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Chelsia Lau: How a flair for drawing led to a career as a top car designer

There are more opportunities for women in the car industry than ever before, but you need passion to succeed, writes William Wadsworth

 

Chelsia Lau Ka-po always liked drawing. When she was a little girl on Lantau, she used to get out her crayons and display her pictures in her parents' restaurant, in Mui Wo. Few diners realised that this little island girl with a love of form and colour would one day design cars for millions of people worldwide, and become one of the style icons of China's booming automotive industry.

Lau is now chief designer of Ford's design strategic concepts group in Shanghai.

She found her 20-year vocation in car design when she was offered a rare internship at Ford's Detroit headquarters while studying at the Lee Wai Lee Technical Institute. "Ford changed everything," Lau says. "I realised that designing a car goes beyond a beautiful sketch."

Ford fast-tracked Lau's talent to the design teams for key models, from the Explorer to the Fiesta. Her biggest break, she says, was to lead the interior design of the Mercury MC4 concept vehicle, while still a junior, at the 1997 Detroit motor show. In 2004, she led the design of a small SUV for South America. "It's now a segment leader in Brazil," she says.

Lau says the real joy is producing something "distinctive in a market where there was nothing like it before".

There have been setbacks, however, as creative passions can clash with company goals and business realities in big corporate design teams, Lau says.

It's easy to "feel grey and down" after a knock, she says, but "I always say, 'chill out', and ask how you can make a difference and do better".

Lau attributes her resolve to her upbringing. "Hong Kong people have a can-do spirit," she says. "We can always pull ourselves out of a difficult situation. Survival is what we are all about."

Often lauded as a female success in a male-dominated industry, Lau says women are "increasingly important" in it.

"Car companies recognise that women have a far greater impact, in spending power and car-purchasing decisions, so [these days] being a female in the industry is to our advantage," Lau says.

"We [women] will be the best to understand female needs; females are more sensitive to style. Women are concerned about looks, but also about different dimensions. Women like exciting designs in cars, but when looking at the interior we ask, 'is that seat very comfortable', or 'I'm shorter, how can it fit me' and 'is this material easy to clean and durable'?"

To stay in the industry, you need passion, Lau says. She says her mother is her biggest inspiration.

"She shaped my values. She was an athlete, and she taught me that once you make up your mind to do something, you never look back. Push yourself harder than ever, and you will go to your dream. I always ask myself, 'really, is this the best I can do'?"

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