Don't Tell Her She Can't: Toyota Racing’s Laura Pierce Was Born for Motorsports
by Kristin Shaw
The Big Switch: Education to Engineering
Indiana native Laura Pierce was on track to become a teacher upon graduation from high school. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom, and teachers were the only other role models for women she knew. Laura’s father, Andy, recognized that her love for math and science might take her on another path, and he introduced her to a female engineer on his team at Subaru. That engineer loved what she did for a living and encouraged Laura to be an engineer, too.
Gently nudging her in that direction, Andy signed his daughter up for a Women in Engineering day at Purdue University in nearby Lafayette. Ultimately, Laura enrolled there as an Industrial Engineering major, and discovered at freshman orientation that fewer than 20% of the students in that program were women.
“It was intimidating when the professor said, ‘Look to your left and to your right; those people will not be there at your graduation,” Laura says. “Not everyone makes it.”
However, Laura’s approach to life is: “If someone says I can’t, that gives me fuel to succeed.”
Encouraging Girls to Pursue Careers in Automotive
The fuel reference is apropos; Laura is now President of Toyota Racing, and her turbo-charged career includes regular speaking engagements at schools and with Girl Scout groups to share her story. To say that Laura is one of the coolest women in the industry is no stretch; she is kind, thoughtful, and has a razor-sharp mind.
“The more we can get girls at an early age to pick the right classes and get everything lined up, the better,” Laura says. “It’s not innate for us to want to take a career in automotive, but they are more likely to try it withPur a little encouragement.”
Swap Meets and Stock Cars Planted the Seed
As a kid, Laura attended swap meets and antique car shows with her dad, and later joined his pit crew when he raced stock cars on weekends. Her job was to keep an eye on tire temperatures to see where the rubber was wearing on the track and calculate the resulting alignment. Using a specialized gauge, Laura would check the temperatures on the tires and she would mark them down on paper, checking the numbers as she went.
Before she was allowed to get her drivers’ license, Laura’s dad required her to learn how to change her oil and tires.
“I appreciate that now, but I may not have back then,” she laughs.
In fact, it was her father who guided her to Toyota after working for Delphi for several years and then GM. He had been working in the automotive industry for several years, and heard that Toyota was increasing its staff in Erlanger, Kentucky, just south of Cincinnati.
“I think dads play a big role for women discovering what they see in themselves,” Laura says.
This writer agrees; my dad led the impetus for my love of anything automotive, too.
Laura’s Supportive Family Plays a Key Role
After moving to Kentucky, Laura, her husband Jay, and their three boys built a village of friends and they all helped each other manage busy careers and their home lives. Each kid (twin 17-year-olds and a 10-year-old boy), Laura says, has his own set of interests, and they tried to ensure that she or Jay was always available to be present for the boys’ various activities.
“I always joke that I thought I would raise the next generation of strong females,” Laura says. “Instead, I raise supportive men.”
Their boys have a strong role model in their father, who took on the position of stay-at-home dad when the Pierce family moved to Texas. Initially, they thought Jay would take a year off, but the whole family discovered that having him at home more often was the perfect balance for all of them.
“If you’re passionate about your career, you have to find that fulfillment,” Laura says. “We’re big on the whole ‘we’re making decisions that are best for our family’ thing. You hope in the long term the kids will take that to heart.”
And she’s on her way up: Laura started a women’s leadership forum at Toyota, and she meets with her own mentors a few times a year. She’s deliberate about her career planning, and her goal is to learn and develop, moving up every two to four years. One way she ensures cross-functional leadership is to operate in several different kinds of jobs; before she moved to Texas, she held a position in corporate strategy, including buying analysis; project management for new vehicle development; and production planning.
“Never Say Never”
Some women are still intimidated by the motor sports market, Laura says, and she recommends finding a champion to help push past any fears. She has mentors at Toyota who have helped her move up, and she believes it’s important for her to pay it forward. Spending time with other women with aspirations in automotive or engineering gives Laura a chance to be the champion and role model.
“Having that confidence in yourself that anything is possible is critical,” Laura says. “Never say never. Years ago, I said that I’d love to be in motor sports in Toyota, but I didn’t think it would happen. Keep working hard, and opportunities will come.”