Meet the Woman Behind the Wheel of GM’s New Car-Sharing Business
Last week, General Motors introduced Maven, a ride-sharing service that operates as a company-within-a-company under the larger GM umbrella. Maven combines three of the auto giant’s existing test programs under a single brand: a city-based service that rents GM (GM) vehicles by the hour or day, a program that gives residents of partner apartment buildings in New York and Chicago access to on-demand vehicles, and a Europe-only (for now) peer-to-peer car-sharing service.
Maven’s 40-person team is lead by Julia Steyn, GM’s head of urban mobility. Formerly GM’s vice president of corporate development and global mergers and acquisitions, and VP of Alcoa’s (AA) M&A group before that, Steyn is no stranger to leadership in a high-stakes environment. Fortune caught up with her to talk about Maven, the future of the auto industry, and the ins and outs of managing a group of millennials and ex-Googlers.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: How and why did you make the jump from GM’s M&A group to Maven?
Julia Steyn: This has been something that I’ve been thinking long and hard about for a while. In September, [Maven] became official, but the work that we’ve been doing dates back several years. Car-sharing is one of the first building blocks of the future of mobility. Our partnership with Lyft is a different building block, where we’re looking even farther into the future and saying okay, some day cars will be autonomous. I see [Maven] as the future of the company.
You see Maven as GM’s future, but some see it as a potential threat to the company’s existing business model. What is your response to the naysayers?
I don’t see it as a threat at all. I think the [automotive] eco-system is evolving and what Maven is doing is giving on-demand mobility services to folks who otherwise wouldn’t have cars. We’re exposing a lot of new faces and younger faces who wouldn’t otherwise have access to our products. It’s not a competition.
Who do you see as your main competitors? Ford (F), Audi, and BMW are also pushing into in this space, and of, course, there are standalone services like ZipCar.
Right now, I am focusing on competing with myself—trying to push forward in a way that makes sense for our customers. Although there’s furious competition for the future of mobility, to me I see the customer as the center of it all. How can I provide a service that continues to be relevant? How can I evolve with the customer? One of the things I’m really excited about is how in Ann Arbor, we’ll be communicating with customers through our pilot partnership with [mobile messaging service] Whatsapp. Customers can reach me and the other members of the team and we can hear from them directly.
What other ways are you engaging with your customers?
The magic happens when you connect a smartphone app to a car. For a “Mavener,” it’s seamless. You download the app, then you choose the car, and your smartphone actually acts as a key when you enter the vehicle. You get to bring your whole digital life inside. We strongly believe that the car-share experience of the future needs to feel like car ownership. You plug in your phone and immediately you have access to your music, your preferences.
Sounds like a millennial’s dream. Is most of your team made up of millennials? If so, do you find managing them to be as challenging as people say?
Yes, I’d say it is mostly millennials. They push me every day to think of something new and do new things. It’s much more Silicon Valley than what you would imagine of an old-style automotive company. I’m thrilled to attract that kind of talent. We have people from Google, from ZipCar, and now from [recently acquired] SideCar. I don’t really get what the big deal is with managing Millennials. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really grown up. It’s all about people wanting to stay, it’s all about their ideas being heard, all about ideas being generated. At Maven, it’s what we do, so there’s no problem. I don’t see a problem of management, all I see a problem with is prioritizing—there are so many ideas!
I think Mary runs this company because she’s ultimately very qualified to run a company—I’ve never focused on her or my gender. Still, if somebody joins GM because they see Mary as CEO and they see other women in positions of power, I’ll be thrilled, because that means that we inspired another generation of young women. That said, I’m a strong believer in the diversity of opinion. The diversity that you have from various angles is making the company stronger. [To read more about gender diversity in the workplace, subscribe to the Broadsheet.]
I think it is inspiring to the next generation of women to see women like you and Mary Barra balance work and family. How do you do it?
I would never say that you achieve balance—it’s all about trade-offs and the personal choices you make. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had a wonderful support system both at home and with GM. I’m doing this because I want a future of mobility to fit into what my eight-year-old son’s life will be like in a couple of years and so that motivates me to work even harder at it. It’s such an inspiration to know that I’m building a future for something that he might use, and he himself is always giving me great suggestions.
So is the trick to involve your family in what you do?
In my case it seems to be working. My son is going to come to my launch event today. I call him my chief personal consultant and he has every model of GM vehicle at his disposal—or at least the small versions. He’s totally loving the fact that his mom works in cars.