Recently, I was a guest of General Motors at the Latin Grammys. I remember getting the invitation and being excited at my first sponsored event thanks to my collaboration with HipLatina. Immediately, I knew that one of my posts was going to be about GM’s top Latina. When I asked the officials to make a recommendation, the name of Alba Colón was at the top of the list. And though Ms. Colón and I have never met in person, her background was impressive and told the story of how a young woman from Puerto Rico got to be a respected leader in a male dominated community. Ms. Colón is program manager for the Chevrolet NASCAR Spring Cup Series. Under her leadership, Chevrolet has amassed 263 race wins, 11 driver’s championships and 14 Manufacturers’ Cup awards through the 2015 season. Below is my conversation with this respected Latina, the only top female engineer in the sport of NASCAR racing in the United States.
HipLatina: I understand you were born in Spain and raised in Puerto Rico. How did that come to be?
Alba Colón: I was born in Spain because my father received a scholarship to study medicine in Salamanca (Spain), but Puerto Rico is my home. I grew up in Mayagüez, on Puerto Rico’s west coast.
HL: Did you grow up bilingual and bicultural? If so, in what ways?
AC: I grew up speaking Spanish at home. Of course in Puerto Rico, I was taught English in school. When I moved to Michigan for my job at GM, I had to learn to communicate in English. It was difficult at first, but I viewed it as a welcome challenge.
HL: How was education viewed in your household? What were the expectations from your parents?
AC: In my household, education has always been a priority. It was ingrained in us. My parents made it very clear that after we went to college, we could do whatever we wanted. But after high school, the expectation was always that we were going to go to university. My mother is a teacher and my father was a family physician. My siblings are both well educated. My brother is a psychologist and my sister is an HR manager.
HL: Did you always want to be an engineer?
AC: Yes. Since I was very young, I liked to figure things out, take things apart and put them back together. When I was in college, I participated in Formula SAE, an engineering competition in which teams design prototype race cars. I found my new passion in the pursuit of building race cars.
HL: Are you surprised by where you ended up career-wise? Has it been difficult to adjust to a company mostly populated by male engineers?
AC: I wanted to be an astronaut and I ended up in motorsports, which I had never thought about. There was no interest in cars when I was young. I had a poster of Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut, in my bedroom. I wanted to be like her. When I first came to Michigan, it was difficult to adapt to a new country, a new language, the weather, so many things. That [adjustment] was a little more difficult for me. The part about being surrounded by men was normal. You get used to it. It becomes your normal.
HL: Have you had some career mentors along the way? If so, did you find a difference between women mentors and men mentors?
AC: The funny thing is, I was on a panel some time ago where we were asked about women mentors. It was then I realized I have never had a woman mentor. I have had great mentors, but none have been women. The best thing any mentor ever taught me was to be open to new things. As a quick example, when the GM offer came, I thought, ‘no, that is not in the plans.’ One of my college professors called and said, “dreams change.” You keep dreaming, but dreams change. You have to adapt with the times. Another big thing is to always keep learning. Be innovative, inventive, curious, and try to think like a kid. Kids don’t have a preconceived notion of things.
HL: Today, you are Program Manager of the Chevrolet NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Tell us about your job, and tell us what a typical day might look like.
AC: My job consists of providing technical resources to the Chevrolet NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing teams. We are a group of engineers that helps the racing teams–technically speaking. We develop things such as engine parts, we work on horsepower, and on the body of the vehicles. We use simulators, we help crew chiefs and engineers understand tires and shock absorbers. I have an opportunity to make cars faster, bring a lot of engineering to support the team. A typical week involves a lot of travel and supporting teams at the race- tracks. I travel out Thursday, travel back home Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday, I work at the office or travel back out to do testing, etc. Racing is 38 weeks a year between February and November. During the off-season, we also travel to work, train, and test. So, essentially, there is no off- season. Our job is to help the teams win races and championships. Chevrolet participates because we want to enhance our brand and how people see our brand.
HL: How do you balance work and family? What is the one thing you can think of that helps the most?
AC: The one thing that helps the most I think is that my husband is a saint. I think it requires someone who is extremely understanding and who supports your career. We don’t spend too much time together but the time we do spend is quality time. Another important point is we respect the other person’s careers. My husband is an accountant and a teacher and he is very passionate about this career. And so am I. It’s all about making the time to have quality time together.
HL: Who inspires you?
AC: When I was young, I wanted to be like Sally Ride, so I have to mention her. My family also inspires me as well—just seeing what they have accomplished. From a woman’s perspective, I have never been as excited as to have GM CEO Mary Barra lead GM. In general, there are always inspiring people around you. I love leaders who think outside the box. Young people inspire me too. I gave a talk the other day to kids. When a young person comes to you and says, “I want to be like you,” don’t tell me that’s not inspiration enough.
HL: Do you think things have changed much for women in the corporate world in the last 20 years?
AC: Yes. It’s more open. There are more opportunities and fewer roadblocks. There is still work to do, but in general, people are more open to seeing women in “untraditional” roles. The biggest roadblocks, I have found, are the ones you put there yourself. I think in general, women are more visible in typical male-dominated fields. You see it in the media and on social media. When I was a kid, I didn’t know any women who were engineers or scientists. The biggest thing is women have learned they have to give themselves permission to do things.
HL: Do you have a message for young Latina women getting started in their careers, whether they are climbing the corporate ladder or beginning a profession like teaching?
AC: I really believe you have to be open to ideas. You have to give yourself permission to be whomever you want and do whatever you want. Also, education is key to success. Do not give up, think out of the box, and don’t be afraid.