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Ford’s Deb Heed: ‘It's About All of Us Working Together’

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Deb Heed is fired up about helping set an ambitious sustainability agenda for North America’s auto industry to better align with industry counterparts on a global level. The co-chair of AIAG’s Corporate Responsibility Steering Committee (CRSC) also serves as the supply chain sustainability manager for responsible materials sourcing for Ford Motor Company. However, she wasn’t always in sustainability. Here, Heed shares with AIAG about her unique career journey — from her start in the entertainment industry to her year abroad that inspired her career change — as well as her industry outlook, vision, goals, and plans to tackle emerging issues in her current leadership roles.

Q: Tell us about your education and career journey.

Heed: My education and career path have been interesting, but certainly not linear. I got my bachelor's degree at the University of Michigan in performing arts management. I started out marketing live concerts and then moved into advertising movies in Chicago. I took a 10-year break from work to raise a family.

When I was ready to get back into my career, I was not really interested in getting back into marketing anymore. We'd lived in Germany for a year, and it gave me a perspective on what it looked like to integrate sustainability into society. It was embedded in everything. Recycling and composting were free, but you had to pay for every trash bag that you threw out. Houses all over had solar hot water heating and solar electricity. People used the light rail train system and bikes as alternatives to cars, encouraged by the fact that gas prices were really high because gas wasn't subsidized.

When we came back to the U.S., I wanted to get into sustainability. I started out as a volunteer at a nonprofit in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and kept seeing these interns come in for the summer from a dual degree program at the University of Michigan on corporate sustainability. I decided to apply for that, and over the course of three years I got a dual master's degree: a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Science in Natural Resources and Environment.

After I graduated, I started working for Ford and almost immediately joined AIAG on its conflict minerals workgroup. I started out in the supply chain sustainability team helping to build its due diligence program for conflict minerals reporting. We were just going into our first reporting year and had to figure out how to ask all our suppliers to do this reporting. It was such a complicated process, and the AIAG was already working to have an industry-aligned approach, so I jumped right in as a volunteer. I worked with AIAG over the next three years in the workgroups around conflict minerals and then moved within Ford to the corporate side of sustainability. I started out in electric vehicle charging infrastructure strategy for a few years, then the corporate sustainability side within the company. We worked on reporting, human rights, investor relations, ESG ratings, and other workstreams relevant to corporate responsibility.

Two and a half years ago, I moved back to supply chain sustainability as a manager in the human rights space. I'm now moving into responsible materials, so back where I started, but this time around I’m managing the team that does the due diligence and so much more than they ever did when I was there before. It's amazing how it has grown over the last 10 years, and it’s even more amazing to think back to the beginning of my career when I was promoting concerts and movies.

Q: What are your interests outside of work?

Heed: I really enjoy spending time with my family. I also love cooking, watching movies, and reading good stories. I started running during the pandemic, so that's new for me.

Q: Tells us about your family.

Heed: My husband, Tom, is an electrical engineer and a lawyer. He has his own firm, and he does a lot of patents, trademarks, and litigation work. We have two sons who are now 25 and 22 years old. My oldest, Nathan, is married and recently joined the Marines band program. My youngest, Alex, is getting ready to graduate with a mechanical engineering degree and completed a summer internship in the automotive industry, which is exciting for us as well.

Q: What are your current job roles and responsibilities for Ford?

Heed: I manage a team that conducts due diligence on all our conflict minerals, electric vehicle (EV) battery materials, and supply chain audits of our EV battery supply chain. Over the last few years, we've been auditing multiple battery supply chains for cobalt, nickel, and lithium, getting down to the mine level. Our team does a lot of cross-industry collaboration to make sure that we're leading in this space with truly responsible practices in everything from human rights to supply chain sustainability.

We also have our own lighthouse project with the Ford Fund, our company’s philanthropic arm, and the Oil and Mines Governance Center in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The project supports female artisanal cobalt miners to equitably access opportunities that cobalt provides. The first phase was to help the women create the co-op and take care of the legal and organizational setup. The second phase, which we just completed, was to get personal protective equipment and health and safety standards at the mine sites. The third phase we're looking at right now is all about where we're going next. I’m fortunate in my role to get to lead work from both a company level as well as projects from the Ford Fund, as so much intersects within EV supply chain to ensure we’re acting as responsibly and sustainably as possible.

