Alicia Boler Davis’ career is a priceless lesson in transformational leadership

BY Preta Peace Namasaba February 7, 2024 3:00 PM EDT
Alicia Boler Davis. Photo credit: Alto Pharmacy

Alicia Boler Davis has left an indelible mark across automotive manufacturing, giant retail and now the pharmaceutical industry. She has not only paved the way for herself but also for multitudes of African African women across corporate America. Her career trajectory is inspiring, a lesson in transformational leadership.

Raised by a single working mother of five, Davis learned to be independent and figure out things on her own from an early age. She was fixing family appliances such as the iron, the coffee maker when in Middletown school. This fascination with how things work would ultimately lead her down the engineering path. Davis particularly credits her participation in a General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) summer engineering program for kick-starting her career. The weeks spent studying calculus and chemistry and touring labs, offices and the assembly lines made her realize that she would enjoy working for the carmaker.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern University, a master’s in engineering science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an MBA from Indiana University. Davis joined General Motors in 1994 as a manufacturing engineer. Passionate about the work, eager to learn and one of the few women in manufacturing at the time, she soon earned mentors who nurtured her talent. She was named plant manager of The Arlington facility at only 38 and became the first African American woman to lead a GM plant.

“I had people who were not happy to see me there. People made comments about my age, my gender, my race — and not just little remarks. Once people see that you’re confident, that you’re committed, that you’re going to be in the game that other stuff goes away very quickly,” Davis said about the challenges she faced early in his career.

Davis was met with suspicion by the plant’s veteran workers who considered her an outsider. After all, the Arlington facility builds The Cadillac Escalade and is one of GM’s most important factories. She followed guidance from a female seasoned executive and amiability executed her duties. Davis built herself a reputation as capable leader, becoming chief engineer and vehicle line director on the Chevrolet Sonic while also managing the Orion plant.

After successfully engineering, building and launching the Chevrolet Sonic, Boler Davis transitioned to management. She was tasked with leading the new customer experience department. As executive vice president global manufacturing and labor relations, she was responsible for over 180,000 employees at 171 facilities manufacturing tens of thousands of cars, trucks, and SUVs daily. She was in charge of overseeing 45 different unions representing hourly workers in 31 countries in addition to ensuring that employees built vehicles of the utmost quality. Boler Davis left GM following 25 years with the manufacturer.

In 2019, Davis became Vice President of Global Customer Fulfillment at Amazon. She was promoted to senior vice president global customer fulfillment within two years, becoming the first Black executive to join the senior leadership. She led Amazon’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, doubling its fulfillment network to keep up with surging demand, overhauling over 150 warehouses, and managing a team of more than 800,000 people. Davis propelled the company’s growth during challenging times and capitalized on the unprecedented pandemic-driven demand.

“I didn’t want to do anything that felt like I was just taking something and continuing on a path it was already on. I wanted to do something more impactful and transformational. I really thought working at a startup would allow me to use my skills and have a chance to build something. I love to build things,” Davis said about why she chose to lead Alto Pharmacy.

When Alto Pharmacy, a prescription delivery startup approached Davis to take on the CEO position, the seasoned executive decided it was the right move. She wanted to fully utilize her skills and turned down offers to lead Fortune 500 companies. The up-and-coming business has filled over 3 million prescriptions, has 1,200 employees and generates $1 billion in revenue. Davis is now at the forefront of its strategy to disrupt the $500 billion pharmacy industry.