Drive, She Said

by deirdre kelly

photography by sofie kirk

Recently appointed a member of the Order of Canada, Agnes Di Leonardi (BBA ’82) made her mark as Mazda’s legal leader after years working as in-house counsel at Ford and General Motors. Her drive into the upper echelons of the country’s automotive industry took the serendipitous route.  

“I had just graduated from law school in 1986 and was recruited by Borden & Elliot – today Borden Ladner Gervais – where General Motors (GM) was one of their major clients,” says Di Leonardi, who lives in Toronto. 

“I was sent there as an articling student for three months and exactly at the same time as GM was doing a heavy-duty joint venture with Volvo Trucks. It’s how I got my first taste and feel for the automotive industry, and I ended up staying in it for more than 30 years.” 

Along the way, Di Leonardi was mentored by Bobbie Gaunt, the former president of Ford Motor Company of Canada Ltd., and Maureen Kempston Darkes, a Canadian lawyer and automotive executive who was the General Motors Group vice-president before becoming president of GM in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. She retired in 2009. 

“I learned a lot from these pioneering women,” says Di Leonardi, the daughter of Italian immigrants and the first one in her family to get a higher education. “They inspired me to want also to make a lasting impact.” 

At Mazda, Di Leonardi led the company’s involvement in the Global Automakers of Canada, a national industry association – comprising 15 automotive companies operating in the country. In this role, she advocated for sound public policy to support a competitive and sustainable automotive market in Canada. 

She also helped create a global non-profit organization that led to the founding of Emerging Leaders’ Dialogues Canada Inc., a branch of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Commonwealth Study Conferences devoted to leadership development by creating globally connected leaders. 

“I’m most proud of having stretched myself to learn all aspects of the industry and make a difference,” Di Leonardi says. “I like to think my efforts helped to create a level playing field for Canada.”  ■