Barra was born in Royal Oak, Michigan. Her father, Ray Makela, worked as a die maker at Pontiac for 39 years. Barra's parents are of Finnish descent. Barra attended Waterford schools in Waterford, Michigan. She is a graduate of Waterford Mott High School.
Barra graduated from the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), where she obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. She then attended Stanford Graduate School of Business on a GM fellowship, receiving her Masters in Business Administration degree in 1990.
Barra started working for General Motors at the age of 18 as a co-op student in 1980 and subsequently held a variety of engineering and administrative positions, including being the manager of the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.
In February 2008, she became Vice President of Global Manufacturing Engineering. In July 2009 she advanced to the position of Vice President of Global Human Resources, which she held until February 2011, when she was named Executive Vice President of Global Product Development. The latter position included responsibilities for design; she has worked to reduce the number of automobile platforms in GM. In August 2013, her Vice President responsibility was extended to include Global Purchasing and Supply Chain.
During her first year as CEO, General Motors was forced to issue 84 safety recalls involving over 30 million cars. Barra was called before the Senate to testify about the recalls and deaths attributed to the faulty ignition switch. Barra and General Motors also came under suspicion of paying for awards to burnish the CEO and corporation's image during that time.
In August 2017, she was elected to the board of Disney
Barra was listed as one of the world's most powerful women by Forbes, for the fifth time, in 2016. She was most recently listed as the fifth Most Powerful Women, rising from 35th in 2013.
On May 3, 2014, she delivered the Spring Commencement address for University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus at Michigan Stadium. She received an honorary degree.
Barra was listed number 1 in Fortune's Most Powerful Women list in 2015, moving from second place the year before.
She remained in the number one spot in Fortune's Most Powerful Women of 2016.
In April 2014, Barra was featured on the cover of Time's "100 Most Influential People in the World."
In December 2016, Barra joined a business forum assembled by then President-Elect Trump to provide strategic and policy advice on economic issues. However, she left the forum in 2017, following Trump's response to the Charlottesville protests.
Barra is married to consultant Tony Barra, whom she met while studying at Kettering University, and has two children. The family lives in Northville, a suburb of Detroit. She has named the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird as her favorite cars.
Barra is a member of the General Dynamics Board of Directors. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Economic Club and as a member of The Business Council. She is also a member of the Stanford University Board of Trustees, the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council and the Board of Trustees for the Detroit Country Day School.