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28049: Hermantin(News)Car designer's latest feat: role model (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Posted on Fri, Mar. 03, 2006

Car designer's latest feat: role model
Ralph Gilles, the man behind Chrysler's 'Baby Bentley,' has become a symbol of success for Haitian Americans in South Florida. He will be feted Saturday in Miami.

Time magazine crowned him the King of Bling while the bible on black business success, Black Enterprise, lists him in the same powerful realm as music mogul Sean ''Diddy'' Combs.

To Haitian Americans, however, Ralph Gilles, the designing mind behind the Chrysler 300C, is simply one of their own.

''I get accolades from people I would not expect,'' Gilles said in a telephone interview from his Detroit office. ``To me it's just a car.''

Maybe so. But these days Gilles' mailbox at DaimlerChrysler is flooded with requests by youngsters between the ages of 10 and 15 who want to know how they, too, can do what he does: design cars.

The curiosity factor -- and the awe -- comes from the fact that a Haitian kid who grew up in Canada is now a leading player in a giant U.S. corporation.

''I can't believe the [number] of Haitian people who have looked up to me and consider me some kind of role model,'' said the married father of two. ``The realization you can be a beacon for a culture, that is the scary part.''


For Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami or Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), Gilles is the inspiration and one of the role models South Florida's Haitian youths need.

Gilles, 36, will be the featured speaker at FANM's annual fundraising gala this Saturday at the Coconut Grove Expo Center.

''This is a community that has had to fight so hard to be recognized, succeeding and advancing against sheer resilience and determination,'' said Bastien, whose nonprofit group offers, among other things, an after-school program in Little Haiti.

``The fact he is here will have a positive impact on a young Haitian boy to know that if Ralph Gilles can do it, he can do it too.''

Gilles was born in Manhattan but raised in Montreal, Canada.

His mother worked for the Royal Bank of Canada as an administrative assistant, and his father worked several jobs, including a stint as an accountant.

''He was always searching for the next big thing, changing jobs, going back to school,'' Gilles said of his father's efforts. ``My mother would cook, clean, keep the family together. She was in one of those thankless jobs. I used to be in awe of her.''

As his parents struggled to get ahead, they made a habit of keeping him and his older brother up to date on the family's latest success stories. Gilles listened and took note, but success for him would not be in the halls of justice or hospital wards -- as it was for some of his cousins, or his brother who is now a doctor. It would be in dreamy lines of designs.


It was during one of his sketching episodes while visiting family in New York that an aunt noticed Gilles' designing talent and suggested that he write then-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca. A reluctant and embarrassed 14-year-old Gilles acquiesced.

To his surprise, Chrysler wrote back.

An executive told him he was impressed, and provided a list of schools from which the company hires. He took the advice and after graduating from the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, Gilles was hired by the company where today he's director of truck design.

A year ago, Gilles' name became part of car enthusiasts' lexicon when the Chrysler 300C, or the working man's Bentley as it is affectionately called, became the winner of a long list of awards for its speed and unique in-your-face design. Meanwhile, Gilles, who led the team of designers and engineers, soon began getting his share of accolades, including making Black Enterprise's Hot List of the ``most powerful players under 40.''

He embraces his new celebrity status, realizing that while he was fortunate enough to grow up with role models, other kids are not as lucky. It is a message he preaches during his many talks with youngsters, telling them to ''dream out loud,'' and ``to push in a good way for what you want.''

He learned to take risks from the four powerful women in his life: His aunt Gisele who sent the letter to Iacocca, another aunt who paid for half of his art studies, his mother and his grandmother, who, he said, ``was my window to Haiti. She made me feel connected.''

''There are four significant women who molded me,'' he said.

Hoping to give back a little, he now has a new frontier to conquer -- in addition to designing the next generation of Chrysler vehicles.

''I realize I am not just a designer, but I am inspiring the next generation,'' he said. ``That is my next battle.''