Girls and young women who like to make things should have the opportunity to “build and fail fast,” says Grace Overlander SM ’08, MBA ’08, who recently received the Business Leadership Award at the 2015 C3E (Clean Energy, Education and Empowerment) Initiative’s Women in Clean Energy Symposium. The event, held in Boston Nov. 4-5, was co-hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Overlander is the manager of new product introduction at Tesla Motors and was instrumental in introducing Tesla Energy, which is expanding markets for home and industrial energy storage.
Upon graduating from MIT’s dual-degree Leaders for Global Operations program (LGO), Overlander worked at General Motors as an assembly line supervisor at the Chevy Malibu plant in Lake Orion, Michigan, and later transitioned to the team that launched the Chevy Volt Battery Assembly Plant.
“Overlander’s work at GM also established processes to drive product quality earlier in vehicle development, resulting in faster more successful launches,” says her award citation, which also notes that she has been a champion for educating students and coworkers.
One of Overlander’s mentorship efforts that has directly benefited LGO is championing plant treks, a highlight of the LGO program, for students and others to introduce them to electric vehicle technology.
In her acceptance speech at the symposium, Overlander summarized Tesla’s four-stage product development process, which starts with an engineering feasibility build and culminates in a production line build. The goal is to find out “how quickly we can build, break, and learn from each of these builds,” she said. “What we do is fail fast and then fix what we failed at fast. The earlier we can find and solve these issues, the faster and better product we can deliver.”
Overlander told a story of how her five-year-old daughter tried to make binoculars from toilet paper rolls and plastic wrap and was frustrated when they didn’t work as she had hoped. “I explained to her that it’s OK to try something and fail at it, and that this is something I do every day when I go to work and you go to day care,” she said.
As a result, her daughter “now has a passion for creating without the mental impediment that it will be bad if something doesn’t work out,” Overlander said. “We need to let girls to work in unstructured and unsterile environments where there are no right answers.”
LGO was instrumental in shaping Overlander’s approach. “The LGO leadership curriculum and industry speaker series reinforced the importance of giving back to society, leading with my own leadership style, and leaving a legacy. These priorities have stayed with me through each of the roles I’ve had,” she said in an interview. “The plant treks were invaluable experiences I’ll never forget. They helped to solidify an understanding of common manufacturing processes vs. industry-specific requirements and regulations. These experiences have allowed me to consider unconventional solutions to industry-specific challenges.”
Overlander has spoken to many university students, including those in LGO’s Global Operations Leadership Seminar, teaching about battery technology and processes to drive faster improvement cycles. She has also served on LGO’s Operating Committee and Admissions Committee and has been active in the Women of LGO alumnae group.
“Involvement with incoming and current students has helped me stay connected and network and learn across industries,” she said. “I work with and talk to my LGO classmates and other graduates on a regular basis, and they provide a great support network.”
Fellow LGO alumna Milo Peavey Werner SM ’07, MBA ’07, who won the C3E Innovation and Technology Development Leadership Award in 2013, nominated Overlander for this year’s C3E Business Award. In her nomination letter, Werner — a former Tesla colleague and now director of new product introduction operations at Fitbit — highlighted Overlander’s mentorship activities for women at GM and Tesla and noted that she acted as the liaison between the Sloan Women in Management (SWIM) and the GM Endowment that supported the SWIM’s yearly conferences.