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“Never underestimate your value to an organization” With Norma Hubele

Never underestimate your value to an organization. As part of my University responsibilities I was serving on a search committee for a new department Chair. When the college Dean said that he did not like any of the applicants, I was very forceful in trying to get him to change his mind. He shrugged and […]


Never underestimate your value to an organization. As part of my University responsibilities I was serving on a search committee for a new department Chair. When the college Dean said that he did not like any of the applicants, I was very forceful in trying to get him to change his mind. He shrugged and said, “I am appointing you as Interim Chair.” I was shocked and exclaimed: “Are you on drugs!” I definitely did not want the job but he convinced me and I made it my mission to find our next Chair. I was successful and learned my own value.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Norma Hubele. A statistician and educator of more than thirty years, Norma has served as a professor, consumer advocate, and automotive safety expert. Her career has been marked by firsts: At Arizona State University Norma was the first to be the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the entire school of engineering, the first to reach the rank of full professor while balancing work and family in a part-time capacity, first pregnant faculty member, and was only the third woman in the faculty of over 100 at the time. Norma has served as an expert witness in over 120 consumer-related legal cases with a vast majority in the area of automotive safety. She is now sharing her in-depth knowledge of statistical methods and automotive crash data directly with consumers through www.TheAutoProfessor.com and her easy-to-use car safety ranking system called Auto Grades.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When my daughter told me she wanted to marry, I loved the man, but I hated his car. Like most of his generation, he drove a small car to save money and the planet. I tried not to worry, but my concern escalated when they had their first child.

Here I was, an expert in auto crash statistics, and MY daughter was zipping through traffic in a small car with her son in the back seat. When I questioned her about safety, she explained that the car had gotten 5 stars from the federal rating system. But I knew from the real data, not laboratory testing, that this choice put her and our precious cargo in more danger than necessary.

I was fueled by love and driven by conviction. How could I create something that captured everything I knew about how cars protect drivers and passengers?

After a year of intensive data analysis and testing, I had my answer: Auto Grades — a system of ranking cars based on what happens to real people in real crashes on the road, which cars offer the most protection (they get A’s) and which did not (they get D’s and F’s)! We make these Auto Grades available, FREE, to consumers on www.theautoprofessor.com.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

We were in our first year of developing our ranking system and I sent my Chief Technical Officer, Katie Kennedy, to a dealership to act as if shopping for a car. She played the naïve shopper role quite well and asked the salesman why the used cars did not have any star safety ratings posted on their windshield. His reply, “All cars are safe nowadays. Those ratings don’t mean much. Even a Smart car gets 5 stars.”

The truth is over 96% of all cars tested since 2011 have gotten either 4 or 5 stars based on the experience of crash test dummies in laboratory testing. In other words, all cars’ ratings look nearly identical. When a Smart car and a Chevrolet Tahoe both get 4 stars, you know that something is wrong!

That experience strengthened our resolve to give car buyers real, on-the-road safety information!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s not exactly a mistake. It was a wake-up call!

I wanted to hire a marketing firm during my first few months to help with branding the ranking system. As part of the interview process, I spent time telling my story about how I had been an expert witness in automotive safety statistics for more than 100 legal cases during the past 30+ years. I explained that I worked with plaintiff attorneys, usually as a rebuttal witness, telling industry experts that they were analyzing the data incorrectly.

I was a retired University professor who had built a career teaching statistics to engineers and writing text books. I viewed my expert witness work as much same, but in these instances, instead of being in a classroom, I was in a courtroom. My motivation was pure — to educate and correct.

Now I wanted to create a ranking system to educate consumers about the real safety of cars on the road. In other words, take my knowledge developed as an educator and expert witness and share it with everyone.

When I finished telling my story and explaining my motivation, the marketing executive remarked: “Oh, you’re the woman that Detroit hates.”

I was totally caught off guard! Really? Why would someone hate me? In thinking about this response, I had to come to grips with the fact that there will be detractors, people and companies who will not like what we are doing. Maybe “Detroit” will hate us. But our motivations are pure. Give consumers real information.

The lesson learned is, stick to your convictions and don’t let detractors label you.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Every single person on our team is driven by the same conviction. Our ranking system, our premier product, Auto Grades, is totally unique! Our information is revolutionary — yet it resonates with consumers. When we tell people how we rank cars based on what actually happens to people in real crashes, we see light bulbs go off.

“Oh, not dummies, what happens to real people in a crash. Makes so much sense.”

“Why hasn’t someone done this before now?”

“I feel like I am being let in on a secret!”

When we tell people that our rankings can get personal because for the more common cars, we rank by age and gender, we get even more validation:

“Really! Makes sense! I’m not the same as I was 20 years ago.”

“That’s good, because my wife and I are totally different.”

“I never thought that those dummies could imitate real people!”

