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Pa. 'auto airhead' wrenches her way through gender gap

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Girls Auto Clinic photo Patrice Banks sporting a signature "Shechanic" shirt during one of her car care clinics for women.

UPPER DARBY, Pa. (Sept. 14, 2016) — Patrice Banks is on a mission to bring a woman’s touch to the man’s world of auto mechanics.

A professional vehicle service technician, Ms. Banks conducts car care clinics for women, wearing her signature red stilettos while demonstrating how to check oil levels and change tires.

And she will soon open her own auto repair shop, Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center in Upper Darby this October — complete with female mechanics and a “while-u-wait” nail salon.

Ms. Banks is a former, self-described “auto airhead” who has been generating a lot of publicity in the Philadelphia market for her one-woman mission to empower women intimidated by auto repair and maintenance.

She never started out to pursue a career in the automotive industry, originally earning a degree in engineering and working 12 years in management for E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

So what caused the radical about face for Ms. Banks?

Disillusionment with her career and a desire to educate herself about her car after feeling scammed by repair shops prompted her to switch jobs.

  • This article appears in the Sept. 12 print edition of Tire Business.

“I traded high heels and an air-conditioned office for boots, Dickies and grime-covered hands,” she wrote in an opinion column. “The reason was simple: I was tired of feeling like an auto airhead and getting scammed by the male-dominated car-care industry.”

She said she saw a major business opportunity in the auto industry’s gender gap. So she took night classes to earn a degree in auto mechanics and three years ago began offering her Girls Auto Clinics at various locations around Philadelphia to educate women about car maintenance. The goal: Provide women with enough information to allow them to ask more informed questions and negotiate prices with mechanics and salesmen.

In addition, she has published a car maintenance handbook entitled “Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide.” She also writes educational blogs for her Girls Auto Clinic website and her Facebook page.

“My mission with Girls Auto Clinic is to educate and empower women — my mission statement is providing automotive buying and repair resources, products and services to women,” Ms. Banks told Tire Business. “Part of the resources are the workshops and the book and the blog, and all the content I can provide to help educate them.”

To the envy of many a new business, Ms. Banks’ activities have generated media publicity and a large customer base anticipating the opening of her new shop. Potential customers have attended her clinics, heard her give talks about auto maintenance, followed her on Facebook and seen her profiled in newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and Washington Post, and interviewed on local TV news programs. She even was invited to give a TED Talk in May 2015 at Wilmington University.

Another bonus was that banks called her to offer business loans because they saw her business idea publicized in the media, she said.

“I’m so nervous that we’re going to be super slammed when we first open and not be able to handle everything because I’m getting emails and messages every day on social media of, ‘When are you opening? I’m ready to schedule an appointment. Can I come in?’”

As for the media attention, she attributes it to people seeing “my passion and my heart just poured into it and it excites people and makes them want to be a part of it and talk about it.

“I’ve been really blessed to get the attention from my peers and people around me that want to learn more and are excited about what I’m doing,” she said.

 “I’m trying to create a movement for people to get excited about and want to be a part of,” said Ms. Banks, who has created a social media following with her #sheCANic.

Personal experience

Ms. Banks speaks to her audiences from personal experience. Describing herself as a former “auto airhead,” she admitted she was clueless about car maintenance and not aware of the costs of maintenance or when a repair was really needed.

A pivotal moment occurred while she was still at DuPont and had posted a tongue-in-cheek comment on Facebook that “my car needs an oil change, but I got a mani-pedi instead.”

Patrice Banks, TED, Wilmington, Girls Auto Clinic
Girls Auto Clinic photo Patrice Banks delivered a TED talk at Wilmington University in May 2015, speaking on "How I plan on disrupting the auto industry . . . in red heels."

Her intent was to reflect people’s aversion to visiting an auto repair shop. Instead, she was chided by her male co-workers for not taking good care of her car.

“And what was funny was I was being sarcastic about it. But it’s true. I just accepted my auto airhead fate. Yes, I would rather get my nails done.

“But if you’re really listening to what I’m saying is, the need is, ‘Here’s your No. 1 customer saying she doesn’t like this experience. She’d rather do this (manicure) than take care of her $30,000 investment. She’d rather spend $30 on her nails than $30 on her car.’

