Women are making headlines in the automotive world – according to Frost & Sullivan, most licensed drivers are women, women influence 91% of automotive purchases, and more women than men are “schooling themselves before walking into a dealership or garage by researching on the Internet or among their peer groups.”
Despite the large composition of female drivers, the report notes that there are “severe shortcomings in how technicians and shop personnel interact with women,” noting that educating the customer is a “strategic starting point” for changing that.
To Patrice Banks, whose mission is to reach every female driver, that’s nothing new. As she says, “That’s a huge gap for your #1 customer, and an incredible opportunity.”
Through her efforts as founder & CEO of the Girls Auto Clinic, Banks has been educating female drivers, and her efforts have garnered attention from the likes of Oprah (check her out on page 21 of Oprah magazine this month!), BBC World Service, Good Housekeeping, the Washington Post, Mic and Elite Daily. She’s graced the stage of Tedx, and was recently selected by The White House Council to attend The United State of Women Summit in DC.
Prior to establishing Girls Auto Clinic, Banks had worked for more than 12 years as an engineer, manager, and leader at DuPont. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Materials Engineering from Lehigh University and an Automotive Technology Diploma from Delaware Technical Community College. She’s also the author of The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide.
We couldn’t resist picking up the phone to hear about Banks’ journey firsthand, and to share some major inspiration for customers who wish they knew more, and for shop owners and operators looking for new ways to educate consumers and grow a community. Here’s Banks, in her own words, explaining her mission, her journey, and what’s on the horizon, as she’ll soon embark on her own experience as an auto-repair shop owner –
I often get the question, “How did you get the courage to leave a promising career at Fortune 500 company, DuPont, after 12 years?” Well, I am on a mission and I have a vision! And it’s bigger than me. I’m not here for the auto industry, I’m here for women. I didn’t start Girls Auto Clinic because I thought it was a great idea to make me rich. I started it to create a “female empowerment” movement that would change or disrupt the automotive industry to include women, their number one customer. I believe this movement will make the automotive industry more diverse, transparent, and innovative – something women and millennials value! It’s no coincidence that tech is going into the auto industry. They see the opportunity as well.
I had a great career, but it never gave me the feeling of fulfillment, enjoyment or passion. I woke up every morning looking forward to Friday. I came to work looking forward to my next vacation.
I never felt smart as an engineer working at DuPont. Even though they gave me great assignments and career growth opportunities, as a women of color and a female, everyone I worked with was a white male. I didn’t look like or dress like a typical engineer – I have tattoos and piercings – and I stood out. But I’ve always been confident and brave to remain my authentic self while showing up to corporate America every day.
I never wanted to be slave to my job. I wanted a life outside of work, and I was open about the fact that DuPont was not my legacy; I saw it as my job.
I’ve always been interested in women with nontraditional roles. My mother was a single mom with minimal education, and she worked hard. When we were growing up, we didn’t have a car, and I understood that if I wanted anything for myself, I had to go out and get it! When I was 16, I worked three jobs to buy the first car in my household. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from high school and to go to college.
In 2011, while I was at DuPont, I’d started a blog, called “Banks On It.” It was an educational blog for women who wanted to gain knowledge in areas that were considered a “man’s job.” I was inspired to create the blog for my friends and myself. We were independent women, owning our careers, yet still felt powerless in many areas of our daily living – investing money, buying houses, fixing cars, are a few of the issues we faced. I quickly recognized a pattern – most of these topics were heavily male-focused! So I started surveying women everywhere I went, the cashier at Starbucks, my co-workers, friends, waitresses, Facebook, and any woman I could ask, “What do you wish you knew that men know or that you have to pay a man to do?”
Overwhelmingly women replied they wished they knew more about their cars and car maintenance. I even got a few stories of women who’d felt they’d been taken advantage of and been overwhelmed with high prices. Being an “auto airhead” myself, this was right up my alley. My own automotive buying and repair experiences have been nightmares.
At first, I thought, “OK, I’m gonna write a blog about how to take care of your car.” I went online to research information that could help, and even posted a Facebook status to my 2,000 friends, asking around for a female mechanic. Nobody knew one. There were very limited resources out there for women when it came to education and cars, and that’s when I thought, “I need to create something.”
