A woman in the driver's seat: Aston Martin's 1st female president has a message for young girls

Laura Schwab is shattering misconceptions about the auto industry.

May 21, 2018, 11:36 AM

Aston Martin’s Laura Schwab has a lot to talk about these days: the British luxury carmaker’s Second Century Plan. The company's return to Formula One racing. Her 1-year-old daughter, Marie.

Schwab, head of Aston Martin the Americas, is the company's first female president in its 105-year history. She and Mary Barra, the 56-year-old CEO of General Motors, are the only two women to hold senior leadership positions in the male-dominated industry.

A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Schwab travels every week to visit one of Aston Martin’s 43 dealerships in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and South America. When she’s not in a foreign city, she’s waking up before dawn to speak to her boss, Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer, in England.

Aston Martin has 2,500 employees around the globe but only a small percentage are women. Schwab, 44, said she is on a mission to change that and regularly participates in leadership conferences that focus on female empowerment.

Laura Schwab was a panelist on the Worth Women & Wealth Summit in New York, April 2018.
Jenna Bascom for the Worth Women and Wealth Summit

“I am desperate for more women to apply for jobs in automotive,” she told ABC News last month. “For some women it’s scary … they might not think they know that much about cars, or that much about technology. I am a very firm advocate of more women applying for these roles.”

Laura Schwab at the Canadian International AutoShow, February 2018.
Marcus Oleniuk for Women on Wheels

'I wasn't into cars'

Schwab knew little about cars when she entered the business. She attended Notre Dame on a tennis scholarship, a sport she had been playing since the 5th grade.

“From a really young age I was competitive and loved sports. I wasn’t into cars,” she said.

Laura Schwab was captain of Notre Dame's women's tennis team and is seen here on the cover of the 1994-1995 Notre Dame's Women's Tennis magazine.
Laura Schwab

She decided to enroll in law school after graduating from Notre Dame but soon hated every minute of it. Her father convinced her to keep at it, and she graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law.

“I have never quit anything in my life,” she explained. “If I got the first year down, there was no way I was going to drop out. I think it taught me a lot too. It knocked me down a little bit. I realized I could persevere through it.”

Even with her degree Schwab had other ideas. She quit her contract law position and started applying to “any job possible” in California. She was eventually offered a position at a small dot-com called Auto Fusion, a reverse auction place for car buyers.

“It was a great company with some brilliant ideas for how to transform the automotive buying experience that I think was really ahead of its time,” she said. “I would sit with the developers and they’d show me how to code. This was new technology that had never really existed before.”

Schwab was the 11th employee at the company and worked an average of 18 hours a day. The firm grew exponentially in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and Schwab was convinced she’d become a multimillionaire.

Then she was recruited for a job that would change her life. She left California for a short-term contract position in Maryland to build a car configurator for Land Rover’s website.

A mentor at Land Rover later recommended she abandon her focus on the internet, learn the company's business and apply for a field position in Boston.

'These jobs are primarily men'

“I thought, 'Maybe I need to learn the car business if the internet was not going to take off.' And I did take the job in the field. Those jobs are primarily men, that’s pretty standard,” she said.

She was hired as a retail operation manager for Land Rover, acting as a liaison between the dealers and the manufacturer.

“I knew configurators and websites. I didn’t really understand the operational aspects of the car business,” she said. “It took me almost two years to get the hang of it.”

Schwab turned to another woman, Sheree Kaplan, president of the Kaplan Auto Group, for help.

“Sheree took a chance on me,” Schwab recalled. “I probably owe her a lot. She was one of the few females who owned a dealer group. She taught me everything.”

Kaplan told ABC News that her father brought her into the car business in the 1980s. When he died at age 91 he left her with “an opportunity and a big mortgage.” Nearly 35 years later she oversees six franchises and has a son who works in the family business.

“I need to do a better job myself of recruiting women,” she said in an email. “We clearly need more women in the automotive business.”

She added, “Laura’s a prime example of someone who worked her way to the top of the automotive industry and manages to balance her career and family life. She’s a big inspiration to me.”

