shooter. She has humbleness. She doesn’t have to sell herself to anyone,” he said. “My three daughters are engineers because Denise showed them they could be engineers.”
Zip codes should not determine destiny, Gray said.
“The hardest jobs usually offer the greatest rewards. The shorter line is usually the harder line. Take it,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to learn.”
Everything in life is built upon the sacrifices of those who came before you, she said.
Her mother’s family of 14 left a farm in tiny LaGrange, Ark., to replace cotton picking with assembly line work.
“They came to the Detroit area because Detroit offered the possibility of having a job, a job where you could earn a good living for a family,” she said. “That’s what Detroit means for me. It means an opportunity for earning a decent living.”
Her mother attended a one-room schoolhouse. Her father, a Georgia native, served in the U.S. Air Force and worked construction.
“Mom and dad divorced when I was 5, I think,” Gray said. “It was a tough time.”
At first, Gray’s mother worked as a waitress and in a laundromat.
“It was low wages but we never knew we were in that type of income. We always felt very blessed,” Gray said. “We had warmth and support from aunts and uncles and cousins. My mother would take us to the restaurant or tell us about the job at the forge being very hot and hard work and not being as respected as you’d want.”
Gray, 55, lives in Farmington Hills now. Her mother remains in their original home on the eastside of Detroit, where she is most comfortable.
“On Sundays, if you want to have a meal, stop by my mother’s house. There’s always food,” Gray said. “Giving back means giving what you have. You may not have a lot. What you do have, you’re able to provide.”
Over the years, Gray has returned to church to mentor young men and women, to encourage those who aspire to do better, to show them hard work is necessary, in hopes they recognize they have potential, that they could make it, really make it.
“As I grew up, the values I had were hard work, diligence, respect,” she said. “Earn everything that you have. Depth of knowledge is very important.”
Deacon Willie Fred Hardy listens intently as Gray asks about family and parish members and recent sermons. She mentions his son, who attended Bible study with her. Michigan State trooper Frederick Hardy was killed in the line of duty. A church hymnal carries his name on the red cover.
“The church used to be packed, I mean packed. We don’t have so many now as time go by,” Hardy said with his Montgomery, Ala. accent.