My cousin, Peach, got in touch with me a fews days after I posted the Facebook status asking for a female mechanic. She had wanted to be a mechanic; as a kid, her mom’s car was always breaking down and she had dreamed of being able to help her. But, when it came time to consider technical school, she said, “I was discouraged, told I was too cute and that car repair wasn’t for girls.” And that got me all riled up, thinking, “No, that’s not right!”
She’d wanted to have a car-repair shop that had a nail salon in it, and I loved the idea. I convinced her to check out technical schools with me. Ultimately, she wound up backing out, but once I began looking into becoming a mechanic, I knew I wanted to pursue it.
I’m a huge supporter of community colleges for those who want to become automotive techs. I went to Delaware Technical Community College, starting in January 2012, which offered reasonable tuition, certification and a college degree. I went to school at night, and continued working at DuPont by day.
I was the only girl in school but I didn’t mind. I was there to learn and I loved it. Most students don’t have the same excitement when they’re young. I was 32, in class with younger boys who didn’t know what they wanted. But I couldn’t wait to read my auto-tech book, was there everyday, with my hand in the air, thinking, “I love this stuff.” I needed to know every detail I could think of so I could educate women to learn everything about cars and eliminate the fear and shame.
I was confident until it was time to out into the lab; there I was, holding the tools, and I could feel the fear was coming in. I found myself asking, “Can I get some help?” and was concerned my class would think I didn’t really want to do this. I found myself stepping back, and had to remind myself, “You’re here to learn. Do not be afraid.” And like Sheryl Sandberg encourages, I started “leaning in,” acknowledging to myself that I had to step it up.
It was a valuable lesson that I had to learn for myself to stay focused and make my dreams happen. Now, every time I receive an email from a young woman whose confidence is suffering, I remind them, “Reflect back on your purpose and why you are here. Do not be afraid. You have a mission you must complete. Have a vision for yourself, and if you run into someone who is making you feel ‘less than,’ say to them, ‘I am on a mission. If you can’t help me, get out of my way.’”
When I was in school, I knew I needed experience at a shop. I had a little extra time on the weekends and at night. I started asking people who could recommend a good place. I wanted to immerse myself in all things auto repair and I was working for free. Believe it or not, I was turned down by three places! Finally, I found a person who said yes, in West Philadelphia. It was a small shop, called Guy’s Auto Clinic, that had one bay and two lifts. The owner, Edwin Regis, is very smart, and to this day is one of best technicians I’ve ever met.
When I was initially researching car care for women, I saw that Audra Fordin, from New York, was running car-care workshops for women. She inspired me to get information out to women. I put what I learned in school, and from working at Guy’s Auto Clinic about cars and how to take care of them, into a PowerPoint presentation. I was known for giving great presentations at DuPont so I created my workshop similarly to how I would create a technical presentation at DuPont. Edwin helped with technical guidance when I created workshops, so I could begin to teach women about their cars. The first workshop I’d done was for a sorority at the University of Delaware, for about 20 girls. It went so well! And that was the start of running these workshops every month.
Later, I began working at a place called Keller’s Auto Repair because I knew I needed experience at a larger shop. Bill Keller had a four-bay garage. This shop was really good and efficient. I was working for free, learning, picking up skills for my business, and knew that investment was going to pay off. Eventually it did, because the owner said he wanted to hire me full-time. I was able to work as a technician, service advisor, and general manager there. Of course taking the job meant a huge pay cut from my work at DuPont. But I went in the next day, after Bill made me an offer, and told my boss I had to leave.
At the time, quitting my job would wake me up at 2am in cold sweat and anxiety, but every time I get an email from a woman, it reminds me that this is my purpose. I’m inspired to push forward, evolve as a person, and become my greatest self to lead Girls Auto Clinic.
I want to reach every woman driver – every woman should know the proper car-care information and never be intimidated or ashamed about our lack of knowledge or how we treat our cars. We make the powerful economic decisions so we should feel powerful about our cars and the economic choices we make with them!