Laura Schwab with her parents Marie and Matt in this undated file photo.
Laura Schwab

Schwab's surprise pregnancy

Schwab spent 15 years at Jaguar Land Rover, moving around the country and ultimately to England, where she was promoted to marketing director. Aston Martin poached her from Jaguar Land Rover in October 2015 to helm its Americas operations.

Schwab said she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work for this “amazing brand” so she packed her bags and moved to Irvine, California. Five weeks after accepting the president position she found out she was pregnant.

“My first thought was, ‘What am I going to say to Andy Palmer?’ He hired me. I was nervous about what it would mean for my position, how am I going to balance everything. My husband was still living in England. We didn’t have a house yet. I was living in an Airbnb.”

Schwab said she and her husband were apart throughout the entire pregnancy.

“We saw each other twice and moved a week before the baby was born. I was very lucky the company was super supportive,” she said. “We don’t know a lot of people in California – my family is in Kentucky, my husband’s family in England. It was a lot to balance and a big adjustment after living in England for five years.”

Schwab conceded that she gets asked “how do you do it” a lot.

Her response is always: “When was the last time you asked a man that question?”

“Sometimes I think I balance it really well and sometimes I don’t,” she acknowledged. “I am obsessed with my daughter and my husband and I have a huge responsibility to this incredibly gorgeous, iconic brand and I take it all very seriously.”

The Aston Martin Vantage. The British automaker is unveiling seven new cars for the next seven years as part of its Second Century Plan.
Aston Martin

'An unconscious bias toward women'

Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said she looks forward to the day when powerful women like Schwab and GM’s Barra are not anomalies in the auto industry.

“This can be a very difficult industry to be in. Historically it’s male dominated,” she told ABC News. “Family obligations can disrupt a woman’s career, and travel can be incredibly challenging to any kind of relationship. There’s an unconscious bias toward women when we think of them in this role.”

One of the biggest misconceptions in the industry is that only men are interested in cars, Lindland said.

“Women have a lot of influence when it comes to car buying,” she said. “From an industry standpoint we need to do a better job showing women what type of jobs and opportunities exist and that they will be treated fairly. In an ideal world it’s not a big deal for a woman to be in an executive position.”

Barra, who was named CEO of GM in January 2014 and is the first woman to run an American auto company, touched on the gender gap in a March 2017 LinkedIn post.

“In the automotive industry, we’re making progress to close the gender gap – at General Motors alone, we have women leading core areas such as global manufacturing, electrification, car-sharing, tax and audit, marketing and communications. I’m also working with our most senior GM women to further build our bench-strength. And, I look forward to the day when women CEOs are the norm, not the exception. That will be real progress,” she wrote.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra speaks at GM's press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jan. 16, 2018.
Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Audi of America has also implemented aggressive strategies to increase the number of women in its U.S. workforce, including an employee resource group that provides information on coaching, career paths, work-life balance and mentoring for women, a company spokeswoman said.

A 'pivotal moment' for women

Schwab said she’s willing to spend her weekends and nights away from her toddler daughter to convince young women that a career in the automotive industry can be gratifying and highly rewarding.

Laura Schwab stands next to an Aston Martin DB11.
Aston Martin the Americas

“It’s a very pivotal moment in time for women, not just in the automotive space, but in the world,” she said. “A lot of barriers, or perceived barriers, have started to be removed. I think in automotive, specifically, we’ve still got a job to do. I never thought of myself as a role model but now that I am in this role, women are looking to me and saying, ‘I can do it.’ And if I can play a small part in encouraging women that automotive is a wonderful place to work, and an inspiring and exciting place, then I’ll take on that role for sure.”

Laura Schwab's daughter Marie in her own mini Aston Martin.
Laura Schwab

Resilience, hard work and perseverance are traits that Schwab wants to instill in her own daughter.

“My mom raised me to be a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman so I hope I made my mom proud,” she said. “Hopefully I am setting the stage for my daughter to do the same. I want her to be exactly what she wants to be. I want to give her those opportunities.”