Q: How did your work for Ford evolve into your involvement with AIAG's Corporate Responsibility Steering Committee?

Heed: When I came back to this position at the end of 2020, it was part of the job to be on the CR Steering Committee, which I was excited about. I had really enjoyed working with AIAG and it was nice to get back to working with my cohort and other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the tiers. Being a part of this committee makes us all realize how much larger these issues are than one company, and it has been rewarding to see companies, government, and NGOs come together to collaborate on important issues.

Q: What inspired you to take on a leadership role as co-chair of the committee?

Heed: Rick Comrie, my predecessor with Cooper-Standard, has been one of the co-chairs for around seven years, so I had big shoes to fill being his replacement. But I also know how important these industry organizations are to moving the industry forward into a better, more responsible supply chain and industry. The CR Steering Committee is one of the opportunities to help set the conversation up for how we can move forward, how we can do better, what standards we want to align to, and how we want to reach out to suppliers together in the same way to reduce their workload and to reduce complexity.

Those are all things that are important to Ford and to me, so being co-chair was an opportunity to help set the agenda to help the North America auto industry to have these conversations that are so critical right now. There are a lot of legal requirements that are coming out around the world, a lot of really big risks that are in our collective supply chains that we must manage and address. We can help address these challenges if we're all working together as an industry and we all have similar messaging so that our suppliers, all the way through the supply chain, know that that we're serious about these issues. I feel very passionate about this, so being co-chair felt like a great opportunity.

Q: What is your vision or objective for the CRSC?

Heed: It's moving the ball forward with ever-increasing corporate responsibility best practices for all involved. The rising tide lifts all boats, so let’s raise the tide some more. There's a huge demand in the world for business to do better in leading that charge. Expectations have been set that business leads in the environmental and social space, so I see this as the place to help.

Q: Do you have any specific goals or plans for the committee?

Heed: I'm coming from the human rights space, so it's the most top of mind and comes naturally for me. While it may not be a topic most think about every day in the U.S., forced labor is a real risk in our supply chain globally. Believe it or not, child labor has recently become a risk in North America that we weren't aware of, and now that we're aware of it, it is a huge priority for me personally and for our committee.

Me as Ford Motor Company can do only so much, but if it's me as Ford Motor Company, all the other OEMs, and all the other Tier 1 suppliers, and everybody's singing the same tune, we can get a lot more assurance that our supply chain is doing the right thing and is taking these risks seriously. It's about alignment. It's about all of us working together. European Union automakers are a little ahead of North America on this curve, so another one of my goals is to catch up with them so that the automotive industry globally can be more aligned as well.

Q: Finally, how can the CRSC be instrumental in helping the industry tackle emerging issues such as forced labor, human rights, EV batteries, and carbon emissions reduction reporting?

Heed: The CRSC sets the agenda. We say, “These are the things that are important,” and then we delegate those out to the workgroups. As an example, there is an entire set of workgroups and sub-teams that are all focused on forced labor right now, that all came in the last year as a result of the steering committee's work with the human rights team. We identified the need to expand this group and look at it through the lens similarly to how we looked at conflict minerals 10 years ago. It's important that we have a place where we can make informed decisions and confidently communicate outward, “Here's what we need to work on.”

Carbon neutrality wasn't even part of the conversation five years ago, and now it is the conversation, along with responsibly sourced materials and companies going all the way down their supply chain to audit for assurances. Years ago, these topics were a “wonder if” kind of a thing, and now today it's what we're focused on, and we’re seeing real positive change. The CR Steering Committee helps keep an eye on the whole picture — the legislation that's coming out, the ESG investment community, the nongovernmental organizations. We keep a finger on the pulse of it all so that we can provide that feedback to the workgroups, with the workgroups providing feedback to us through their actions and what they think is important as well, creating a true dialogue throughout the work. The steering committee helps to see the big picture, and I can’t wait to explore all the progress we can make together.



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