What Drives Her: Celebrating Women Who Are Changing the Auto World at the Chicago Auto Show For Women’s History Month

What Drives Her Featured Image

And evolving what it means to be a woman in automotive.

If you saw me at the Chicago Auto Show last month you might have noticed my eyes were a little misty, my nose a little red. I was holding back tears as I watched an amazing thing happen: People in the automotive industry took time over the months before to call out colleagues for their contributions to our industry. 

Mostly women, but not all. Many women helping other women, but not all. People who are helping others to find a place, a footing, a path in this industry where so many, not just women, haven’t necessarily felt at home.

But here’s the thing: Most of us drive. Most of us have a car or will at some point. Many of us are daunted by the experience of buying a car, feel a bit (or a lot) lost when it comes to understanding the science behind our cars. And we can be intimidated by the enormity of the purchase. 

See there? We all have so much in common! And even those in-the-know enthusiasts and engineers who seem so comfortable in the auto world? Many freely admit they have things to learn, too. 

That’s why it’s important to celebrate (especially during Women’s History Month!) those who are moving us forward, to recognize their contributions and learn from their accomplishments. To hold them up as examples to inspire the next generation. What Drives Her at the Chicago Auto Show recognized four women who are changing the auto world from the inside. Nominated by friends, colleagues and others in their field, nominations could be made by anyone and were reviewed and voted upon by a jury of 25 esteemed female automotive journalists. 

Related: Do You Have to Be a Car Expert to Make Smart Car Choices? Talking about Women and Cars with Consumer Reports

Kristin Shaw Gives Sue Mead A Hug While Accepting Her Award For Best In Craft At What Drives Her At The Chicago Auto Show

Kristin Shaw gives Sue Mead a hug while accepting her award for Best in Craft. Photo: Chicago Auto Show

I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying

A lot of us were teary that morning. Following breakfast and a panel discussion, it was the moment we’d all been waiting for, as many of us in the room had offered nominations, discussed the nominees or cast a vote for the winners. Everyone was waiting for that moment to learn who won. 

Sue Mead, last year’s Best in Craft winner, was called to the stage to present the first award, Best in Craft, for a content creator or journalist focused on the automotive industry, demonstrating general excellence of craft, and supporting women and colleagues in the automotive industry. 

Sue is a venerable journalist and off road expert who has competed and podiumed around the globe in daunting and often harrowing circumstances. Yet, as she stood before this group last year to receive her award, she shared that this was one of the most meaningful and important days of her life: to be recognized in front of friends, colleagues and as a special treat, her young granddaughter Eve, who she hopes to empower through her career and endeavors. I am pretty sure she cried a bit. 

Sue read the list of nominees, a who’s who of female automotive journalists, and then, the name of the winner: Kristin Shaw. 

I may have cried a little more at that moment. 

I first met Kristin early in my own automotive career, and found a kindred spirit who wanted to write about cars, even if for slightly different reasons than me, and was willing to do the hard work. The two of us slamming our shoulders against the doors of opportunity would be more powerful than either of us doing it alone, and we’ve been partners ever since. 

Kristin’s passions have translated to stories not just for us, but for Car and Driver, The Drive, Popular Science, Forbes, The Washington Post, The TODAY Show and more. But her kindness, gentle demeanor and humor, as well as her talent for delivering a well-crafted story, have endeared her to so many: Editors, fellow writers and fans. It was particularly rewarding to see Kristin win this award. 

Related: How a Vintage Volvo and Star Mechanic Bogi Lateiner Are Empowering Women and Changing Automotive

Crystal Windham, Executive Director, Global Industrial Design, Gm

Crystal Windham, executive director, global industrial design, GM. Photo: GM

Women Behind the Scenes…And Raising the Game

Then, Kelly Webb Roberts, chairwoman of the Chicago Automotive Trade Association, took the stage to announce the next category: The Rising Star Award. Designated to recognize a leader at a manufacturer or automotive supplier, nominees are noted for the empowerment of others, breaking down barriers and pursuing non-traditional roles. She leads so others can follow.

The list of nominees again was incredible, but the winner is a standout in this world: Crystal Windham, executive director, global industrial design, General Motors. Crystal is responsible for so many of the interiors and lovely details we see in many of GM’s cars, most recently, Cadillac. She has a reputation as a change agent and decisive leader and brings forward-leading practices with quick success to the challenges of GM’s business. She loves to build collaborative, cross-functional teams in order to tap new technology and develop a customer-centric focus and experience. 

