Take the Wheel & Drive
Life is an open road. What matters is how you navigate through the twists and turns it offers. Esther Martinez, one of General Motors’ few female studio design engineers, took the wheel firmly into both hands and steered it towards her dreams. Martinez hit several speed bumps along the way—being a woman with no formal education, a single mother and financially unstable—and still managed to glide over them with dignity and grace. She continues to be a driving force, pun definitely intended, and role model for much of the Latino youth that share her upbringing. Martinez never intended to end up designing some of America’s favorite cars, but that just goes to show you sometimes detours can prove prosperous. How do you dream and make sure that in waking, you don’t leave that dream unfulfilled? Ask Martinez, there is nothing like sheer drive and determination to fuel your biggest of dreams.
Words by: Danielle Young
What were you doing with your life before engineering?
When I graduated from high school, getting a job at a hospital was a much better option [for me] than flipping burgers. I had a friend whose parents worked in the hospital [where I’d eventually work] and that’s how I got in. Honestly when you start working after high school, you lose focus on your goal—finishing your education.
I took a couple credits my first year at Wayne State University. I started working full time and taking fewer classes. I was doing all that, falling in love and having kids. I put myself in that position. I was in the medical field for 7 years. You get comfortable [is what it is.] Back in 1997, I had just had my 2nd daughter; I left their father 6 months prior, and then received my pink slip because the hospital went bankrupt. Everything went bad all at once.
How did you get involved in engineering?
I heard about Focus Hope from a friend. He was speaking so highly of [the program], so I knew I had to do something. In Focus Hope, you get certified within months and they have job placement.
So here I was a single mom, no education and nothing to fall back on. A four-year degree would have been optimal. I had taken a test with the program and 2-3 weeks later I learned that I passed the exam. I was asked when I would be able to attend, and I [of course] had all the time in the world at that point.
So I finished the program in December of 1997. Even though the program was a machinist training program, it would allow me to run heavy duty machines, such as lays, mills, CNC, all steel grinding machines, etc.
Did it seem like destiny once you were working in your field?
For the first time, at the age of 25, I was introduced to studio design engineers. They were looking for one more student for the internship and since I did so well, they considered me when filling it. When I went in and learned what is was about; it fit me like a glove. I felt very blessed to have this opportunity fall into my lap. I worked in GM technical division design center from the beginning. I have been here going on 10 years.
Is there any pressure being a woman in engineering?
I have had such a wonderful experience and coming from where I came. I think the pressure that I feel [if I feel any] is the pressure I put on myself. It can be intimidating working with mostly men. I felt out of my league [when I started], so to speak. I started working here without even taking a class in design. I started understanding and being able to follow the design process and built more confidence. The pressure I feel—I’m a mom, a single mom. The pressure is in me being able to balance everything my life includes.
How does it feel to be one of the few thriving female engineers?
What’s encouraging now is that I see more women in this field—between designers, sculptors and studio engineers, its amazing! I am appreciative of GM because they play an important role in understanding diversity in different spectrums. We’re global. GM feels that women play an important role, not only in designing and engineering, just all over. They understand diversity’s role in helping [the company] move forward.
Have you ever considered yourself an underdog?
Coming from the circumstances [I’ve dealt with], I felt insecure. I am not sure whether or not that played the role of underdog. You always have to look at the cup half full. It’s all about moving forward. It didn’t matter if the majority in my company was male, white, etc.—what mattered was finishing school, doing my job and supporting my family. I try my best to look at everything positively.
You have been quite the influence for Latin culture. Would you like to eventually create your own program to uplift those of similar ethnic and financial circumstances that you faced growing up?
I’ve done a few speaking engagements and I flopped my first time. One thing I found in my stuttering and stammering was [a feeling of] disappointment that I didn’t get my message out. I had to learn to come out of my shell and say what I meant.
We all think we know everything at a certain age. I remember my mom telling me things that used to go in one ear and out the other. But when I see these young people—I see opportunity that they may not see. I speak to them to let them know that the sky is the limit and it takes hard work. I want them to know that they are destined to their own futures that they make for themselves in the present.
I didn’t finish college after high school and I think that was one of the worst mistakes that I have made. I try to talk to young people with their lives ahead of them and willing to seize the opportunities education gives. I want them to know that it’s not the end of the world when a formal four year education seems distant; it’s about finding the programs and support to make things happen for you. I am so busy—in school for my masters (Lawrence Technical University), two teenage daughters—making a program [dedicated to uplifting the youth] would be something I can do in the future. [Just because I can’t now] does not stop me from participating. Work sends me places to inspire and GM has been supportive
What accolades have you received as an engineer?
2008 Chevrolet Malibu received Car of the Year and
2007 Saturn Aura
Essence: Women That Shape the World
Overall, how do you feel about being where you are today?
I feel it’s a blessing and privilege to be where I am today. Yo orgullosa.
I feel great about GM being able to find a diverse person like myself who didn’t come out of mainstream education. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for GM offering programs that support people like me. I want to encourage people to get out there and take hold of their lives and make their dreams REAL.