How Automotive Design Icon Ralph Gilles Finds Ways to Pay It Forward
Gilles has been designing vehicles for 29 years. Now he’s helping to build diversity with empathy and compassion.
If there's a car you've loved from the Fiat Chrysler family over the past three decades, there's a very strong chance Ralph Gilles had something to do with it. The creative mind behind many FCA designs; he's headed up Dodge, the SRT brand, motorsports, and more—and the son of Haitian immigrants has done all this in an industry where Black executives are scarce. Now he's playing a significant role in the Fiat Chrysler African American Network and the Chrysler Global Diversity Council to encourage and support inclusion within the company. Representation matters, and Gilles knows it from experience.
"In essence, executive leadership needs to reflect the society around them," Gilles told me. "This ultimately has a compounding effect of more diverse talent acquisition and retention, broader idea generation, more inclusive marketing and ideally, more diverse product offerings."
In other words: if you work to acquire and encourage new talent, like Gilles himself, you may end up with unexpected greatness. Gilles is an example of what happens when you give people a shot; we got some of the 21st century's coolest cars from him. If someone hadn't taken a chance on him, they may not have happened the way they did, or at all.
Gilles' career really started with a letter his aunt sent to then-CEO Lee Iacocca about her nephew's talent for drawing cars when he was just 14. The company’s advance and international design director Neil Walling responded with a few recommended design schools and some meaningful words: "your portfolio does show significant promise."
But by the time he graduated from high school a few years later, the letter was forgotten and Gilles went through a post-diploma funk, putting college aside. He started working at a hardware store and figured that would be it for him; he couldn't see the possibilities ahead. Gilles' older brother saw what was happening, and encouraged Gilles to snap out of it and apply to one of the design schools Walling had suggested. After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Industrial Design at the College of Creative Studies, it was none other than Walling who hired Gilles immediately after graduation.
Gilles understands how easy it is for young people to go off the rails, so he wants to be a positive example and help others stay on track. He and Stellantis Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Engagement Lottie Holland sat down with me via videoconference to talk about their initiatives to do exactly that.
THE DRIVE: Tell me about what you're doing and how you're making a difference.
LOTTIE HOLLAND: We rolled out our four-year diversity and inclusion [D&I] strategy at the close of last year to our newly-launched diversity and inclusion council. The D&I council consists of our COO Mark Stewart as the chair, and about 15 of his direct reports; each of those individuals will be responsible for chairing a workstream that we have established to support the D&I strategy.
It's founded on five pillars: people, education, accountability, community, and economic empowerment. The resulting acronym is P.E.A.C.E. We're targeting our recruiting to increase people of color and women, and we’re also establishing a corporate-wide mentorship program that will focus heavily on women and people of color in leadership development programs. We'll be launching two; we currently have one leadership development program for women, and now we'll have one specifically for our Black talent as well as all people of color.
We are also launching unconscious bias training for all employees and inclusive leadership training for all of our leaders in North America. At the same time, we are really expanding the effectiveness and reach of our business resource groups [like the Fiat Chrysler African American Network]. We have about 11 business resource groups in North America with the goal of expanding into all of the regions where we operate.
TD: I wrote an article recently about an inventor, Garrett Morgan, who improved upon the traffic signal. Several people in the comments asked, “Why do you have to say he was a Black inventor? Why not just say he was an inventor?” When Morgan was alive, he had to hire a White person to represent him because people wouldn't buy from him as a Black man, so that is significant to the story. Do you think it should be called out that he was a Black inventor or do you want the story to speak for itself?
RALPH GILLES: It's still necessary to highlight it. For example, I'm only the second Black man who is the head of design in our industry, which is amazing considering there are quite a lot of heads of design around the world. There is a lot of work to be done yet. When you point that out, it has an incredible ripple effect of encouraging a lot of other kids to say, “Hey, I can do that too" and that's half the battle. Just that little beacon out there that says, “Someone that looks like me made it.” It encourages them.
It’s as simple as the idea that you can’t aspire to what you can’t see and experience, and how fundamentally important it is to inspire young, talented diverse people to reach for and believe they can attain more. I was so upset when I saw the movie Hidden Figures. I thought, “Why am I 49 years old and just now hearing about these incredible scientists that helped put a man on the moon?” It really bothered me that there are a lot of gaps in our history telling.
TD: How can your colleagues be better allies? How can other people help with the initiatives?
