Crystal Windham: Designing Her Own Path at General Motors

Crystal Windham - photo - General Motors“There’s art in almost everything we do,” says Crystal Windham.

Windham should know. She took her love of art and turned it into a history-making career in the automotive industry–yes, car making. In fact, you can not create a car without first designing one and that is where professionals like Windham come in.

She is the automotive industry?s highest ranking African-American female car designer.

In 2008, she became the first African-American female director in General Motors Design?s history. And as Director of Design Chevrolet Passenger Car & Small Crossover Interiors at General Motors, she has spearheaded several award-winning passenger car interiors, including the much touted 2014 Chevrolet Impala. She also left her stamp in the 2004 and 2008 Chevy Malibu, the 2006 G6 coupe and convertible, and the 2007 Saturn Aura, just to name a few.

Windham was named the Director of Chevrolet Passenger Car and Crossover Interiors in 2012 to support GM Design?s comprehensive brand-focused organization.

Windham, who holds an Industrial Design degree from the College for Creative Studies (CCS) and an MBA from the University Detroit Mercy, joined GM in 1994 fresh out of school.

But it’s not easy to break into. There are very few African Americans–and women–on the design side. But Windham says it was a matter of having talent and a passion. Going to the right school also helped. “The automotive industry scouts CCS looking for new talent,” she says. “And I had an uncle who worked at GM. He was able to locate a female designer who met with me. I still stay in touch with her today.”

Windham landed an internship with Ford in the summer of 1992; she also interned with GM in interior design in the summer of 1993. She started work with GM when she graduated in 1994.

Throughout her career, when she has faced obstacles she has turned to mentors for advice. “It’s also a matter of asking the right questions and not being afraid to ask the questions,” says Windham, who herself mentors others privately and through GM’s own program–GM Design?s You Make a Difference program, and yearlong mentorship program.

GM also aggressively promotes diversity within the company. The 105-year-old automotive company recently made history by hiring its first female CEO earlier this month, Mary Barra. “If you know Mary Barra’s record, you know she deserved the job and I am proud to work at a company that recognized this,” says Windham. GM has a diversity initiative that not only works on the executive and employee side but also reaches out and works with minority and women suppliers.

“Over the years GM has increased the number of African-Americans in key positions. Take Ed Welburn, for example,” says Windham. Welburn is vice president of GM Design North America. “And Alicia Boler-Davis, who is senior vice president, Global Quality & Customer Experience.”

Windham says she not only enjoys being with a company that celebrates diversity, but she loves what she does. “I love being part of a creative team working to make innovations that will help drivers,” say says. Over the years she has learned to have confidence in her own design style and ideas. “I think when I started out it was natural to emulate others. But what the company needs is your ideas. It needs diverse ideas. I love this, I love being a part of a work environment with this approach.”