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Helen Emsley

General Motors

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Executive Director, Global GMC Design and User Experience, General Motors
Age: 50
Education: Undergraduate degree, textile design, Birmingham Polytechnic; master's, transport design, Royal College of Art in London

What attracted you to the auto industry? When I was doing textile design for my undergraduate, there was a competition in London of all the different textile designs. You could pick fashion, home furnishings, whatever. And there was one section that I had not thought about, which was doing fabrics for transportation. So I designed some fabrics for a car and I really enjoyed it. Then I found out that the Royal College of Art did this transport-design course, and they took one person a year to do interiors. So I applied for that and got it.

First automotive job: At GM Europe, Opel, working in the color and trim studio in 1989.

Big break: Probably when Ed [Welburn, GM global design chief] asked me to go into the interior studios and put me in charge of the Corvette interiors and full-size truck interiors. I never thought about doing that before. It was Ed who had faith in me. Everything up until then was always in my comfort zone of textile design and color and trim, which I had always trained to do.

What is the major challenge you've faced in your career? When I was asked to do the Corvette interior. That was a big challenge, not to screw that one up. And next I got all the full-size trucks and SUV interiors. I was doing them all at the same time. I remember laughing with Ed, saying "I'm the newbie, and I've got all of the money-making projects. Are you sure you don't want to move me to a different group?"

Who has had the biggest influence on your career? Ed Welburn by far. And I'm not just saying that because he's my boss. When I first came here, I was a manager in the color and trim studio. Wayne Cherry brought me here from Opel. When Ed took over, I was running all of color and trim, but I wasn't at the director level. He told me, "I'm going to make you a director." And he kept his word. Later, when I went to him with the idea of a global color and trim director, he gave me that role. Then he put me in the studio.

What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? In design, we go to the high schools. We meet the parents. A lot of times parents don't think that going into automotive is a good career choice for women. And a lot of parents are nervous to allow their kids to study anything that's art-based. They think they're going to end up as starving artists living in Paris. You've got to explain to them that there are jobs that can earn money.

Tell us about your family. My whole family is in England. My dad is retired from the railway. I grew up on the railway — we used to go everywhere by train. I am now remarried. My husband, David, works here at design. He's a supervisor in the wood shops. My son, Connor, is 13. He's not into art at all. He's very much into computers. Anything Apple.

What's your favorite weekend activity? Just being with my son. We go out for dinner. We go to Dave & Buster's. He loves playing all the games. We go swimming a lot.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? You're going to laugh, but ever since I was a kid I've thought he was great. Clint Eastwood. My grandparents used to watch old spaghetti Westerns.

When and where was your last vacation? I went in July to Disney World. It was quite good fun. I'm terrified of heights and I had to go on all of these rides.

By Mike Colias

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