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MSU alumna Cheryl Thompson is a driving force for DEI in auto industry

By Haley Tran, student writer
Monday, April 10, 2023

Only an hour away from Detroit, Michigan State University has deep ties to the Motor City, educating the next generation of talent for the automotive industry and innovating the future of vehicular technology. Many generations of Spartans have gone on to work in automotive and propel the industry forward. Among those Spartans, one Broad alumna has become a driving force for diversity, equity and inclusion.

Cheryl Thompson (MBA ’13) is a veteran leader in vehicle manufacturing who has dedicated her entire career to the auto industry. As a woman in engineering, she has experienced firsthand a culture that lacked diversity and inclusion.

“I was often the only woman in the room,” Thompson recalled. “I dealt with feeling overlooked and undervalued on a daily basis.”

This personal experience, coupled with an understanding of the hardships other marginalized auto industry professionals face, led Thompson to found the Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement. CADIA is a membership-based nonprofit organization focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the auto industry. The center was initiated in 2017 with a focus on developing women as future leaders in the field and has since evolved to fill a gap for diverse talents of all kinds.

“I started CADIA with the idea that diverse talent had long been overlooked and undervalued in the auto industry. I grew up with the industry and worked in it — my whole life has always been attached to auto — and I want to see it progress and succeed,” Thompson said.

“There are so many layers to the lack of diverse representation in my industry. It boils down to where and how companies recruit, and how they are accepting and onboarding new talents,” she continued. “CADIA strives to help them close that gap and devise solutions tailored for their companies. We meet companies where they are at, regardless of their progress on their DEI roadmaps.”

Driven for change as a fourth-generation auto worker

Thompson proudly calls herself a fourth-generation automotive industry worker, following in her family’s footsteps. Her first job was as a foodservice worker at Ford Motor Company’s headquarters in Detroit. And thanks to a mentor and sponsor at the company, she pivoted into an engineering role and worked in manufacturing and engineering for Ford vehicles.

At the culmination of her 31-year career with Ford, she held the power take-off global prototype manager position for the last two years of her tenure. She then spent another year and a half as global director of prototype at American Axle and Manufacturing, a tier-one automobile manufacturer, before running CADIA full-time.

“I knew I wanted to retire to go on and become the change I want to see in this industry,” she said. “While diversity has been an emerging topic in the boardroom, the truth is the C-suite and board of directors at auto companies are still not diverse. These companies serve consumers from various backgrounds, and thus their leadership needs to look like the people purchasing their products. One of my goals with CADIA is ensuring that high-level leadership understand DEI in the workplace, sustain diversity and be more inclusive and equitable with their teams.”

“I started CADIA with the idea that diverse talent had long been overlooked and undervalued in the auto industry. I grew up with the industry and worked in it — my whole life has always been attached to auto — and I want to see it progress and succeed.”

Thompson recognizes how diversity, equity and inclusion are not simply about racial background or ethnicity, and she guides the center to support people from all backgrounds.

“Even though I am a woman in a male-dominated field, I still have the privilege of being white. People of color, people in the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities need so much more assistance and visibility because they experience more discrimination and often feel like they do not belong in the auto industry,” Thompson said. “With that in mind, CADIA works to facilitate success for people of all diversity dimensions and instill organizational change at a corporate level.”

Championing DEI wins of all scales and sizes

CADIA has a proactive approach, offering corporate solutions such as building strategic DEI roadmaps and advising diversity councils at companies. The center provides professional development workshops on various topics such as managing DEI conversations in the workplace, overcoming unconscious bias and leading with emotional intelligence.

On top of that, CADIA offers a DEI Accelerator Program for Automotive Industry Professionals, a 13-week course imparting best practices and ways for professionals to solve complex DEI challenges in their own organizations.

Thompson says the name CADIA is a nod to Australia’s Cadia gold mine because she believes diversity is a gold mine for organizations seeking the best talent. To this end, CADIA brings together industry leaders through roundtables to share experiences and learn from one another. Additionally, her center established the CEO Coalition for Change, where auto and defense industry CEOs join forces to identify, implement and share best practices and resources in DEI and diverse talent development.

Annually, CADIA also hosts a DEI summit called Rev Up 2030, named after its mission to double the number of diverse leaders in auto by 2030. The summit gathers leaders and DEI champions from a variety of industries to network and exchange ideas and initiatives, along with presenting awards to recognize excellence in DEI. Last year, the organization hosted its fifth summit at the MSU Management Education Center in Troy, Michigan, featuring the chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at General Motors as the keynote speaker.

“Award categories are named after our four C’s: leadership commitment, systemic change, champion for diverse talent and creating inclusive cultures,” Thompson said. “These awards celebrate DEI wins and progress of all sizes and inspire the industry to strive for improvement every day.”

With an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, Broad Spartan alumni like Thompson are reimagining and spearheading the future of business by identifying high-level problems and creating applicable solutions for their industries.

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