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GM highlights diversity at Detroit Auto Show

By Freddie Allen/Senior Washington Correspondent
On February 2, 2015

Ed Welburn, vice president of Global Design for General Motors, talks about the Avenir, Buick’s concept sedan in Detroit, Mich.
Credit: Freddie Allen/NNPA

DETROIT (NNPA) – During the media week leading up to the 2015 North American International Auto Show, General Motors (GM) not only revealed new models and concept cars like other automakers, they also showcased the importance of diversity in the company’s ranks.

At “Design by Detroit,” an event hosted by GM that featured local artists, industry insiders and a custom-painted Stingray, three young, minority designers shared their experiences working for the embattled, century-old auto company.

Ven Lai, the lead creative designer for the Chevrolet Color and Trim Studio, said that after joining GM in 2007, she learned that the company appreciated passion for design and that when artists from different cultures and backgrounds lend their input to the process, the car, the customer and the brand benefit.

Crystal Windham, the first African-American female design director at GM, currently leads the Chevrolet Passenger Car & Small Crossover Interiors department. Windham’s work was featured in the 2014 Chevrolet Impala and the all-new electric hybrid Chevrolet Volt.

“As designers, we’ve been empowered,” said Windham in her official press bio. “There is an exciting renaissance at GM and I am thrilled to be a part of it.”

Martin Davis, the design manager for the Exterior lighting and North American exterior Design, said that Windham has already left her mark on the interior design of Chevrolet passenger cars and that consumers will see even more of her influence on that segment very shortly as new products are rolled out.

Davis, who led the team that redesigned the exterior lighting for the new Cadillac Escalade said that working on the iconic sports utility vehicle was humbling and surreal.

“But you quickly get past that and embrace the challenge,” said Davis, who started his career with GM when he was 22 years old. “Working with new technologies like [light emitting diodes] enables us to do a number of things we haven’t done before.”

Ed Welburn, vice president of Global Design and General Motors, said that he still loves the look on a designer’s face when their concept is selected for a new project.

“I don’t care if they’re right out of school or if they’ve been with the company 40 years,” Welburn smiled. “They have that look on their face like they’re eight years old.”

Welburn, who studied sculpture and design at Howard University and joined the automaker when President Richard Nixon was still in the White House, is the first executive to lead all of the company’s Global Design Centers in the United States, Germany, Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India. The GM veteran said that he enjoyed knitting together a global team of studios, where everyone really knows and supports one another.

Like cultural diversity overseas, Welburn said gender and ethnic diversity in the United States is extremely important to GM and considers his involvement in the evolving diversity mission at GM a part of his legacy. He admitted that there are not nearly as many Blacks and other minorities in the company as he would like.

Recruiting Blacks for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers isn’t just a GM problem, it’s an American one.

A 2014 study on STEM workers by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a nonpartisan think tank focused on racial equity, reported that Blacks account for less than 4 percent of workers in science and engineering jobs. Meanwhile, industries that are more dependent on STEM-related workers are expected to grow at nearly twice the rate as sectors that are less dependent on STEM workers.

That’s why the decorated auto exec is working with Detroit-area middle school and high school students, mostly African American, to identify the ones who want to attend CCS and offers them scholarships.

Anita Burke, the chief engineer of the GMC Canyon, a mid-sized truck, said that when she was younger, women didn’t go into design or engineering. That was considered men’s work. Burke thought about going into nursing or teaching, because that is what people expected her to do.

“Many kids these days have zero understanding of what the auto industry is and depth of the things that you can do,” she continued. “You don’t have to be a CEO of a company, if that’s really not your passion, you just gotta’ love what you do.”

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