Electrical engineering alumna sets example for female empowerment and global influence in automotive industry

November 22, 2016

Over the coming months, look for stories that feature some of the many Wayne State initiatives and pioneering individuals committed to automotive and manufacturing innovation. This content is part of WSU's Warriors in Action campaign highlighting how Wayne State is making a difference.

Olga Alavanou, BSEE ’88, has never been afraid to take risks and step out of her comfort zone. It is an attitude that has served her well and allowed her to diversify her skills in a career spanning nearly three decades. The most important risk she’s taken, however, may have been the first one.

Alavanou was 18 years old when she came to the United States from her native Greece. The only person she knew was an uncle living in the Detroit area, which at least gave her a good starting point on her new adventure.

She originally enrolled in an English as a second language program at Wayne State, where she not only was able to explore urban living and American culture but also dive into a wider range of educational options in order to foster her strong interest in math and science.

“My professors fueled that interest and provided me with guidance and mentorship to pursue a career in engineering,” said Alavanou, one of three inductees in this year’s College of Engineering Hall of Fame class. “Of course, living in Michigan, the automotive industry was a natural choice.”

Having become a Wayne State alumna and a full-fledged Detroiter, Alavanou broke into the industry as a product development engineer for Ford Motor Company and worked for two other automotive suppliers before joining Yazaki North America, a tier-one supplier of electrical distribution systems, instrumentation and electronics.

Alavanou began her tenure at Yazaki in 1998 as a sales manager, and today sits as the executive vice president for the company’s Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler business units, responsible for global customer strategy, development, engineering, quality and manufacturing planning.

“I think it’s important to be willing to step up and take the tough jobs and do them well,” said Alavanou.

Her roles and assignments have taken her all over the world, and her cross-cultural perspective can be traced back to principles of her education at Wayne State.

 “WSU gave me the opportunity to study and interact with so many different students and teachers from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds,” said Alavanou. “It taught me early on to work well in diversified teams.”

A key message Alavanou projects to those young people and others is that there is no substitute for hard work and professionalism in the pursuit of one’s dreams.

“Set goals and focus on executing those goals. Accept feedback — even when it’s critical — and use it to improve,” said Alavanou. “Respect people, do the right thing, accept responsibility when things go wrong, and give credit when things go right.”