I’m working to change the relationship that women have with their cars, and to do it through love and education. I’m a believer in accountability and extreme ownership. Ultimately, it’s not the manufacturers’, or dealers’ job, to educate us on how our cars work. We have to go out and find the information that we need to make smart decisions and be confident consumers. The technical auto-repair information is out there but it’s important to have it readily available and relatable. It hasn’t existed in the relatable and easily accessible way that Girls Auto Clinic presents it now. We’ve educated women though blogging car-care tips, providing car-care workshops, and offering car-care books.
I also want to change the face of the automotive industry, how it markets to women, and how women view it. We buy more cars than men, and spend more money at the repair shop than men and now, there are more women drivers. 77% believe women are mistreated and misunderstood by the auto industry. That’s a huge gap for your #1 customer, and an incredible opportunity.
I believe the reason for this gap is that there are virtually no women working in the industry. It’s filled with men who are trying to understand how women see cars, but women value different things. We need more empowerment of women in the industry in position of leadership, power, and influence. There have to be more women mechanics, more women selling cars, and owning dealerships and repair centers, more women engineers and designers, more women leaders in manufacturing. They are so few. We don’t encourage girls to get into automotive fields as careers. When they do, its tough because they face discrimination, lack support and mentorship, and often feel alienated by customers and co-workers. We need more women, but many fear they’re not good enough and lack support or mentorship.
Today in America there’s so much invested into women becoming leaders in other areas of work, but I don’t see that same effort in the auto industry. I’m jumping on the opportunity to create a company around the idea of female empowerment, and starting to balance our place in society.
The auto-repair industry has a stigma of lack of transparency and honesty. To break that mold, it’s important for shop owners to own that stigma, and to say what they’re doing differently. I believe hiring women will help change this stigma.
The best thing we can do for our cars is go to the same mechanic or shop that we have established a relationship with, every time. They know the problems the car has had in the past and can help you keep track of all the maintenance that has been done. You wouldn’t go to a different doctor for every annual check-up, so why do the same with a car? It’s important to find a mechanic you can trust and stick with them.
Fewer people are going to school to be technicians, which is a problem all shop owners face. Cars are getting more technologically advanced. Schools and shop are struggling to recruit, educate and retain technicians. I think women can fill those gaps and shortage of techs in this industry. This is an issue not only the auto industry faces. Most technical trades have faced a decline in participation as we steer kids to four-year college degrees with the false narrative that it will produce a more lucrative career.
I’ve noticed there are hundreds of programs pushing not only women but all young kids into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers. If we are honest, the “T” really represents coding/computer programming or anything to do with computer science/engineer. Cars are becoming more like computers – hello Google – but efforts around pushing people into auto technology are not seen. All the technical trades – electricians, machinists, mechanics, plumbers – should be included within the “T” in STEM.
We are no longer called mechanics, we demand to be called technicians. There is a T in our title! We also must have the advanced training in technology to be able to work on cars. I spoke with the Department of Education and Secretary John King, Jr., about my concerns of running out of auto technicians and how women can fill the gaps. These issues keep me up at night.
What’s Next in Your Journey?
I’m opening my own auto repair shop, called Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center. The plan is to be open by the end of September 2016, if all the construction scheduling goes well. I plan on hiring female mechanics and wish it could be staffed with all women but it’s a struggle to find experienced women technicians. It will be women-focused – we’ll have a nail salon – but we’re men-inclusive, so men: don’t be afraid to come! We’re going to treat everyone well; our business will be based on trust, education, inclusion and empowerment.
I’m hiring a shop foreman. I need someone who’s has at least four ASE certifications, five or more years experience running a shop, who has the energy to get behind a hot startup and believes in the vision and the mission of Girls Auto Clinic.
We’ll continue running our clinics, which now cost $25 but people get a copy of my book, The Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide. It’s like a GAC workshop on the go and is meant to be kept in the car’s glove box and reference when needed., I self-published the book and it is currently available on my website. Simon & Schuster has bought the copyright and a new beefed-up version, with more resources, will be available in spring of 2017.
One more resource I created for women is a closed Facebook group called the SheCANic Community. It’s for women to connect with female mechanics. I didn’t have a brother or Dad to help me when something went wrong with my car. I didn’t know whom to turn to to ask questions. I wanted to provide a safe haven so that all members of the group don’t have to be ashamed to ask any questions, and they’ll get an almost instantaneous response from female mechanics. It is a hit, and so far it has 2,500 members and growing!