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our site, theautoprofessor.com, is an information and education resource. We give consumers the information that we believe they deserve to know before buying or leasing their next car. We are currently writing more entries for our blog-style “Car Safety Guide” section of the site. Here our data scientist team cover a wide field from exploring safety technologies, such as forward collision warning systems, to expert commentary on how age relates to safety. Similar to our Auto Grades, these blogs continue to disrupt the car buying process because we are solely dedicated to the consumer — this often results in busting myths about safety and giving true information about what happens to real people on the road in cars.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Starting a new venture takes an incredible amount to persistent and energy, so make sure that you hire team members who share your passion. Enthusiasm and dedication rooted in passion makes for creative team members. When you know that they are as committed as you are, then you function more as a family.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

When I look back on my early educational experience, it feels like a stereotype experience — but it’s true. I majored in mathematics at the University of Massachusetts and frequently only had one or two other young women in my class. I did my graduate studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest undergraduate engineering school in the country — again, in the mid-70’s the women were few and far between. When I hired into the engineering faculty at Arizona State University in the mid-80’s, I was only the third female among over 100 male colleagues. My experience with boys and young men in my education definitely helped me to survive this professional environment. It also helped that I married an engineer who has been a solid partner and supporter of my professional ambitions.

My advice for female leaders arises out of my own personal experience.

Even in high stress situations, always try to find some humor. I learned this when I was a graduate assistant teaching calculus to young engineering students, mostly male. One of the young fellows climbed out a window during my lecture — was it my teaching? Luckily we were on the first floor.

Find your strongest personal talent and embrace it. When my doctoral advisor called me “clever” I was a little put-off. Now I embrace the label — I know that I can find a new and better solution to old problems. I always look for ways to create new, unique opportunities.

Never underestimate your value to an organization. As part of my University responsibilities I was serving on a search committee for a new department Chair. When the college Dean said that he did not like any of the applicants, I was very forceful in trying to get him to change his mind. He shrugged and said, “I am appointing you as Interim Chair.” I was shocked and exclaimed: “Are you on drugs!” I definitely did not want the job but he convinced me and I made it my mission to find our next Chair. I was successful and learned my own value.

Leave room for new opportunities. Very early in my career, I was asked to assist a team of bio-engineers with some statistical analysis for a legal case. I said yes. I would never have guessed that this would change the course of my life.

The solution to a problem will make itself obvious. Life never goes in a straight line. Adopting these two attitudes has helped me to be patient (not usually my strength), to relegate problems to the back of my mind instead of obsessing and to keep my eyes and ears open for possible solutions. These viewpoints have been essential in helping me manage this start-up venture because I definitely did not know what our venture would look like when it started — nor can I predict its future.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband, Norman, is my greatest supporter. When we started the engineering firm that he has run for over 33 years, he worked two jobs — his engineering day job with a paycheck and his start-up metallurgical business in the evenings. Putting in over 60 hours a week, including evenings and weekends, I was in awe at his persistence and constant energy. We never discussed the possibility of failure because that word is not in his vocabulary. Adapt, maybe, but never fail.

When I decided to start this new venture, he was equally enthusiastic about my vision. Over the past 2 years, he has never wavered — and that has helped me to “keep the main thing, the main thing.” Having a partner to share a life with is pretty lucky but having a partner who shares a vision is truly a blessing.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Education is the universal means of improving the human condition. I started my career teaching in the University classroom. My work as an expert witness is an extension of this teaching mission — to educate in the courts and society. But this can also get very personal.

My experience as an expert witness in automotive defect and safety-related litigation has made me very sensitive to injured families’ pain and suffering. When we get behind the wheel of a car, sit in the passenger seat or buckle-up an infant daughter or grandson, we trust that there is a certain level of safety and protection. It is this breach of trust that has motivated me over the past 30 years. I now think of my work as helping to correct problems that so severely and painfully effect the ‘little guy.’ I am dedicated to using my statistical knowledge in automotive safety to create a world where everyone walks away from a crash.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

By giving consumers real information about protection in cars, that is, the Auto Grades, we want to inspire a movement toward safer, affordable, fuel efficient cars. The Toyota Prius is not the answer — we give it an Auto Grade of C+. Trading occupant protection for miles-per-gallon is not the solution. We want a movement in car design that no longer forces consumers to choose between saving the planet and saving their families.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.”

As I described at the beginning of this interview, in my own family I was faced with convincing my daughter that I loved her fiancé but did not love his car. I wanted to protect her and her future family. I knew that she would eventually see my point of view, but first she needed information.

I created the Auto Grades ranking system and have dedicated the past two years of my life to this mission because I wanted to create something that would be good for my family as well as every other family. I have been driven by love and the conviction that we are all equally entitled to real information about the cars we drive.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 😉

Elon Musk and Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors would both be at top of my list as they have had such major influences on the car buying and selling culture in this country. I would love to have a lunch with them, plus influencers like Rose Marcario, the CEO of Patagonia or Leonardo DiCaprio to help bring safer cars to the environmental movement, so buyers no longer need to make the choice between saving our families and saving our planet.

Watch more about The Auto Professor here:

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