“That’s saying something about your customer. So if you’re listening, you can adjust. Say: ‘What can we do to please you, to make sure you’re happy?’

“So I just felt like, again, this was a challenge for me with my car, but I saw it as an opportunity — a huge opportunity — for me to make a change and to help other people, and that’s where it came from,” Ms. Banks said.

While taking night classes to earn a degree in auto mechanics, she worked for free at Keller’s Auto & Truck Repair to learn the ropes, working as a mechanic, a service adviser and various other jobs.

Once she earned her degree, she took a full-time job at the shop, acknowledging she took “a very huge pay cut when I left DuPont, but I knew I had to do it.”

In 2013 she started hosting car care clinics geared to women. Then in 2015 she quit her job to pursue her goal of opening her own women-centric auto repair shop—a dream that took a year-and-a-half to achieve.

Ms. Banks said she had a hard time finding a location within the Philadelphia city limits because of the excessive property prices, zoning regulations and inspection requirements. She eventually hired a broker who the next day found a vacant Speedway Auto shop on a main highway in nearby Upper Darby.

The two-building location will include the new So Clutch Beauty Bar, where women can get manicures and blow-outs while waiting for their vehicles to get serviced, along with a car wash/detailing bay. The four service bays will provide full automotive and tire services, quick lubes and state emission inspections.

Ms. Banks plans to open her shop in mid-October with three female mechanics, a shop foreman and an extra mechanic who will fill in if the business gets busy.

Setting up shop

“People...are so excited about a Girls Auto Clinic. Women, of course, because not only can they come to a place that they feel they’ll be able to trust because our whole motto, our whole mission is educating women and empowering you.

“My tag line is, ‘A mechanic that talks like you and thinks like you.’ Because I was that woman,” she continued, “…I was tired of feeling powerless. I know that feeling…. So they’re coming because they say, “You get me, you understand me — help!’ That’s what our whole platform is.”

As the shop’s opening draws near, Ms. Banks said, “Women are super excited that they can do both their nails and their cars. It’s like a perfect marriage in a way for women.”

Patrice Banks, Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, Girls Auto Clinic, clutch beauty
Girls Auto Clinic photo An ad for Patrice Banks' Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center

She noted that customer demographics are shifting from the baby boomer generation to millennials, who tend to value relationships. Women, especially, prefer relationships with a business rather than just doing a sales transaction.

“It’s important to establish a relationship with your customer,” Ms. Banks said. “That’s why social media is blowing up. People want to be connected,…they want to know they can put their whole values behind a brand they’re giving their money to. They want to share their values. If you’re trying to look at how you can put yourself out there and get customers, I would link it to that and not be about ‘I just want to make money.’

“Try to solve a problem, Try to be able to create less stress in your customers’ lives. It’s a service, ultimately, the automotive business. You’re here to serve the people who want to spend their money, so make sure you’re doing that properly and treating them well and you’ll always have customers,” Ms. Banks advised.

While searching for a shop location, Ms. Banks kept busy building her brand, hosting her workshops and entering business start-up competitions — such as the Miller Lite Tap the Future contest, a Shark Tank-esque competition for local business entrepreneurs, where she was a semi-finalist.

“When we’re ready to open, bam, we got tons of people who know who we are. I’ve been building a customer base with my car care workshops that I’m still doing every month with other groups and organizations,” she said.

Besides finding a good location, her other challenge was finding good people to work at the shop — “finding people who are going to work as passionately and as hard as you are on stuff….

“It’s hard to get people on board with the culture, your mission, your views, your style, sometimes, and so you’re going to run through a lot of people who can help you in a way but may not be the help you’re looking for.

“So it takes a while to find some really good people that you can count on,” she said.

One of her goals was to operate her shop with female mechanics and, despite what some may think, her challenge wasn’t finding female mechanics to apply — it was finding experienced female mechanics.

“I have more women applying than I have positions for, but most of them are beginner techs. They don’t have a lot of experience or they haven’t worked in the field for many years because (when) they joined at first, they faced a lot of discrimination.

“They don’t have a lot of support from other women or even from the men — they’re the only girl, (so) they don’t fit in. They’re not comfortable. They don’t get a lot of development or good career paths — and they get frustrated and they quit, or they get fired, and they leave the industry.

