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Diversity Leading Innovation in Mobility Panel Starts Inspired Conversation at WCX

Posted: April 26, 2023

The mobility industry is at an integral point of change that encompasses not only technology, but the people innovating it.

In such a fast-paced and constantly evolving marketplace, it’s key to have the right people involved, and to innovate, those people have to bring a breadth of perspectives that complement and challenge each other.

At SAE International’s WCX, a panel of industry experts including Ralph Gilles, Chief Design Officer at Stellantis; Denis Gray, Head of External Affairs and Government Relations, North American at LG Energy Solution; Ashwini Balasubramanian, General Manager, Advanced Engineering at Harley Davidson Motor Company; and Sri Srinath, retired Caterpillar Inc. executive, led in conversation by moderator Kristen Tabar, Vice President, Advanced Mobility Research and Development, at Toyota Motor North America, talked the future diverse workforce of mobility and its advantages for the industry.

“Fostering innovation is not just about advising and funding,” Tabar said at the top of the conversation. “It’s about allowing those diverse voices to be heard and giving room for ‘crazy’ ideas.”

As Tabar led discussion, she asked the panelists about where diversity can have the most impact. Srinath backed its capabilities for product development, while Balasubramanian touted the advantages for technology advancement. Gilles and Gray threw their support behind workforce development.

“I think we need to be really mindful and determinant to make sure the workforces has the skillset and the mindset on how we transform,” Gray said. “We have to have new people with new ideas who represent where we can go, not only where we’ve been.”

As the conversation continued, the panelists considered the how when it comes to diversity’s influence on innovation.

Gilles highlighted the idea of diversity beyond cultural identity, including experience, education, economic standing, and other differentiating factors that can build a person’s unique perspective and allow them to bring new ideas to the table. The panel talked the importance of leadership in modeling a culture that values these perspectives, and the need to make room for new players as young professionals enter the field.

“Leadership has to listen and help, and sometimes, get the heck out of the way,” Srinath said.

The panel acknowledge that this may lead to discomfort, but that’s good, as comfort is the enemy of invention.

From a business perspective, the need to be new and different has never been more prevalent, making the financial argument one that advocates for responsible risks.

“I think the innovation space comes with a lot of risk taking, and the best way to go through that process is to make sure there are a lot of diverse voices to mitigate that risk,” Balasubramanian said.

Ultimately, survival in mobility is going to come down to embracing the new, and that means including previously excluded voices while simultaneously shedding the weight of outdated legacy burden. To do that, it’s going to take professionals who aren’t afraid to be different.

And those who take the plunge will see dividends, the group predicts.

“I believe as an industry we can set trends,” Gilles said. “We can talk people into the future.”