BGSU alumna charges up new GE startup, Current, with full energy
“I’m curious, focused and ambitious. I’m always seeking opportunities to learn new things, and I purposely take on new challenges that push me out of my comfort zone. That constant hunger and desire to keep learning and contribute in a meaningful way has always been the cornerstone of my career development.” These words describe the drive and energy that BGSU alumna Maryrose Sylvester ’87 has used to forge an impressive career which has landed her in the role of president and CEO at General Electric’s (GE) new startup - Current. This new innovative launch focuses on using data to provide high tech energy efficient solutions.
The enterprising executive sees that the creation of Current, powered by GE, is not only important for GE, but for the rest of the world as well. Sylvester states there are so many opportunities and disruptions. “Our customers are facing massive challenges as they strive to remain competitive and relevant. Even though our society has more technology than ever before, there is still far too much inefficiency and waste in our system, especially as it relates to the business world.”
She continues, “The average commercial building wastes 30% of its energy—that’s crazy, and someone should be able to solve that kind of big problem. At Current, we talk about our mission as becoming the digital engine for intelligent environments. We combine advanced energy technologies like LED and solar with our open cloud computing platform, called Predix, and then add sensors and energy applications that we develop, plus other apps our ecosystem of partners help develop.”
Back in her college days studying supply chain management, Sylvester had no idea that she would be leading a cutting edge new company within a Fortune 500 corporation. “I think in those days I was like most students about to graduate—it was hard for me to see more than a few years ahead. I knew that I wanted to pursue a business career and work somewhere that allowed me to participate in solving big problems and creating and contributing to new ideas and solutions. Plus I had done a GE internship while in school, so I knew that I liked the company and thought it was a place I could grow.”
The college education Sylvester obtained at BGSU provided her with an outstanding foundation for her career. “I loved my time at BGSU. It was the right environment for me at the right time, and I remember it as a diverse campus with a strong academic reputation. It was a school with good Midwestern values where you had to work hard, and it helped me learn to make good choices that would prepare me for the working world. We had great professors and advisors, and the internship experience I landed while at BGSU helped shape the entire path of my career after graduation.”
Two professors at BGSU stood out to Sylvester; one of them was Dr. Chan Hahn. “I hope all three of our daughters have a professor that challenges them and cares about their success as much as Dr. Hahn did for me. I learned the value of being tough-minded and learned how to embrace constructive criticism, plus how to prepare for a discussion and articulate a point-of-view with confidence.”
Another memorable professor was Dr. Charlie Watts who had a very business-oriented approach. “He had a great external lens that he brought to the classroom. He was very engaging and gave me a sense for what it’s like in ‘real world’ scenarios—I still carry those lessons with me today every time I’m in a boardroom or heading into a business meeting with customers.”
Prior to serving as the CEO of Current, Sylvester was the president and CEO of GE Lighting and also president and CEO of several other divisions within GE. Over the course of her career, she was not afraid of taking risks. One of those previous risks was accepting the position of director of Sourcing for GE Lighting Europe in Budapest in 1995. Now she has taken a risk of leading a brand new venture, however, Sylvester admits that risk-taking is part of being successful.
“Leaders need to learn to be uncomfortable,” states Sylvester. “It’s important to pick the right time and place, but I believe that forcing yourself into uncomfortable situations is key to both personal and professional development.”
“It helps you learn what you’re good at, what you need to work on, plus it teaches you how to be humble and consider new ideas and perspectives before making decisions.” She adds, “It also forces you to really focus on your team and their capabilities—it’s important to build a collaborative team.”
GE has a long tradition of embracing innovation and launching Current is a demonstration of that kind of entrepreneurial thinking. The 1987 BGSU graduate holds a firm commitment to innovation and sees Current as a perfect example of that spirit which Thomas Edison exhibited when creating GE. “Any good business must continually innovate to keep growing, and GE is no exception. Even though we have an excellent track record of pioneering innovative technologies in industries like lighting, aviation, healthcare, etc., we are constantly searching for the next disruptive technology. Today we believe the Industrial Internet holds the key to that next big wave of innovation—that’s why we’re shifting GE from a traditional manufacturing company to the world’s first digital industrial business. Current is a perfect example of what a true digital industrial business looks like.”
Forging the new Current venture is not the only thing that Sylvester has tried to drive forward at GE. She also is passionate about developing female talent by establishing the GE Women’s Network to help mentor women and drive them towards executive positions in Fortune 500 companies and close the gender gap.
“We’re making progress,” states Sylvester, “but unfortunately the gap still exists. I don’t think there’s a magic formula—the only way we can close the gap is to keep working on it. I believe diversity hires diversity, so as more women rise to senior level positions, they will hire more diversity on their teams. We’re doing better in some areas than others—one particular area of concern is we need more women in STEM-related fields.” Sylvester advocates for more educational support from primary schools through college to encourage more women to pursue STEM-related careers.
“At GE, we recently launched a new initiative to hire 20,000 women in technical roles by 2020, plus we implemented a new goal to have 50:50 male/female representation for our entry-level technical programs.”
Sylvester adds, “I think role models are critical. Our young girls need to see themselves as future business leaders, scientists or even president. That was the cornerstone of the women’s network--women helping women and changing the culture to allow all to contribute to their fullest potential.”
The BGSU alumna has taken her passion for helping women with their careers outside of GE. She served as a panelist for the College of Business Women in Leadership conference a few years ago, and she was recognized for her career accomplishments with the prestigious BGSU Academy of Distinguished Alumni Award.
The advice she gives to women determined to climb the corporate ladder to success as she did is to set big goals. “Be aspirational, be bold and work hard. Face the truths about yourself, even the ugly ones—learn what you’re really good at and what you need to work on. Build a good network of mentors and sponsors to help support you along the way.”
She concludes, “Surround yourself with people you like working with but who are different than you—focus on bringing out the good in others and challenge them to bring out the best in you.”