Personally, I’m a Crystal Windham fan; I met her early in my career and always love getting her take on new models that her team designs. Sadly, she was not able to be with us to accept her award, but her colleague Shauna Sichi, also a nominee for the Rising Star award, was able to accept on her behalf. It was an amazing moment.

Jennifer Morand, Jennifer Newman, Kristin Shaw, Scotty Reiss

Organizers Jennifer Morand (l) and Scotty Reiss (r) with winners, Jennifer Newman and Kristin Shaw. Photo: Chicago Auto Show

Where Would We Be Without Allies?

Way behind, is where. Our allies are often unseen, unsung and under appreciated. They clear hurdles we may never know where there. They advocate for us and often we don’t know it. And of course, they don’t usually tell us because once the mission is accomplished, they are on to the next thing.

Though they are often our coaches, teachers and leaders; they impart advice and cheer us on and celebrate our achievements. And we would be nowhere with out them.

This category was open to anyone in the automotive business who offers continual support, coaching, advocacy, education and understanding, helping to create opportunities for others as they build their own career in automotive. And the list of nominees was amazing. 

I had the honor of taking the stage to present this award, and even more of an honor, to announce the winner: Jennifer Newman, editor in chief of Cars.Com. Nominations for Jennifer we enthusiastic and heartfelt for the way she cultivates a culture of growth and opportunity on her team of writers and editors, and how she nurtures the careers of the women and people who work for her. She also allies for consumers, broadening coverage to include how we really live in cars (road trips, kids car seats, the truth about minivans- we love them) and her continual pursuit of her own career, which in itself inspires and opens doors for others.  

 But here, I have to elaborate a bit because this was probably the most difficult category for awards jurors to decide on. In addition to Jennifer, four other nominees deserved to be recognized—I truly wish everyone on this list could have won (they all did, if you ask me): 

  • Elgie Bright, Chair, Automotive Marketing and Management, Northwood University, who teaches and coaches the next generation of students entering the automotive leadership workforce and a jump-starter of so many careers; 
  • Cheryl Thompson, CEO and Founder, Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement who, after 31 years as an executive at Ford, created a second career to help companies build powerful diversity equity and inclusion programs; 
  • Dean Case, Communications Consultant, MOTIVO Engineering, who as he supports and encourages women, students, and others to pursue STEM and join this industry, pushes his peers to do better, too; 
  • Wendy Orthman, director of marketing, Genesis, is an inspiration as much as an ally; she leads through example, pushes creative boundaries and brings purpose and authenticity through diversity of people and perspectives
Soledad Romero Accepts Her Award At What Drives Her At The Chicago Auto Show

Soledad Romero accepts her award at What Drives Her at the Chicago Auto Show. Photo: Chicago Auto Show

Where The Rubber Meets the Road: The Best Retailer Award

It’s easy to get wrapped up in all the fun and celebration and forget that there’s a whole other side to this business, and often it’s far grittier and more challenging than we imagine: Retail. Retail has its own challenges, from fewer women employed here than in other areas of automotive, to fewer higher ranking women in retail than in other areas of automotive.  

So when a woman is crushing it, she needs to be recognized so other women can see themselves climbing that ladder, too. Last year’s winner, Megan Deters, was on hand to announce this year’s award winner for Best Chicago Area Retailer: employed by a dealership, she demonstrates commitment and drive to take on any task at hand, from sales to service or technical support. 

This year’s winner was Soledad Romero, store manager, Romeoville Toyota. Soledad earned this award through tenacity and hard work, starting in an entry-level position (without any prior experience) at the dealership during the pandemic. She showed her skills as a leader and a human with compassion, pride, integrity and discipline — and achieved winning results. Since, she’s earned her way to top management. Her colleagues tout her leadership by example and willingness to take on any task with grace and compassion.

Panelists (L-R) Melissa Washington, Comed; Linda White, Bmw; Julie Scott, Cars.com; Kathy Gilbert, Cdk Global; Chris Feuell, Chrysler. Photo: Chicago Auto Show

Panelists (l-r) Melissa Washington, ComEd; Linda White, BMW; Julie Scott, Cars.com; Kathy Gilbert, CDK Global; Chris Feuell, Chrysler. Photo: Chicago Auto Show

It Takes Vision to Lead

It also takes a little tenacity to be the first to do something important. But that’s what the leaders of the Auto Show, Jennifer Morand and Dave Sloan, did seven years ago: they decided to create a program to showcase women and their accomplishments in automotive. We were lucky to be on the other end of that conversation and to contribute ideas and help shape plans. And if you ask me (or any of the other several hundred people in attendance) this year was the best. That is, at least until next year. 


Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss