Ed Welburn speaks during the unveiling of the Buick Avista concept coupe ahead of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, January 10, 2016.
Photography by JIM WATSON AFP/Getty Images
By Ellen McGirt
June 21, 2016

Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of global design, recently announced his retirement after 44 years at the company. Welburn is just the sixth design chief in GM’s 108-year-history, the first African American auto designer and the highest ranking African American at any auto company in the world. He currently leads a network of ten design centers in seven countries, and a team of more than 2,500 creative professionals – based in the U.S., Germany, South Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India.

He is responsible for the Camaro redesign and the latest Corvette model. Car and Driver magazine has called him “the man who brought beauty back to GM.”

But Welburn started out as a black kid from suburban Philly who was mad for cars. And his success is an object lesson for what happens when powerful people conspire to remove obstacles from the path of the passionate and the talented. “I fell in love with a Cadillac concept car as a kid,” recalls Welburn, who populated his room with drawings, models and car kits, built and re-configured with scant regard for the written instructions. When he was 11, he boldly wrote a letter to a GM executive saying he hoped to work there one day. What did he need to do, specifically? “I got an answer,” he said.

And the advice was specific: Keep sketching and get yourself to Howard University.

Groomed for auto jobs

There is a poignant history between the US automakers and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which helped prepare young black engineers for technical careers in auto manufacturing. By hiring at all levels throughout the Great Migration of the 20th century, the automakers played a starring role in helping black Americans transition themselves from the servant class, in the agricultural south, to the middle class, in the industrial north.

When Welburn entered Howard University’s fine arts program in 1969 – not engineering – he was part of the tail end of a wave of black professionals being groomed for auto jobs. His classmates included Debbie Allen and Felicia Rashad, who expressed no interest in cars. “But the professors had such a deep relationship with GM, they were able to fine-tune my curriculum to help me prepare me for a career there.”

He started as an intern in 1971, and was hired on full time in 1972, right before the oil crisis triggered massive layoffs and legendary lines at gas pumps. “I have lived through many interesting times at GM,” he says simply.

“Only other black person they seemed to know was J.J. from ‘Good Times'”

Welburn was the only black designer on the team. “I never even thought about it until I started putting my sketches up on the display boards,” he said. Then he realized, that he’d gone from designer to human novelty. “Everyone wanted to see what the black guy was all about. The only other black person they seemed to know was J.J. from ‘Good Times,’” he said.

Despite the novelty, he felt accepted, excited, and under pressure to represent. He made sure to buy a gray suit with his first paycheck. The only other black people who worked nearby – admins and maintenance, mostly – steered clear. “They were proud of me,” he says, “but…they told me they didn’t want to blow it for me.”

“Design is a shared language”

Car buffs will be impressed with his early assignments, first working on the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, then managing the creation of the Aerotech, a concept car that professional driver A.J. Foyt would drive a record-breaking 257 mph on a closed course. “I learned that my strength is collaboration,” says Welburn, and encouraged other people from diverse functions, like engineers, designers, marketers and fabricators to work together upfront. “Design is a shared language,” he says. “It helps.”

So, when he was tapped to run global design in 2005, he pushed to unify it. “How powerful it would be if all ten design studios were one global organization, that worked as one seamless team?”

Diversity of thought and experience would better prepare GM to more quickly meet the needs of a diverse customer base. He uses the words “generous,” “open,” “sharing” and “giving,” characteristics he says that don’t always come naturally to creative types who prefer to work alone until the final hour. “It took us seven, eight years to get there,” he said. “But we’re here.”

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Welburn’s focus outside of the office was often spent on the talent pipeline. He stayed involved in the company’s longstanding relationship with Howard University, but says, “I’m concerned that design schools are not as diverse as I want them to be.” He worked with Detroit’s College for Creative Studies to create a program to serve local public school students, often at courses held at GM headquarters. “It says a lot about the people in our design organization,” he says. “They work all day and hang out with students all night.”

But removing barriers is nothing if not personal. “We have one young man, who is really good,” he says. As a high schooler, the student worked his way into the college summer internship program, Welburn says, and turned in better work than some of the more seasoned adults. “He lives in Flint. The members of his church made sure he was here each week, one way or another,” he says, smiling. “And now he’s going to design school.”

 

When she’s not writing about the world’s greatest rock star-leader, Ellen McGirt is busy working on Fortune’s raceAhead, a newsletter about race and culture.

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