With two simultaneous jobs at General Motors, Dhivya Suryadevara oversees funding for the automaker’s capital activities, banking relationships, and $80 billion pension plan. She commutes between New York City, where her home and family are, and Detroit. To say that Suryadevara, 37, likes a challenge is an understatement.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up and spent most of my childhood in Chennai, in south India. My dad passed away when I was very young, so it was my mother, sisters, and me. My mom had to raise three children on her own, which is difficult to do anywhere, let alone in India. She wanted to make sure there were no corners cut when it came to our education and to prove that we could have the same resources as a two-parent household. Her high expectations made us want to do better, and we learned that nothing comes easy. You have to really work hard to get what you want.
Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
Not at all. It’s not like I said, “I want to work for a large automotive company.” What I did know is that I liked anything challenging and complicated.
What about college?
I went to college in India in the city where I grew up. I had a bachelor’s in commerce, which is basically business. I wanted to get my M.B.A. from a top business program. I moved here when I was 22 to go to Harvard.
Had you been to the United States before?
That was my first time. It was overwhelming. I was very far from home, and there was definitely culture shock. At that time, Harvard Business School took people with a certain amount of work experience, and I had worked through undergrad but had come straight out of college.
What came next?
I didn’t have much money when I got here. My friends would take school trips, but that wasn’t an option for me. I was living on debt the whole time. Everything was funded with student loans that I had to pay back. In those circumstances, you’re under a different amount of pressure to find a job.
So you went into investment banking.
Yes, I worked at UBS for a little over a year. When I was 25, I made the switch to GM.
Some people think of GM as a stodgy, old company. What took you there?
It struck me right away that there was no shortage of interesting things to do there. I saw that I was only limited by how much effort and time I wanted to put in, which is what made me want to work harder.
How does your commute work?
I’m based in New York, and the team is in Detroit. My husband and [10-year-old] daughter are based in New York. Weekends, I’m there, and the weeks are dependent on what’s going on at any given time. I spend a lot of time going back and forth.
How have you adapted to it?
It teaches you to be more efficient. When I’m in Detroit, I take more meetings and focus on work so that it’s easier for me to be with my family when I’m in New York. And I work while I travel. I get hundreds of e-mails each day. I use my time on the plane to go through them.
How do you unwind?
Exercise keeps me sane, especially boxing. It’s very therapeutic.
What’s it like to be in a meeting with you?
We all spend way too much time in meetings. My meetings are on the shorter side. I encourage different points of view. I like to ask, “What are we missing?”
How are you evolving as a manager?
I tend to micromanage. As I’ve taken on more and more responsibilities, it has become more about where do I want to extricate myself and say others will do this versus me?
When you’re not at work, what does your day look like?
Most of the free time I have, I spend with my daughter, and I really dedicate that time to her. I like to take her to school and chat. That’s important to me.
What are your thoughts on balance?
You can’t follow a template that works for someone else. It’s about prioritization. I don’t have time to cook. I recognize that and don’t even bother.
What works for you personally?
I don’t have a silver bullet for balance, but I try to make the most of every week, recognizing that there will be some weeks that are hard.
Is your daughter curious about your job?
She has shown a lot of interest in what I do. She Googles me sometimes and will say, “Mommy, I found these links about you.” When you ask her what she wants to do, she’ll tell you, “Whatever my mom does.”