Daring to be Different: A Conversation with Ford’s Dr. Donna Bell

By Camille Alexander, Howard University and Ford Media Intern

In major cities like Washington, DC and Dallas, TX, Ford’s Autonomous vehicles are logging test miles. Dr. Donna Bell currently oversees the development of autonomous vehicles, which are the future. She has also pioneered much of the automotive technology we take for granted today.

In her former role as the Global Director of Technology and Features Strategy and Planning at Ford Motor Company, Bell did more than complete assignments; she spearheaded them. In conjunction with Ford stakeholders, she created customer driven strategies that increased corporate growth in artificial intelligence, robotics, and driver-assist technology. She was also responsible for delivering the Ford Sync program in the 2008 Ford Focus that has since increased the entire lineup.

When Sync was released, Roadshow by CNET called it “one of the most sophisticated media and communications interfaces available.” Bell has never stopped innovating, and today’s Ford vehicles have some of the highest technology to price ratios in the industry. One could ask how to attain Bell’s level of success, and she would posit that “If you receive an assignment, you’ve gotta do it.” From Sync onwards, she has influenced industry standards of automotive infotainment.

In addition to applying advanced technology to improve the driving experience, Bell utilizes the brand of the vehicle she’s working on to anticipate the features consumers will expect. For instance, Bell divulged that the infotainment system in the all-new Lincoln Corsair was designed to appeal to Lincoln customers’ wants. The Luxury crossover boasts the ability to program a speed limit tolerance and read road signs with the help of Intelligent Cruise Control. Utilitarian tech like the onboard generator in the 2021 Ford F-150 would be out of place in the 2020 Lincoln Continental Coach Door Edition. Bell knows this because she is well-rooted in both business and engineering.

As a student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Donna focused on business. She was more interested in math, but both disciplines would ultimately serve her well. She attributes this shift towards business to the proliferation of computers into daily life. Sensing growth in the field, Bell told her mother that she wanted to become a computer engineer. The Bell family’s network included electrical engineers, and it was her mother who convinced her to pursue the field. Bell fondly recalls this memory saying, “My mother saw something different in me in that I had this talent for math and science, and she nurtured that.”

Bell continued to differentiate herself by opting to take woodshop in high school instead of home economics. By her account, another parent would influence this decision. “My father was a construction worker, and I wanted to be like him and build things.” In that spirit, Bell spent her time building a sailboat. When asked to recall the challenge, Bell states, “I am proud of that boat, and by the end of the school year, I competed with the boys and did pretty good. I didn’t win, but the boat floated. It was all a part of the journey.”

The logical next step in Bell’s journey was college, where she remained near Detroit to attend Lawrence Technological University. She would need the support of family during her freshman year when her mother tragically passed away. Despite this adversity, Bell was able to graduate on time and remain motivated. After undergrad, Bell worked as an engineer for Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan. She wasn’t yet interested in the automotive industry because she came from a blue-collar worker family and associated the industry with temporary work. Eager to advance her career, Bell earned a master’s from Wayne State University in Electronics and Computer Controls Systems. Soon, she became a part of the auto industry as a technology buyer for the Ford Motor Company. While earning a P.H.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Wayne State University, Bell developed a plan to make information technologies a global commodity in Ford Vehicles. Since that time, Bell has served as a supervisor, team leader, manager, and global director.

Unfortunately, her success as a black woman in corporate America is uncommon. According to LeanIn.org president Rachel Thomas, “1 in 5 C-level executives are women, and 1 in 30 are women of color.” Donna Bell is an anomaly in a field dominated by white men. Her advice to other women in male-dominated fields is to “come in knowing your field and retaining confidence.” Bell notes that women, like other minorities, bring a “diversity of thinking” to the table that is needed.

The necessity of a diverse work environment in today’s climate should stop young professionals from developing “imposter syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon that causes people to doubt their abilities and harbor insecurity. As the mother of a Howard woman, Dr. Bell implores young women in the workplace not to “feel like their opinions have to be validated by men or people that don’t look like them.

There is plenty of work to be done in Corporate America and America at large regarding diversity, but black women with storied careers like Donna Bell remain inspirational. If Bell’s confidence is any inclination of the culture at Ford Motor Company, it’s safe to assume that great things are coming out of Dearborn. We’ll find out soon when those autonomous cars logging test miles enter showrooms near us.

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