Lara Harrington’s career trajectory is one educators and advocates want to encourage: From a youngster working in a Huber Heights garage to the top of her field as a Honda R&D Americas chief engineer — and the first woman acknowledged as lead designer of new Honda vehicles.
The path from the Dayton area to leading engineering and design teams on the Honda Pilot and newly redesigned Passport in Raymond, Ohio, involved plenty of work. Today, Harrington is celebrated as the first woman at Honda to fulfill a lead product development role.
Harrington sees herself not only helping to shape the Hondas of the future, but acting as a trailblazer for other young women in engineering and similar disciplines.
“To be able to lead a team, and to be able to ensure that all of these great ideas are coming out and being implemented, it’s exciting,” she said.
Lara became Honda’s first woman “LPL” — or “large project leader” — not because decision-makers at the automaker wanted a woman in that role, said Frank Paluch, former president of Honda R&D Americas.
“We put Lara in charge of this product because she’s the best person for it,” Paluch said.
“She knows every aspect of Honda,” added Paluch, who today serves as an executive vice president at Honda of America Manufacturing. “She has grown up through the system.”
Anyone who spearheads a development team is likely to be exceptionally gifted in a variety of disciplines — research, technical details, customer needs and other areas.
“It requires a unique set of talents,” Paluch said.
The intended customer for the Honda Passport differs from the CRV, which is family oriented, and the Pilot, which is aimed at larger, more mature families.
With the Passport — a two-row, midsize, generally V-6 powered SUV — Paluch said Harrington was able to target a customer Honda typically doesn’t have — young single men.
“Actually, because her viewpoint is exactly the opposite, she was able to incorporate a lot of things into that car that would be really attractive to that customer,” he said.
‘This is an unusual thing’
Harrington’s dad was a Wright-Patterson Air Force Base engineer. Working with him on do-it-yourself tasks was totally natural, Harrington said. Her dad’s emphasis on self-sufficiency immediately rubbed off on her and her sisters.
“He spent a lot of time in the garage working on automobiles,” Harrington said. “And I enjoyed the time I spent with him there. I learned a lot. And it certainly had an influence on my education and my career choices in life.”
As a child, her small hands made fishing parts out of engine compartments a breeze, she recalled.
It wasn’t until college that she realized how unique she was.
She earned a degree in aeronautical engineering at The Ohio State University, working in a program with perhaps 50 men — and two women.
“That’s when I thought, ‘Huh. This is an unusual thing,’” she said. “But because of the experience I had growing up, I never suffered from a lack of confidence, and I think it’s directly attributable to the experience that I had growing up, feeling like I could do this.”
It was only from female college roommates that she encountered anything resembling resistance or surprise, she said.
“I was unusual to them,” she said. “The fact that I could maybe clean out the shower drain or I could maybe fix my roommate’s car.”
Harrington still is unusual — statistically speaking.
In the workforce, 13 percent of engineers are women, according to the Society of Women Engineers.
According to the society, in 2006 3,5 percent of female college freshmen declared an intention to major in engineering, math, statistics or computer science. In 2014, the percentage had risen to 7.9 percent, the society says. (The society says 18.4 percent of male freshmen had declared an intent to major in those disciplines in 2006, a number that rose to 26.9 percent eight years later.)
“The numbers are really appalling,” said Marek Dollár, dean and professor of engineering science at Miami University.
Women often ask different questions and bring to the table unique perspectives, Dollár said. They may be less focused on narrowly defined technology issues. “When we watch our student groups, say in senior design projects, when we rely on teamwork … we can see that female students tend to focus more on consequences, the social consequences of technology,” he said.
The way to bring more women into engineering and related disciplines is to encourage them at a younger age to consider those fields, he believes. And more women role models in STEM fields can help inspire students, he and others say.
“The name of the game is: Younger age,” Dollár said.
“To me, it boils down to this: A society that does not recognize the value of women in every profession is a society that is not taking advantage of all its resources,” said Eddy Rojas, dean of the University of Dayton’s School of Engineering.
A ‘natural progression’
The STEM labor force must reflect all of society, Rojas argues. And 50 percent of society cannot be excluded from the decision-making process when it comes to technology and widely-used products, he said.
Beyond a short development stint at Boeing, Harrington has been with Honda for nearly 28 years, rising steadily to her current role as an automotive development leader. She worked on the 1994 Accord station wagon — one of the few vehicles assembled in the United States and exported to Japan — as well as Acura CL before the 1998 Accord Coupe, among many other projects.
“It was a natural progression for me,” Harrington said. “It was a combination of my love for automobiles and, at the time, my love for efficient space and body structures.”
Most recently, she helmed the development teams responsible for the 2018 and 2019 Ridgeline, 2019 Pilot and the aforementioned Passport.
The 2019 Passport represents a complete redesign from the ground up, a Honda spokesman said.
Reviews for the new Passport have been generally favorable.
“The Passport is back but this time, it’s a far cry from the rebadged Isuzu SUV that wore this name in the 1990s — and it’s quite good,” a Car and Driver magazine editor wrote in February, giving the vehicle 4.5 out of 5 stars.
“Honda has put together a good-looking 2-row SUV with excellent tech and safety features, Honda’s amazing cost-to-own pedigree and fun off-road capabilities,” Kelley Blue Book said in its own review of the 2019 Passport.
Harrington was responsible for the Passport’s overall concept, design and launch. That meant work in engineering, sales, manufacturing and other facets of the launch.
“The response has been terrific,” Harrington said. “The media response has been fantastic.”
And what’s next? Only the cars of the future. And along the way, Harrington says she intends to get as much face time with students and young women engineers as possible.
“I think it goes a long way toward giving them additional confidence to pursue a career in engineering,” she said.
At age 54 and given her range of experience, Paluch expects future greatness from Harrington.
“Pretty much every aspect of the company is open to her,” he said.
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