This month, I turn to yet another company that is doing incredible work in the mentorship arena, impacting its communities, culture, and employees in profound ways. Below, you will learn how GM is impacting communities and students around the country. It is my privilege to interview GM and share its model, in hopes that more companies can follow suit.
Interview with Milton Martinez of GM
1) Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started in this industry.
I was first introduced to GM during high school, when I learned about a competition and mentorship program called FIRST Robotics. FIRST Robotics’ mission is to inspire young people to become science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting mentor-based programs that build skills, inspire innovation and foster self-confidence, communication and leadership. I was so influenced by this program that I went on to study electrical engineering in college, eventually accepting an engineering position at GM’s electrification department. In that position, our engineers work on the controls and diagnostics for GM automobiles.
I’ve now been at GM for nearly 12 years – since 2006 – and I now hold the position of global diagnostic strategist. I can honestly say I’ve found my passion. I’ve been able to pay forward the same opportunities that I had growing up. And I can draw a straight line from FIRST Robotics in high school to my position at General Motors.
2) Tell us about the GM Mentorship program you participate in. How did it start? How has it grown?
As I mentioned, my introduction to the mentorship program was through FIRST Robotics at a charter high school in Michigan. However, FIRST Robotics has been around since 1992, owing its roots to a competition between 28 teams in a New Hampshire high school gymnasium. The program now reaches over 400,000 youth each year, and hundreds of GM employees volunteer to participate in the program every year.
In the program I was introduced to, and now volunteer for, the teams meet at least three days a week, both after school as well as on Saturdays. The program runs from January to April each year. I am one of eleven GM engineers who leads FIRST Robotic teams at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation. This year, we have 20 students on our team 4680 and overall 50 mentors and 200 students for the rest of the 11 teams hosted at DHDC.
Each January, FIRST gives a real-life “problem”. The students and mentors form teams and compete to solve that problem – which often leads to an application that can be used by GM.
3) What is involved in the competition?
Taking 2015 as an exemplary challenge, we tasked the student/mentor teams with using robotics to pick up 18”x18”x36” totes, and then put them in stacks of six. While teams don’t get to define the “problem,” the solution is 100% up to the team. Each team was given a kit of parts and could add to it to most efficiently get the job done using a reasonable amount of parts.
The teams had to address many questions through the semester, such as “is this legal?” “Can we even build what we have conceived?” Then, they would prototype the devices and see if they actually worked.
4) Can you give me an example of a student experience that was memorable?
In the 2015 challenge, in which we challenged the teams to figure out an efficient way to pick up totes and put them in stacks, we started off with a brainstorming session. Teams were encouraged to throw out their initial ideas. One of the high school juniors named Raul, who was in his first year on the robotics team, immediately demonstrated he was mechanically inclined. Within an hour of being told the problem, his addition to the brainstorming session was the suggestion that the robot be a ramp. This concept ended up being a successful design, and several of the teams copied it. However, they gave Raul credit for being the concept originator. The eventual winner even shared the win with Raul.
Raul came out a winner in other ways, too. Instead of going into his family’s used car business, Raul discovered that he wanted to go to engineering school, and that he would likely be good at it. He started saving his money so that he could go to college. His dad supplemented his savings since he saw how determined he was. Raul is now an Electrical Engineering student at Saginaw Valley State University, in Michigan, and volunteers his time to FIRST as a robot inspector.
5) What benefits do you see for the students, and what benefits for the company?
We have a lot of local Hispanic talent in our community. We want that talent to come to GM to work. By participating in FIRST Robotics, GM is able to discover and develop that local talent, and the students are able to learn first-hand the types of skills that will be important to a career in engineering and robotics.
This has already led to job offers and internships. We currently have two students working for us as interns, and we expect this trend to continue, if not increase.
GM’s program has grown to 70 mentors and 200 students. GM is extremely supportive of their employees volunteering time in mentorship opportunities and competitions. In fact, these volunteering commitments count as work days, and GM sponsors registration fees for the teams.
6) What benefits have you personally seen?
I returned to the FIRST Robotics competition as a former competitor and mentee, wanting to lead a team someday. Not long after, I was volunteering for 100’s of hours and in charge of a team.
The mentor/mentee experiences not only opened a door and prepared me for a career with GM, mentorship has also allowed me to grow in my job at GM. The best parts about mentorship for everyone – including me – include the preparation it provides for an entry into the workforce, and an introduction and constant refresher to the collaboration we use extensively to develop the best ideas.