GILLES: I would say by getting out of your comfort zone. All of us are busy professionals, and we have a full plate as it is. Allies need to find that extra gear and see if you can reach out and help, because every time you do that, the effect is tenfold. We call them "uncomfortable conversations" internally; I say the allies need to just get out there and not be afraid. Connect and talk. Pick up the phone and go for it.
HOLLAND: To me, the role of allies is to educate themselves and truly try to understand how they can use their voice or their platform to advance diversity or inclusion. Allies can act and speak on behalf of those who may not be in the room or may not feel as if they have a voice.
TD: What do you say to critics of initiatives such as this who don't believe we need them?
GILLES: That's a great question. As you can imagine, I received a lot of positive feedback on our strategy, but I also received questions like, “Why is this necessary?” There are actions that we have to take in order to catch people up who have been disadvantaged for many, many years. That's when we start to differentiate between equality and equity; we don't need to do the same thing for all people. We need to look individually at each of these groups to understand what their particular needs are.
Right now there is a huge emphasis on how to ensure that the talent and the development are there for Black people. But that's not to say that other talent in the company doesn't matter, right? When you start talking about Black lives versus all lives, it’s not to say that this other talent doesn't matter. But there are equity actions that we are taking to fill a gap that's in place for a lot of reasons in relation to wealth and education and help along the way.
TD: Ralph, I read a Robb Report article in which you gave the car industry a D grade for diversity. Where is the biggest need for diversity and what are some of your ideas to help improve that?
GILLES: I guess we're graduating to a C at Stellantis, and I think a lot of that is many of these initiatives that did not exist a year ago. So that is already a huge thing. None of us will rest until the inside of the company reflects what society looks like. And that should be the goal of any well-run company. It should reflect the world around you. How can you make a product for your constituents if you aren't also the constituents inside the company?
It does start all the way back to schooling. As a corporation, we're looking to see what we can do to change the course of someone in middle school, for instance. That's kind of when you start making decisions that will affect your life, and then on through high school and college. We’ve got to work on the awareness level, and the industry needs to market itself to deeper corners of society. The idea is to enable a pathway that may not be there already.
We're still in the adoption phase and I think every major corporation in America is having an introspective moment about this. We’re on a continuous learning journey to understand and process multicultural differences. In the end, true prosperity for companies and people will be a byproduct of mastering diversity and creating fertile ground for open minds to come together.
TD: What would you want your colleagues to know about changing minds and changing hearts? What can people do one-to-one?
GILLES: I mentor as many people as I can, and I think that's the biggest thing any company can do. The reason I mentor so many people today is that I was mentored myself. Tom Gale [the lead designer of the 1991 Dodge Stealth, the 1992 Dodge Viper, and the 2001 Plymouth Prowler, among others] took me under his wing. I approached him spontaneously one day said, “Hey, what can I do to get to be head of design someday?” His eyes opened up, and he said, “Alright, let's do this.” So I do the same for others.
HOLLAND: I think you hit the nail on the head for me in terms of empathy. All of us can take the time to put ourselves in someone else's position and to view it from their perspective. Think about how would you feel if this were happening to you or to your child or your sister, brother, or mother. If this were impacting you, how would you feel about it? It's more about really understanding how everything that we do impacts someone else. Think about how you can play a role in this. If you're not part of the solution, you are indeed part of the problem.
GILLES: Put your guard down. It is the art of listening and empathy that’s so powerful. It’s the ability to have a real one-on-one like a true open-your-heart-and-get-to-know-people-on-a-personal-level conversation that breaks down the barriers. Make a connection.
Thanks to the initiatives we put together, a lot of people have been inspired. I mean, I've worked within this company for 29 years. There are executives I've known almost my whole career and it's the first time we've had these conversations in this last year. Some of us have sat down and said, "Hey, let's have a call just you and me; nothing to do with work. I just want to learn about you." And it was amazing. A call that should have been 20 minutes turned into an hour-and-a-half exchange. I learned so much about them and vice versa, and both of us walked away and thought, "Why did it take us 29 years to have that conversation?" These programs do work.
And everybody is guilty of casting assumptions, right? You can look at a white person and have a preconceived idea of what they're like and vice versa. I cannot tell you before the pandemic began how many times I've sat next to someone on the plane. And invariably, they asked me about myself and they're shocked that I do what I do. They just can't get their head around it. You never know until you really discover someone. Let's discover each other.
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