Meet General Motors VP of Design Ed Welburn: from Average Student to Car Design Star
He was speaking to a classroom of high school students in Manhattan. The theme was "Find Your Passion" follow it, work hard, and find a career in fine arts and design. It fits the story of Welburn's life.
He was there to tell students about the many openings in automotive design, drawing attention to opportunities that stretch beyond the predictable. These automotive design positions could include digital animation, sculpting (both by hand and on the computer), textiles, color trim, and video.
The talk, produced by Exploring the Arts (www.exploringthearts.org), was established by renowned singer Tony Bennett and his wife to help strengthen the role of the arts in public education in New York. And at the heart of this is a long-time friendship between Bennett and Welburn.
Bennett was there at the school basement to hear his friend speak about automotive design. And I couldn't wait to ask Bennett about his collaboration and tour with Lady Gaga; he beamed when I mentioned her name.
"I'm sharing my life experiences so that you can get a glimpse into my life of designing cool cars," Welburn enthused. He mentioned that he was the first African American that General Motors hired and showed us slides of him with executives in the earlier days. He was sporting an Afro, which he jokingly pointed out to some of the kids, saying, "I looked just like you all do today!"
"When I was three years old, I started sketching cars," he said. "I pulled books from my mother's bookcase and drew with crayons on the first blank page. She was mad at me then, but now she's so proud of those pictures," says Welburn.
When he was eight years old, his parents took him to the Philadelphia Auto Show. Seeing the Cadillac Cyclone nailed it for him. He knew from that point on that he wanted to design cars. I deeply wanted to design," he reminisced.
At the age of 11, Welburn wrote GM asking them what he needed to do to become a designer. "Believe it or not they actually sent me a reply and through the years my communication with GM continued," Welburn notes.
But even for a guy deeply passionate about cars, getting into design school was no piece of cake.
"It was a frightening process," he quipped. "I was rejected by everyone, except Howard University. The lesson is to keep pushing."
During college, Welburn applied to GM for a 10-week internship -- an opportunity where he learned as much as from his courses in college.
Welburn was hired by GM after graduating from Howard. "I am now living my life-long dream and surrounded by talent," he noted.
Today GM has 10 design centers in seven countries around the world and 2,600 designers globally.
"Design is the great differentiation in the market place. We have studios dedicated to display, color, and trim that follow fashion trends and a visualization team that creates animation of our design," he added.
The students on hand proved to be as articulate and interested as a room of reporters. "Do you ever get out of your comfort zone?" asked one. The designer smiled and answered.
"I worked with director Michael Bay on all of the Transformers Sci-Fi movies and had a small part in Transformers 4. I had to play an angry boss. It's hard for me to get angry because I enjoy what I do!"
"Where do you get inspiration?" asked another student. "Inspiration can come from anywhere," explained Welburn. "For instance, last week we were trying to figure out how to light a white car at an auto show. We looked outside our office and took photographs of white snow drifts in bright sunlight against a deep blue sky."
And the last student asked, 'How do you work with your automotive design studios globally?"
"We have a room in our studio in Detroit with three screens as large as a wall, so we can talk with other studios," said Welburn. "Sharing makes us much stronger and collaboration makes it better."
According to General Motors, Welburn has overseen the development of such products as the recently introduced 2016 Cadillac CT6 and CTS, 2016 Chevrolet Camaro, Malibu, Cruze, and Volt models, and of course, the seventh-generation 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. Recent concept cars overseen by Welburn include the Cadillac Ciel, Cadillac Elmiraj, Chevrolet Chaparral, Chevrolet Bolt-EV and Buick Avenir
by Holly Reich for Motor Matters
HOLLY REICH has been writing about automotive and travel since 1982. She has reported on the automotive industry for television and radio broadcast stations including; Fox News, SPEED, Car TV and Autolab. Reich has contributed to publications such as RIDES, Edmunds.com, kbb.com, Elite Traveler, automotiverhythms.com, The New York Daily News and The Washington Post. Holly is based in New York City.