Badass Women spotlights women who not only have a voice but defy the irrelevant preconceptions of gender. (Not to mention, they are exceptionally cool.) Here, GMC Design Chief Helen Emsley talks about designing some of America’s most in-demand trucks.
Why she’s a badass: Raised in a mining town in Yorkshire, England, Emsley, a self-proclaimed black sheep, eschewed traditional math and science courses to go to art school, which was heavily encouraged by her “headbanger” father, who started taking her to rock concerts when she was 10. (AC/DC was a mutual favorite.)
Initially interested in textiles, Emsley eventually obtained a master’s degree in transport design at the Royal College of Art in London—and was the only female student in her class. Now, nearly 30 years later, she’s based in Detroit as General Motors’ executive director of global Buick and GMC design, supervising roughly 100 employees.
Her first project at GM: When she was asked to refashion the interiors of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Emsley remembers saying to her boss, “I can see it in the press: ‘British Woman Kills Corvette.’ ” But her work was well received: The car’s sales more than doubled.
Driven to success: Emsley usually starts her day by fueling up on caramel macchiatos and then touring various studios, checking out early sketches and quarter-scale clay models of cars that will typically be on lots five years from now.
Overcoming obstacles: When GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, Emsley used it as a teaching moment for her team. “Rather than [saying] woe is me, how do you turn it around for the positive? I asked them, ‘If this were your company, what would you do?’ ”
What’s next: In October, GM announced its intention to work toward an “all-electric, zero-emissions future,” and soon it will introduce two new fully electric cars (like the Chevrolet Bolt EV, above). Emsley is leading the design charge. “We have the technology and talent to drastically move society forward and improve transportation for generations to come,” she says. When pressed for more details, she responds with her trademark British wit: “If I tell you, I’ll lose my job.”
For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands and for digital download Nov. 10.