Shanghai OnStar's Diane Jurgens and her grand China adventure

Diane E. Jurgens

If staying busy is the secret to happiness, Diane Jurgens can tell you all about it.

Jurgens runs operations and strategic planning as managing director of Shanghai OnStar, which provides telematics for cars throughout China. She leads an organization of 2,000 engineers and other workers. A native of Seattle, she has worked in busy Shanghai for nine years with her engineer husband and two children, and she finds her plate filled with long days -- and plenty of travel.

With work hours and personal time so intertwined, Jurgens has had to make an effort to find the mythical balance between the two, while at the same time navigating the cultural differences of living and working in a foreign land.

"When it comes to work-life balance, I learned a decade ago that I'm never going to get an A grade every day," she said with a chuckle during a recent telephone interview from her office in Shanghai. (Jurgens in January talked with U.S.-based reporters at International CES in Las Vegas, leading to this account of her life and work abroad.)

The job has also given her perspective on the need for more women in engineering roles, and a rare view on how attitudes toward women in IT differ in China and the U.S.

First, there's the work

What originally brought Jurgens and her family to China was General Motors. In 2005, after working for GM in Detroit, she moved to Shanghai to fill three different CIO posts, including CIO of international operations. In 2012, she took the top OnStar job in China with Shanghai OnStar, a private joint venture made up mostly of GM subsidiary OnStar and a subsidiary of SAIC, a Chinese state-owned automotive manufacturing company.

She originally studied electrical engineering in college, eventually earning a master's degree from the University of Washington. She later received an MBA with a focus on international business from Seattle University. Now, she interacts with Chinese engineers at OnStar and negotiates business deals with Chinese partners, sometimes in formal face-to-face meetings. Over the years, there's been a substantial cultural learning curve.

"When I come to work each day, I love to walk around and never take a straight path to my office," she said. "When I first started working in China, I'd walk up to Chinese workers in the office, but seeing the president standing right in front of them totally freaks them out. I learned to be more aware. No matter how much you want to be down to earth, there's a hierarchy in China."

She's known for hashing out engineering problems on whiteboards, talking loudly and waving her hands, but has learned to temper that approach. "I'm in teaching mode a lot, but I also have to be respectful and listen," she said. "Even if I think I know everything, it's still challenging to get Chinese engineers to open up. I have to be careful not to state my opinion on something until I've drawn them out. If I don't listen first, I will not get them to talk."

At formal business meetings, there's a strict protocol to follow: On either side of a conference table, the senior partner for each company sits squarely in the middle, opposite his or her equal. Business cards are shared in a kind of ceremony: Each person presents his or her card to another with both hands and often a subtle bow.

"You have to make sure you don't walk in and just sit down, and that threw me when I first started," she recalled. "You know who will start talking first and the issues are resolved ahead of time. So in the meeting, it is just role-playing most of the time. When someone speaks and the words are translated, you don't need to respond each time, but just sit politely until the entire speech is done. A lot of it is a kind of script and very formal."

Picking up the Chinese cultural cues to boost OnStar

Learning to live and work in Shanghai has given Jurgens insights into Chinese consumers of cars and telematics. The People's Republic of China is the world's most populous nation, with 1.35 billion residents. That makes it the biggest potential market for cars and telematics, so competition is expected to become fierce in coming years.

Only one in 10 Chinese residents owns a car -- a major departure from the U.S. market. In China, an entire family will often buy a car together, and doing so is often a life-changing event. One nervous young man recently purchased a car with OnStar service included for a year, then asked the OnStar agent to call the car with the couple inside to help him propose to his future wife. "He was a little nervous to propose. Getting the car with OnStar was a rite of passage," Jurgens said.

Shanghai OnStar is by far the largest telematics provider in China, with 863,000 customers and an average annual growth rate of 95%. The first year of OnStar service is included with a car purchase. After that, the company must hustle to get return customers. Although it has seen a high retention rate, Jurgens declined to offer details.

Shanghai OnStar offers drivers and passengers in China a range of safety and navigation services, similar to what OnStar offers in the U.S, and this year it expects to be the first to launch in-vehicle 4G LTE service. Having an early version of the service in her private car has helped Jurgens handle the flood of daily emails from colleagues 12 time zones away. LTE has even enabled short video calls to her parents in the U.S. -- which, she said, is "a game-changer for me."

