When Zara “Rolfes” Larsen was called unexpectedly into her boss’s office at General Motors’ Chevrolet headquarters, she thought she was in trouble.
She was early into her engineering career at the company but rising quickly. General Motors was the only place she had ever worked, including three internships during college.
“We’ve got an issue,” Larsen, MS ’85, remembers her program’s chief engineer saying from across his desk. The issue, it turned out, was that her boss was wondering how Larsen was going to manage to get a case of California wine back to Detroit for him.
This was his way of sharing a happy surprise: Larsen had been selected to be one of three GM employees to attend Stanford GSB as a Sloan Fellow.
In the 1980s, GM sponsored at least one woman in each of the Stanford and MIT Sloan Program cohorts for six years running, something no other corporate sponsor had done. Alfred P. Sloan Jr., the longtime chairman and CEO of General Motors, was the original sponsor of the fellows program through the Sloan Foundation. Larsen’s boss, Sam Cataldo, was himself a Class of 1975 Stanford Sloan Fellow.
At 27, Larsen became the youngest person in her cohort of 42 Sloan Fellows. “I knew I wanted a business degree, but I didn’t want to enroll too early,” she recalls. “I wanted to apply real experience in the classroom plus benefit from the magic that a cohort creates together. The Sloan Program was right for me.”
Chief Executive Organizer
The timing was good. She brought her experience as an engineer in the automotive industry into a classroom where her peers were leaders from other global corporations like British Petroleum, PACCAR, Boeing, AT&T, IBM, Mitsubishi, and Conoco. There were also fellows sponsored by the governments of Singapore, Hong Kong, Belgium, and the United States.
Larsen excelled in the rigorous academic environment, but she knew that coursework was not the only reason she was at Stanford. “We know you can get really good grades,” she remembers her GM bosses saying, “but that’s not why we’re sending you.”
Rather, Larsen was at Stanford to build relationships.
Larsen was one of five women in the Sloan Class of 1985 — and one of just two classmates who were single at the time. There were 65 children among her classmates’ families, many of whom called her “Aunt Z.”
“I positioned myself to be social chairman of my class so I didn’t have to do things by myself,” she says. Social coordinator is a role she maintains today, emailing regular “Sloan Alerts” to update her peers under another title: CEO Z (Chief Executive Organizer Zara).
“There was a social something or other going on every single weekend,” says Larsen, who commandeered one of three whiteboards in the Sloan classroom to map out the cohort’s social agenda, much to the dismay of some professors.
Big, Meaty, Chaotic
Larsen’s knack for connecting with others from a range of professional backgrounds served as a foundation for her own career as it diversified over the years. After graduating from Stanford, she spent an additional five years at GM, eventually moving from engineering to manufacturing, just before the two divisions merged.
“I trusted the process,” she says of her years immediately after the Sloan Program. “I just wanted big, meaty, chaotic assignments, which indeed played out to fully leverage what I had experienced at Stanford.”
In the 1990s, she left the company and went on to lead teams at Emerson, three divisions of United Technologies (Otis Elevator, Pratt & Whitney, and Hamilton Sundstrand), Raytheon, and in Switzerland with Werner International. She has also been an independent consultant with a live talk radio show.
Her focus lately is on helping companies — and individuals — through times of change and transition. And, just has she has done for her own Sloan Fellows cohort, she is skilled at connecting others.
“My work,” she says, “has always focused on getting the right people together, in the right place, at the right time.”