By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Dominique Lester ’99 jokingly says if you cut his arm, it would bleed gasoline. A Maryland native, he grew up in his stepfather’s repair and speed shop, where he cultivated a passion for everything automotive—and where he built his first engine at just 12 years old. It’s that deeply ingrained drive that he brings to the table today as chief engineer for performance variants, performance parts, and motorsports engineering at General Motors (GM), where he’s in charge of making race and road cars perform at their highest levels. 

Picture of Dominique Lester ’99 holding an award

Dominique Lester ’99

“Looking at where I am now, I think people who knew me from childhood or from my days at Lafayette would say they’re not surprised I’m doing what I’m doing,” Lester says. “Whether it’s bringing a vehicle to production at mass volume or seeing that checkered flag at the Daytona 500, it’s all the same stuff that keeps me going.”

Throughout his more than 24 years at GM, Lester has been making his mark on the automotive industry in more ways than one. In his current position, which he’s held since 2020, Lester leads a team of approximately 100 people located in Detroit and other cities across the country, and he is responsible for the performance oversight and engineering management for GM’s high-performance vehicles (including V-series Blackwings, Escalade-V and ZR2/AT4X, and Bison Truck Performance Variants), SEMA/PRI concept builds, pace cars, and performance parts engineering and development. He also leads motorsports engineering for off-road racing, SCAA/drag racing, and second stage manufacturing and special equipment options. His goal is to help bring to life GM’s mission of creating a world with “zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.” 

“It takes four or five years to get a vehicle through development and into production,” Lester says. “It’s a very long and tedious process to make sure that ultimately we deliver a vehicle that customers want and value, that can win in the competitive marketplace and make a profit, and that—most importantly—is safe. It’s a daunting task.” And it’s a task he expertly executes. Lester has secured four patents, and he has earned numerous recognitions for design in his career—including the “Boss” Kettering Award in 2010, GM’s highest award for technical innovation. He’s also previously led GM Propulsion to multiple championships in various forms of racing.

Lester’s love of engineering is evident and goes beyond just his current role at GM, as he serves on the board of STEAM Sports Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to women of color who wish to pursue careers in the automotive and/or motorsports industry. 

“It’s something I’m proud of, and it’s a wonderful experience helping women of color in engineering—of whom there are not enough in this space—to break down barriers and be exposed to some of the things that I’ve been blessed to have,” Lester says. 

He races in his spare time, too—which, understandably so, hasn’t been easy for Lester to come by in recent years. He previously raced top dragsters at National Hot Rod Association and International Hot Rod Association events in the Midwest and Middle Atlantic, with his personal best time being 1/4 mile in 6.0 seconds—about 240 mph. From 2007 to 2022, Lester also co-ran L&L Racing Engines, a company he co-founded that custom-built performance engines for small-block and big-block Chevy dragsters.

Lester says he feels lucky to not only live out his childhood dream, but also relish it in so many different ways both in and out of the workplace: “If your personal interests, professional interests, and personal results intersect, it’s a win-win-win.”

One of the key ingredients to his success, he explains, is the education he received at Lafayette College. “It propelled me to where I am today,” Lester says. “The engineering background I got there is second to none.” 

Lester first learned about Lafayette through an informational booklet he received after taking the PSAT in high school, after which he also was invited by the College to visit and spend a weekend shadowing students and learning more about what the campus had to offer. He immediately felt at home in the intimate small-school environment. 

“I was surprised to see that the professors genuinely cared about the students,” Lester says. “With the school’s smaller class sizes, I knew I wouldn’t be just another Social Security number.” And with big dreams of pursuing a career in mechanical engineering, he realized that Lafayette’s top-rated engineering program was where he wanted to be.

Earning a scholarship from the College that paid for most of his undergraduate studies was what ultimately led to Lester’s final decision to attend Lafayette. “As a guy from a small town in Maryland, I’m very grateful for that,” he says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for that investment Lafayette saw fit to make in me.” Lester declared a mechanical engineering major from day one as a first-year student, and he “never looked back.”

During his time on College Hill, Lester was inspired by faculty members like Prof. Michael Paolino, who was the director of Lafayette’s Engineering Division from 1986 to 2000, and who played a significant role in the development of hypervelocity rocket technology at the Army’s Aviation and Missile Command. 

“I took Thermodynamics with him, and I remember he had a very structured way of teaching that helped you to focus, and he taught me how to evaluate and break down problems,” Lester says. “I still practice that today. He had an impactful way of connecting with his students and lifting them up. That relationship I was able to build with my professors, that’s something unique to Lafayette. As a student, you felt valued, and it helped me significantly.”

Another particularly memorable aspect of his time at Lafayette, Lester says, was engaging in opportunities that gave him firsthand experience within the engineering field. During his senior year, Lester and a team of classmates placed third in the Society of Automotive Engineers regional mini-Baja competition, for which the team had to design, build, test, promote, and race a 10-horsepower off-road vehicle. The project, he says, gave him a preview of his future career: “That process of being a team leader and bringing people together, people who have different opinions and diversity of thought, to reach a common end goal—in some respects, that’s what I do today, but on a different, much bigger scale.” Lester also interned at Chrysler for three summers as an undergrad, and he was hired by the company after graduation.

Being a minority in STEM, however, came with its own unique set of challenges for Lester, both at Lafayette and throughout his career thereafter—but those challenges only further fueled his pursuit of success. 

“There were only a few Black students in my engineering courses,” he says, “so I was a minority of minorities. And engineering is not for everyone; it requires a lot of endurance and a tough mindset. But I wanted things to work—I learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable, to be my whole self and trust myself, and to be confident. And that perseverance has served me well until this day.”

That, he says, is the message he wants to share with all people of color, whether they are students or professionals: You are good enough. 

“It’s what my grandmother and grandfather always told me when I was growing up,” Lester says. “As the minority, you may feel like you’re not good enough because you might be the only one in the room who looks like you, talks like you, thinks like you. But guess what? Having a different perspective helped me succeed and design a better product. Be proud of who you are and your hard work, prepare yourself, seek out opportunities, and speak up for yourself. And if you do that, and do it consistently, luck will show up.”