Over the past three years, the company has learned to use the intense Chinese fascination with smartphones to its advantage with OnStar services. Customers can remotely lock and unlock car doors and monitor a car's health from a smartphone, for instance, helped by the OnStar mobile app, which has 400,000 registered users. But the company also quickly learned it made sense to integrate OnStar services with WeChat and Weixing, highly popular Chinese social media sites. The latest WeChat app, for example, offers a payment channel to purchase OnStar services through the WePay mobile wallet.

"We've faced a challenge in China because the model of giving away a service for free here is very strong," she said. "In restaurants, there's no tipping, since the thinking is that it's that person's job to provide the meal you have, so you don't pay for the service separately. But we've demonstrated the value of delivering our OnStar service, much more than competitors. We had to really study China to understand the things that people would value, but we've been very successful in getting there."

Jurgens said that while OnStar connects a vehicle to the Internet, it also does "much more than that." A big difference between Chinese and American consumers is that Chinese consumers " are very tied into social media and personal connections," she noted, "and since one in 10 people own a car and entire families get together to buy a single car, if you can share that experience, that's valuable."

"We're trying to position OnStar as a service that connects you, your car and your friends," she added. "By using WeChat, which is used by nine out of 10 people, we take the friction out of the process and go where people already are."

Fitting life and career together

Amid the challenges of growing Shanghai OnStar, Jurgens said adjusting to life in China took a while. GM offers its workers abroad a range of home and family services that have helped. Still, there are frequent concerns, including avoiding potentially dangerous air pollution in the crowded city of Shanghai, with its 14 million people.

Jurgens said she often checks the U.S. Consulate's website for updates on the air quality in Shanghai, so she can try to avoid being outside when the air quality rating is hazardous. Recently, an American colleague was visiting the city and said after several days she had suddenly noticed the need to use an inhaler to breath easily. After confirming a high pollution rating that day on the website, her colleague avoided being outside during midday when the pollution peaked.

On the busy streets and sidewalks, Jurgens said Chinese residents tend to wear surgical masks to deal with the pollution. "It's just one of those things about Shanghai, and I don't dwell on it -- I deal with it," she said. "Food, water and air quality are all just part of living here."

Jurgens tries to stay fit with frequent walks on city sidewalks, or at indoor malls when the mercury tops 100 degrees in the summer. "You have to be very careful not to get run over by the electric bikes that are everywhere," she said, "but I get a lot more than 15,000 steps a day and it's been very helpful."

Women in engineering -- with a Chinese perspective

Jurgens recognizes how unusual she is: A woman engineer running a large technology operation -- in China. She's interested in attracting more American women to engineering careers, and has been able to see how China could offer some insights. More than 40% of engineering students in China are female, roughly double the percentage in the U.S. In both countries, however, there's still the challenge of keeping women in engineering roles once they enter the workforce.

"I remember being the only woman in some of my engineering classes," Jurgens recalled. "Early in my career, I kept my head low. It was male-dominated and I didn't want to stand out. Now, I'm very secure and really do look to mentor engineers. I'm aware I can have a big impact. It's not always going to be a perfect fit for some women."

Jurgens said the Chinese education system traditionally has directed students into specific degree programs such as engineering based on aptitude tests. "Until recently, what you studied in school in China was heavily influenced by your test scores and your parents, not your personal preference. I believe these two influences are key factors in why there are more female engineering students in China than the U.S."

As for her own interest in engineering, she said, "my family gave me confidence and support, and I just loved math and science. I was always going to be a math teacher or an engineer, and there was never a question of that when I was growing up. There's always natural talent that matters, but a big part is the family unit and encouraging women. We have to help people understand what a great career you can have with a science background. Engineering and science as a career is cool, and we need to help boys and girls in the U.S. understand that to sustain interest."

As a female engineer and business leader in China, Jurgens said she has noticed little gender discrimination. "There's very little gender difference here in China, I think. I am treated with tremendous respect here," she explained. "The response I get is partially due to the credibility I have earned with my technical experience and leadership skills. I also know that's because of my position in the organization. Chinese culture is very hierarchical, where knowledge and experience are highly valued."

Adventure awaits

Entering the engineering field has clearly created a variety of opportunities for Jurgens. "I would tell young women to choose a career where you will wake up every day looking forward to going to work," she said. "I love to solve hard problems, to have the chance to be innovative and to make a difference every day.

"Working in China's been an adventure. There have been family challenges, but at the same time, my family unit grew tight," she said. "I'd say if you want an adventure and want to work in the auto field and in the biggest auto market in the world where you can do things five times faster, it's worth it."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon