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.

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. And, he was the only black person on the design team.“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.

For more on Welburn’s historic rise and how he’s removed obstacles for others, click here.

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