From the moment Ed Welburn walked onto General Motors’ Detroit campus his peers expected him to be “dynamite.” It happened, just not in the way they might have anticipated. “This was the [early] 1970s, and the only African-American many people were exposed to was Jimmie Walker [from the sitcom Good Times]. There were those who thought I would act just like him. That was kind of a rude awakening for me,” says the GM vice president of Global Design, who will be departing July 1. “Then I realized that they were judging a whole group of people based on my performance.” With that in mind, he showed out each day.
Listen to an excerpt from an exclusive interview with Ed Welburn with automobile guru Jeff Fortson, host of “Auto Trends with JeffCars.com”
Growing up in the Philadelphia suburb of Berwyn, the Howard University alum had two passions: math and cars. “The whole automotive culture was a big part of the American fabric, and I loved cars. They were an emotional statement,” he says. His affinity for the industry made him a neighborhood star. While his father toiled in their family-owned car repair shop, Welburn built Soap Box Derby cars, rebuilt and painted bikes and fixed his mother’s vehicle. “It was a good but dirty business, and he thought there might be something even better,” he says about his father’s hopes for him.
It took some time, however, to break into a more glamorous alternative. Despite being a math whiz and a talented artist, Welburn, who’d read car magazines all of his life and even wrote to GM for advice as a tyke, was rejected by every design school he applied to, except one. “Going to Howard University’s School of Fine Arts was one of the best things that happened to me,” he shares. “I was in school with Roberta Flack, Donny Hathaway, Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. It was like being in Fame. And my professors knew what my mission was and tailored my courses to help me achieve those goals.” By his junior year, he’d earned an internship at GM and made it his home for the next 45 years.
He was the first African American hired to work in the company’s design team and soon rose within the ranks, receiving his current title in 2005. During his tenure with the automotive giant, his 2,500-member team garnered accolades for revitalizing the brand once on the brink of collapse. Other highlights include helping diversify the corporate culture, working with fellow designers to unveil the all-new Camaro at the Detroit Auto Show in 2005 and mentoring new designers. For Welburn, however, GM has been more than a job where he’s tracked tremendous milestones; it’s his love.
“From the first time I drove through the gates of this campus it was just unbelievable,” he says. Although he’s left a massive footprint in the industry, his tips for young Black professionals remain simple: “You don’t have to blend in. You can’t. There is a saying, ‘If you dream it, it will happen.’ No, not without work. You need to study. Work hard. Ask questions. Take advice.”
The industry vet isn’t just doling out wisdom; he’s using it and taking some time to enjoy the spoils of a career well-done. “I’ve been running this race for 44 years, and I’m about to cross the finish line,” he says, adding, “But I will continue to work with GM on a few special projects. I also have The Welburn Group, for consulting. And I plan to travel with my grandchildren. I’m even going to get back to painting, which I haven’t done in many years.”