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Social Impact Heroes: How Karen Tarver & Honda Manufacturing of Indiana Are Advocating For More Inclusion and Equity

Trust your gut. We analyze a lot of data to drive decisions whether at work or in our personal lives. As an engineer, I’ve been taught that data speaks truth. But there is another truth-teller…it’s your gut. We call that sensing. Being able to analyze both actual data and sensing data is a valuable thing. One thing I’ve learned is that data and figures alone can be manipulated to tell the desired story. Trusting my gut through sensing has helped balance my decision making when data alone didn’t do the trick.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Tarver.

Karen Tarver is the Purchasing New Model Department Manager for Honda Manufacturing of Indiana, LLC. where she oversees supplier parts development. Prior to this role, Karen was a Project Leader for the North American launch of the 2019 Honda Insight. In that role she was responsible for leading new model quality, delivery, and packaging development of Honda’s suppliers. Karen is a graduate of The Ohio State University, where she earned a B.S. in Industrial and Systems Engineering. Karen currently serves on Honda’s North American Social Justice Task Force and is a founding member and chairperson of the African American Resource Collaborative of Honda (AARCH).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path started early in high school. I was fortunate to attend a special school that allowed students to pick focused disciplines of study. My discipline was engineering. I chose this area because it most suited my interests in science and math. After high school, I attended The Ohio State University and enrolled in the College of Engineering. Before my freshman year started, I was invited to attend a week-long program with other female engineering students. As I toured and listened to current students and professors, I realized that I wanted to become an industrial engineer. Industrial engineering (IE) had elements I didn’t see in the other disciplines. Not only did it encompass math and science, it also had elements of accounting and economics. In IE, I was challenged to think deeply about how the system supported and helped people. Going into my sophomore year, I realized I needed work experience before graduation and became involved with the student organization NSBE (The National Society of Black Engineers). This organization introduced me to other African American students on campus who were also studying engineering. Until that point, I had not seen or met an engineering professional who looked like me. Additionally, NSBE became a great support system for me while away from home; I became active in the organization as a leader and I am still involved today.

During a company-hosted event at OSU, I met an associate from Honda. At that point, I knew very little about Honda, but I did know I loved the Honda Accord and really wanted one for my first car. After that experience, I applied for a co-op position at Honda in Marysville, Ohio and was accepted into their program. Upon graduation, I was hired full-time at Honda Manufacturing of Indiana. I moved from Ohio and started my Honda career as a parts quality engineer working with suppliers who make stamping and welding component parts for our cars. In this role, I had the opportunity to take on a lot of new and first-time projects, such as bringing in new data analysis software. Within a few years, I had an opportunity to manage a small team. All of these experiences have led to my more recent roles as a New Model Project Leader and Department Manager.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting moment in my career so far was finding out that I would be selected as the Purchasing New Model Project Leader of the 2019 Honda Insight. I remember trying to process what this assignment would mean to our customers, our associates, and to me. The scope of responsibilities was significant. The ability to successfully launch a hybrid vehicle was very important to the Honda brand. After taking it all in, at first I thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I reflected on all of the earlier opportunities I had in my career. I thought about my failures and successes. I thought about the mentors who encouraged me to continue to dream BIG and pursue my passions as a leader. And I thought about my family who have done so much to support my goals. I wanted to make them all proud.

I shifted my mindset from fear, to that of trust in myself. I trusted that this moment was not a mistake or by chance. I was ready for this and was prepared. I also realized that the strength of the project is with the people. Our team was youthful and full of new ideas, which was something to embrace. Many of us traveled to Japan for the first time in our Honda careers and had the chance to really see the heart of our company. I will never forget the long nights and early mornings as we worked through complex challenges and came up with solutions. Ultimately, our Honda team and suppliers accomplished a great feat in bringing this beautiful car to the market. When I look back on that experience, it reminds me not to let fear consume me. The unknown can be scary, but had I not taken this challenging assignment, I would not have grown as a leader and probably would not have been ready for my next opportunity.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I started at Honda as a parts quality engineer. Most of the suppliers I worked with had large welding and stamping operations. Often, I would go on supplier visits to review processes and parts. One of the early mistakes I remember making was when I was out on the production floor. While watching a welding process, I happened to get a little too close and a spark hit me. As I quickly jumped back in panic, I learned quickly to always keep some distance when you’re around a welding operation cell.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Honda seeks to be a company that society wants to exist, creating products and technologies that improve the lives of people while minimizing the environmental impacts of its products and business operations to ensure a sustainable future. Honda is committed to making positive contributions to the communities where it does business, conducting socially responsible business practices and promoting diversity in its workforce. From Honda’s involvement in STEM education and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), to its support of pediatric brain tumor research and volunteer efforts by Honda associates, including environmental clean-up activities, Honda believes in giving back to the communities where its associates live and work. It’s important to note that while diversity and inclusion should embrace gender, all ethnic groups and sexual orientations and people with disabilities, Honda recognizes the history of Black Americans is wholly unique. Together with our associates, suppliers, dealers and other partners in the community, we are committed to working even harder to advocate and persist in seeking the inclusion and equity that makes us stronger as a nation, and as a company. It is with this understanding that we created a social justice task force this summer as a response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, which I am honored to support.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Honda has a community partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF). Through this relationship I was able to meet and mentor an incredible student from North Carolina A&T State University. My mentee, who was studying engineering, received a Honda scholarship from TMCF. This bright student was then hired as a co-op at one of our manufacturing facilities. During this time I was able to share with her my journey and offer words of encouragement and advice with her, as she shared with me her interests and goals after graduation. I hope she found this as impactful as I did. She will become a full-time Honda associate upon graduation, and I’m so excited for her future!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

