DENVER AND UPPER DARBY, PENNSYLVANIA VIA EMAIL—Women have been passengers in the romance between men and their cars for too long. Cars are fast, dangerous machines, a symbol of freedom, something to be mastered and in most cultures synonymous with masculinity. Cars, we’ve been wrongly taught, are the territory of men and that women are largely incapable of driving them let alone maintaining or repairing them. But Patrice Banks, owner of Girls Auto Clinic in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania and an engineer turned mechanic, wants to change that. Girls Auto Clinic, an auto repair shop, is staffed entirely by women and designed to cater to women clients. While your car is getting a tune-up you can visit the onsite Clutch Beauty Bar for a manicure or blowout, and if you want to learn how to change a tire, Girls Auto Clinic offers workshops that people come from as far away as Washington D.C to attend. Ms. Banks’s work extends beyond the garage doors. She writes a blog, manages a Facebook community, teaches workshops—all geared to empower women in life and in their relationship with their cars, creating what she dubs #sheCANics. Her book “Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide” is a handy do-it-herself guide to all things automobile. She-files co-founder Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp recently interviewed Ms. Banks over email. EXCERPTS:
Patrice Banks: Originally, the idea wasn’t to open a shop; the initial idea was to educate women on topics that they usually felt they needed a guy’s help with. I asked everyone what those things were, and overwhelmingly, the answer was “my car.” Initially, I was just looking for a female mechanic to educate me, so that I in turn could educate more women through workshops. But I could not find a female mechanic in my area. [So] I decided to enroll in school — still at this point, not planning to open a shop — so that I could get the knowledge I needed. I started holding workshops while I was in school. When I saw a gap in the way the industry catered to its customers, I knew there was something I could and needed to do to fill that gap and empower women through their vehicles. I got the idea for a shop with all female mechanics and I decided to leave my job and pursue this full time.
It was scary originally. When I first started school, I found myself falling back, not answering questions, and letting the guys try out the things we were learning. But then I realized I was only doing a disservice to myself, and I forced myself to step up and take charge of my own education. Some people don’t take you seriously because you don’t look like them or talk like them. They don’t think you are good enough because you are different. [And] there isn’t much women-led support in the automotive industry. Most of my support comes from friends, other women entrepreneurs and mentors. We still have people saying that we are just trying to be cute, or that there is not [an] issue with gender discrimination in the industry and we are making things up, or even “There must be men that come do the work overnight; women can’t be mechanics.” But overwhelmingly the response has been amazing, and that keeps me going.
Where did that idea for the beauty bar come from and do you think it’s been a big part of your success?
The idea of the salon came from a Facebook post I made back in the day, that said, “I need an oil change, but I am going to get a mani and pedi instead.” When I worked at Dupont, a friend of mine and I used to go get our oil changed at a place right near a nail salon, so we could go there while we waited, and we thought we were so clever. I think it definitely contributes to how excited people get about our story.
When I first started hosting my workshops, I realized that it would be helpful to create printouts and pamphlets for #sheCANics [what I call participants] to take home with them, to help them recall what we had gone over. As time went on, those packets got larger and larger. I realized that between those packets and the blogs I was consistently writing, I was sitting on a lot of valuable information. People were receptive to my writing style and the way I approached the explanations of different aspects of the car. People could understand what I was saying and wanted to read more to learn more. I self-published [a] version, and a literary agent contacted me to shop it around to different publishers. It got picked up right around the time we were getting to work on the shop.
What’s next for you and the Girls Auto Clinic?
We would love to expand our workshop offerings [in order] to travel more to organizations and [ultimately] reach more people. We are hoping to scale up the #sheCANic brand, which is all the educational material, with videos or webinars, so that we can reach people who aren’t in our area.
Do you have a tip to share with our readers?
Do not top off the tank when getting gas. Once you hear the click, stop pumping: The pump is designed to turn off when the fuel reaches a certain level in the tank, going above this level could cause damage to your car and pollute the environment. There are gas and gas vapors inside your gas tank. Gas expands, especially when it is hot out. As the gas expands it needs to go somewhere. Your car has a system designed to handle these vapors, but if you put too much fuel in, the liquid may be forced into this system. This can cause your check engine light to come on, your car to run poorly, and/or you pollute the air more with your exhaust.
All photos courtesy Girls Auto Clinic.