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Karen Caswelch '84

GM executive pioneers a new balance

Karen Caswelch ‘84 has spent much of her life bucking trends and setting precedents. The daughter of a white mother and an African-American father, Caswelch broke into the male-dominated auto industry when few women or minorities were in the field. Yet as many of her peers have job-hopped their way up the career ladder, she has remained with the same company she started working for as an MIT undergraduate.

Karen is flanked by husband Tom and daughter Kristine at a Women of Color awards banquet.

“I’ve turned down opportunities to leave GM, and even within GM, because then I’d be sacrificing my family life, and you have to have balance,” says Caswelch, who is vice president of purchasing at Allison Transmission, a company that GM spun off in 2007.

Caswelch now lives in Indianapolis with her husband, Tom Caswell, and their 12-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Her last name is a combination of her original name, Welch, and her husband’s.

A pioneering spirit tempered by a quest for balance may be embedded in Caswelch’s genes. Her parents, who met in the late 1950s as Washington University students active in the NAACP, had to travel out of state to wed. They settled in Edwardsville, IL, because on drives along Route 66 they saw African-American and white children playing together in schoolyards there. “Dad said, ‘If I have kids, that’s where I want to raise them,’” Caswelch says.

When Caswelch showed an interest in engineering, her father urged her to apply to MIT, where she majored in mechanical engineering. She won a scholarship from GM and worked summers at the company. With a GM fellowship, she earned her MBA from Harvard Business School. Two years ago, she won the National Women of Color Technology Award for her decades of managerial leadership at GM.

“What MIT gave me was a really good grounding,” Caswelch says. “Gosh, if you can get through MIT, you can get through anything, but I had a lot of fun there–I had a lot of balance.”

Today Caswelch maintains balance by carving out time for non-work pursuits such as singing with the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church choir with her daughter and chairing the $1.5 million effort to replace the church’s pipe organ. A former member of the varsity women’s volleyball team, she also serves on the MIT Corporation Visiting Committee for the Department of Athletics, Physical Education, and Recreation.

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