At Honda our approach to root cause analysis starts with asking “why” and then asking “why” again until you’ve truly solved the problem. The work of Honda’s Social Justice Task Force extends into our communities and requires us to dig deeply in order to address the systemic root causes that disenfranchise many in society. So, I would say simply start with asking “why” with a genuine interest to learn and listen without judgment. Then educate others as you become more informed of how the systemic issues in our country are preventing equity and fairness for all to succeed. Then execute a plan — small or large, it doesn’t matter. Just commit to doing the work and becoming a change agent or advocate for social justice.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is leveraging the assets and skills of individuals within an organization to move toward a common goal. Leadership is an attitude. It’s confident, but not arrogant. Leadership is steadfast and reliable. Leadership is a service.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Self-advocacy is critically important. For most of my career I relied on my work performance and the advocacy of mentors and other leaders to push my career advancement. Then, I listened to an executive during an event who expressed that this had been one of her biggest mistakes. She had not been an active participant in guiding her own career, but rather was passive in her approach and allowed others do the navigating for her. This stayed with me, because I had been doing the same thing. I decided that I needed to clearly express my interests and look for appropriate methods to share them with my manager beyond the normal performance review discussion. As a black woman in a predominantly white and male field, I know that having supportive allies is necessary. I also think you are your most passionate advocate, so speak up!

2. Trust your gut. We analyze a lot of data to drive decisions whether at work or in our personal lives. As an engineer, I’ve been taught that data speaks truth. But there is another truth-teller…it’s your gut. We call that sensing. Being able to analyze both actual data and sensing data is a valuable thing. One thing I’ve learned is that data and figures alone can be manipulated to tell the desired story. Trusting my gut through sensing has helped balance my decision making when data alone didn’t do the trick.

3. The only thing that stays the same is change. I didn’t prepare myself early enough for the realities of working in a fast-paced and challenging environment. Change happens quickly and sometimes abruptly as we work to meet customer demands. A plan today may not always be right for tomorrow. Being able to adapt and make adjustments quickly becomes a virtue. If you don’t make adjustments and sometimes prepare for a curve ball, you may get knocked down as you try to figure out what went wrong with an outdated approach.

4. Grow and develop your professional maturity. The same way that we develop and mature from adolescence, we also have to develop and mature as professionals. This requires a level of doing and thinking beyond oneself. Early in my career, I cared more about my individual wants and needs. I was a great individual contributor. It wasn’t until I had to manage my first team that I recognized I can’t operate for myself. That means the decisions I make have to always be in the best interest of others. It also means that the decisions I make must always be in the best interest of the company. Professional maturity is essential if you plan to be a leader. That maturity will assist in more difficult areas of leadership such as developing people, executing unpopular decisions or considering best utilization of business resources.

5. Celebrate small victories. You don’t have to wait for the highest accomplishments in order to celebrate and recognize achievements. When working on new model development, it takes time to see all of the team’s hard work come to fruition. I learned to take pride in even the small milestones. The first time I saw new parts come into the building I was ecstatic. It may not have been a full car, but I knew it was a victory and worth recognizing as a win. The small wins help to keep you and your teams motivated along the way.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be to simply give back to others. Giving back can be done in many ways — volunteering, mentoring, donating to good causes, or small acts of kindness. If every person took the time to give back it would make a significant impact on the world. There’s a lot we can do to connect and share good through social media. These platforms are great for getting the word out and can help increase the effectiveness of a movement.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My parents have instilled a lot of life lessons, but one quote I heard often as a young adult was “always keep your head on a swivel.” This simply means to be aware at all times of what is going on around you. I think about this in almost every context of my life. From a safety perspective, being aware of my surroundings when out late at night. In the workplace it’s being aware of what is coming my way and anticipating the unexpected. I think this is why I’m a planner. I plan for the plan because I’m always thinking about what’s next.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Beyonce. I’m a huge fan. She’s a hard worker and I am always impressed by how dedicated she is to her craft. As a successful business woman, she also gives back to the community and uses her platform to advocate for social justice. In addition, she’s a wife and mother (both of which I can identify with). I would like to know how she stays motivated and pushes through adversity all while seemingly making it look flawless (shout to her song, ha).

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can connect with me on LinkedIn @Karen Tarver.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes: How Karen Tarver & Honda Manufacturing of Indiana Are Advocating For More… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.