“Or they’ll go into parts (departments) or some other aspect of automotive. So you don’t find women with a lot of experience because they don’t stay in the field for very long,” Ms. Banks said, adding, “I see this as an opportunity, as me being able to find all these women who want to work on cars, that want to be part of it, but they just need a safe space and opportunity.”

Part of her objective is to turn the challenge into an opportunity to help more women develop a career in the auto industry.

“I want to hire women mechanics so we can get a safe space for them to work, have the support of other women who know what it’s like to be a woman working in the industry, who know what it takes to be a woman working in the industry.”

While her goal was to be an all-women business, she did hire a man as a shop foreman because she said she couldn’t find a woman who had enough experience. However, he is a great teacher, which she said is why she hired him.

Confidence is key

Ms. Banks said she hasn’t faced much skepticism about her abilities as a female mechanic because she expresses confidence in her abilities and knowledge.

“When you put that confidence out there, people don’t really question you. They don’t give you a hard time. It’s really about confidence, and that’s something you teach boys at a young age, which is why men can have more confidence and women tend to be more insecure about our positions and our views and not speaking up.

“Men will say stuff all day and be completely wrong, but they say it with such confidence, people believe them,” she said. “Ask any woman — We know it! We experience it all the time.”

Ms. Banks said she is someone who always tried to imbue confidence, even though in college and at DuPont she didn’t believe she was as smart as everyone else — “because I was a minority and grew up poor and on welfare and my mom never went to college or even graduated from high school….

“When I left DuPont and started doing Girls Auto Clinic full time, I realized how smart I was. I got out in the real world, I realized I know a lot. I’m very smart. It’s about being confident in who you are and putting yourself out there and being confident.”

Ms. Banks said she receives numerous emails and messages from girls requesting her advice on pursuing a career in the automotive industry, and she tells them to show confidence in school and in their job.

“Don’t be intimidated, don’t feel insecure because the guys are confident and they are going to step in and take charge and they’ll think you don’t really want to be here — that you don’t really want to learn,” she said.

“But you have to let them know you’re on a mission, you’re here to learn, you’re here to work on cars, you’re here to get better and no one’s going to stop you…. People will stay out of your way when you’re on a mission to do something, you have that initiative and motivation. They’re not going to get in the way of that because they can’t — it’s too much work!

“…Having that type of focus is what I try to teach young girls because it is going to be difficult working in this industry as a woman,” she said.

“There are great places and great shops that have great culture around hiring women, but there are a lot more that don’t,” Ms. Banks noted.

“That’s the purpose of Girls Auto Clinic. It is two-fold: not just providing a safe place for women drivers who bring their cars, but also a safe place for women who want to work in this industry.

“I believe by having this business I can do both, and by doing that I can kind of shift the industry in a way, bring more women in, start getting more women in positions of leadership and positions of power so we can influence our No. 1 customer, which is women.”

Ms. Banks laments the lack of women working in the automotive industry but also the mistrust women customers have of automotive shops.

“You see reports all day about just how unhappy women are — and people in general — with the automotive industry and the lack of transparency or feeling of being misunderstood or mistreated. And women feel it more and there’s that stigma.

“So I’m trying to kind of get rid of that stigma by saying, ‘Listen ladies, let’s learn more, let’s not be afraid of our cars, let’s change the relationship and be empowered to feel confident about the decisions we make with our cars.’

“I think it’s going to take other women in this industry to help make those changes.

“I’m all about female empowerment. I’m not an auto person. I tell people I didn’t grow up in the auto industry, I’m not here for the automotive industry, I’m here for women and I’m here to help make my contribution to empower women and change the world,” she said.

With all the positive publicity her mission has been receiving, Ms. Banks still sees a downside.

“One of the things about putting yourself out there like I have is everyone is watching you. So you’ve really got to step up and be able to handle the pressure.

“I get really nervous sometimes and wake up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘What am I doing? Why did I talk all this trash? Why did I say I was going to do all this stuff?’

“Now I actually have to do it. Now I have to perform,” she said.

“I have to give myself a little pep talk and say, ‘Patrice, you can do this. There’s nothing you can’t handle.’”

_______________________________________

To reach this reporter: kmccarron@crain.com; 330-865-6127; Twitter: @kmccarr

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