Two Black GM workers share their experiences in the automotive industry

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(NEW YORK) — Dom Lester has a long and enviable list of accomplishments at General Motors, where’s he worked for the last 25 years.

As the company’s chief engineer for performance variants, parts and motorsports engineering, he is responsible for the development of GM’s bestselling trucks and performance vehicles. His greatest achievement, though, may be fostering a more diverse and accepting place for minorities and women to work.

“Walking around the hallways here, you see more minorities, more women,” Lester told ABC News. “To have folks with different thoughts, folks who come from different regions, that’s the true intellectual horsepower in the company. Diversity of thought is really the fuel that will propel us forward.”

Lester started his automotive career after graduating from Lafayette College with a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked his way up the ranks and now oversees the full execution — marketing, design, budgeting and engineering — of new vehicles like Chevy’s ZR2 family of trucks, the Escalade V-Series and Cadillac’s CT5-V and CT4-V Blackwing sedans.

“I am still pushing the envelope, stretching the company, as chief engineer of performance variants,” he said. “The customer comes in all different colors, shapes and sizes … and I like to see people [on my team] who have different angles and perspectives.”

He added, “There are a lot of us in automotive and the door is open … it’s a great field to be in.”

Lester visits college campuses across the country to recruit top talent for GM and regularly contributes to the company’s resource groups for minorities. Every week he sets aside time in his hectic schedule to mentor young GM employees. Plus, he sits on the board of a nonprofit that supports women of color in motorsports.

His efforts to add more inclusivity to the auto industry has inspired his oldest daughter to study science, technology, engineering and math, he noted.

“She’s really into STEM and robotics and sees the excitement and potential in it,” Lester said.

GM has long touted its recruiting efforts and diverse workforce. Company executives have participated in events hosted by groups like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), among others.

The company has also found talented workers through development programs with HBCUs including Morgan State, Tuskegee University, North Carolina A&T and Howard University. Moreover, GM partners with Advancing Minorities’ Interest in Engineering (AMIE), an organization representing 15 engineering-accredited HBCUs, according to a GM spokesperson.

There are currently more than 93,200 GM employees in the U.S. Minorities make up a large part of the company: 17,702 are Black/African American, 8,565 are Asian and 6,118 are Hispanic/Latino, according to company data.

In 2019, Black Americans totaled 17.2% of workers in automotive manufacturing, according to a 2020 U.S. International Trade Commission report. To compare, Black workers made up 12.3% of the labor market that year.

Moreover, Black employment in automotive manufacturing rose from 159,000 in 1995 to more than 250,000 in 2019, the report said. Women, however, continue to experience steep obstacles in the industry: just 23.6% of workers employed by automotive manufacturers were female in 2019.

Brandon Lynum, a colors, material and finishes designer who worked on the all-electric Cadillac Escalade IQ, said his role model was Ed Welburn, the first Black head of global design for GM. Welburn retired in 2016 though his legacy at the automaker lives on.

“He helped create a more diverse culture,” Lynum told ABC News. “He’s definitely a catalyst for having more minorities in the field, especially at GM Design.”

Lynum himself did not know automotive design jobs existed until he was a sophomore in high school. Students at the Cleveland Institute of Arts (CIA) visited Lynum’s high school one day and “they mentioned industrial design and automotive design,” said Lynum.

“Suddenly it clicked: ‘Hey, people go to school to design cars,"” he went on. “A lot of times students are creative and have art backgrounds but they ask, ‘What can I do with this background as a professional?"”

Lynum is now following in the footsteps of those CIA college students who first opened his eyes to a career in autos. He travels to the CIA campus, where he’s also an alum, to meet with and potential job prospects. His main objective: bringing awareness to the field, especially for minorities.

“Exposure is key,” he said. “We have studios across the globe … we have people who are white, Black, brown. GM Design in general is a very diverse place.”

Lester agreed that “seeing is believing” when it comes to getting more minorities and women interested in automotive jobs. His biggest advice to those pursuing careers in competitive industries? “Use your voice,” he said.

“Do not let obstacles be roadblocks — use them as stepping stones into the future,” he said. “Everyone has faced obstacles but it’s what you do with them. For me, I see them as opportunities. One of the skills I’ve learned over the years is how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Mastering how to be comfortable has served me well.”

And for those who ever doubted Lester’s abilities, he pointed to his prestigious “Boss” Kettering award, given to GM workers who have achieved engineering excellence, and his many patents at the automaker.

“I pushed the envelope, pushed the comfort level and thought outside the box,” he said. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

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