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WHIM keynote – General Motors Women in STEM

The automotive company highlighted innovative Detroit designers across disciplines in celebration of Women’s History Month.

By Amanda Rahn | Photography by Erin Kirkland

It should come as no surprise that the first automotive company helmed by a woman threw an event highlighting women in design.

 When Mary Barra took the reins of General Motors over five years ago, she became one of the world’s most powerful women, leading a multimillion-dollar company with close to 180,000 employees. But it was Barra’s humble beginnings on the factory floor that spoke most to the panelists’ major point: Anything is possible — if you can dream it, you can design it.

Whim-Detroit CEO and founder Lori McColl speaks at Be The Spark.

At Monday’s Be The Spark — Women Inspiring Innovation event, five Detroit designers spoke on values in design and the challenges of innovation at the GM Tech Center Design Dome in Warren in celebration of Women’s History Month. The hundreds of attendees included GM women employees and women from Metro Detroit.

“I was asked, ‘What do you want people to take out of this conference?’ I want people to leave with a better understanding of the design happening around us in Detroit, and I want everyone to walk away incredibly inspired to say ‘I can do that — I’m the spark,’” said Alexa Ellswood, the event organizer and GM’s manager of operational excellence.

Panelists included Jen Guarino of the Industrial Sewing & Innovation Center and Shinola; Empowerment Plan founder Veronika Scott, creator of the convertible coat to backpack and sleeping bag made with recycled materials; Aki Choklat, College for Creative Studies chair of fashion accessories design; Sharon Gauci, GM executive director of industrial design; and Jim Coleman, a fashion designer, and GM autonomous vehicle designer.

While innovation was the primary theme, the conversation shifted to the necessity to persevere when others doubt either a career in the arts or women-led projects.

“I was just a college student (at the College for Creative Studies) living in the basement of my grandparent’s house when I started The Empowerment Project,” said Veronika Scott, creator of a company that outfits the homeless with coats that transform into sleeping bags.

GM Architecture Autonomous Vehicle Integration Manager Jim Coleman, left, and GM Executive Director of Global Industrial Design Sharon Gauci, right, listen as Empowerment Plan CEO and founder Veronika Scott speaks during a panel.

“At the time, I was working out of a utility closet in a shelter, and I showed my idea to a board member, and I told him that I wanted to employ the people who would normally be on the receiving end to make the coats,” she said. “And his response was that I would never get a homeless person to make a peanut butter sandwich, let alone a coat … but I knew differently.”

CCS Prof. Aki Choklat said he used the Empowerment Project as an example of social change and design while he was teaching in Italy. Choklat said Scott’s work was one thing that “sparked the decision” to move to Detroit.

Other panelists focused on the need to appreciate skilled trade in design. Shinola’s Manufacturing Vice President Jen Guarino argued it’s a “misnomer” to say there’s a skills gap in the country.

“We say there’s a skills gap, but I really think there is a values gap. People would want to have those skills if they were valued,” she said. “That’s why I have my office on the factory floor. How can I show that I value that work if I’m not there?”

Following the panel, a fashion show modeled by GM employees showcased local women designers, including Dana Keaton Designs, The Fashion Statement, Detroit Denim, and Shinola bags.

Event-goers were encouraged to stop by the 10 vendors selling goods, including jewelry made by women who survived domestic abuse, Shinola leather goods as well as accessories made by CCS students.

“We created these leather pieces to sell as a way to raise funds for our previous trip to Europe,” said Tori Abrahams, a CCS student and designer, “but when we visited Europe and saw goods made by Ferragamo and Gucci — male-designed brands — we realized we had made quality goods ourselves already.”

“Having the booth here at this event really drives home that we, as women, designed pieces as great as we did,” Abrahams added.

One audience member, Roseann Liccardello, said she left the conference feeling inspired to “think outside the box.”

“I won’t be afraid to think differently,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to speak up about any idea you might have that would benefit yourself and the company. You never know where that might take you.”

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