Wearing a backwards red ball cap, skinny jeans and high-heel boots, Patrice Banks is doing her thing at the Girls Auto Clinic in Upper Darby.
“That vroom, vroom noise you hear at a shop is called an impact gun,” said Banks as she worked on a small blue coupe on a car lift in her garage. “It’s connected to compressed air, and so what that does is it removes bolts and nuts and stuff.”
Spreading the mechanical gospel is in Banks’ blood. Her female-focused auto-shop has just opened up with the goal of empowering women to pop their hoods and get under their cars. It’s Banks’ brainchild, and she hopes the business is the start of a movement.
Banks quit her day job as a materials engineer at DuPont to become an auto mechanic. She was the only woman in her program at Delaware Technical Community College. At first, it was kind of intimidating, but that didn’t last.
“What Sheryl Sandberg says about leaning in, or sitting at the table, I saw myself falling back because I was intimidated. So I had to make that switch. And when I did, you couldn’t tell me anything,” she said.
When she got out, moving from engineer to mechanic meant a significant pay cut. Yet laboring on cars and helping educate women about power tools made her rich in other ways.
“Everybody thinks, ‘I need to get a four-year degree. Sit at a computer, that’s how I’m going to make money.’ And they don’t realize the value in working with your hands. Not only can it make you good money, but often people are happier,” she said.
To be sure, Banks was driven by more than the zen of motor vehicle maintenance. She was sick of being taken advantage of at local repair shops, and wanted to do something about it.
“I felt like an auto-airhead. I hated all my experiences going in for an oil change, being upsold all the time for an air filter,’ she said. “Any time a dashboard light came on, I panicked.”
Girls Auto Clinic is a two-in-one business: an auto repair shop and salon. While you get your car fixed by Banks and her other female mechanics, you can also get a mani, pedi or a blowout.
“That’s what I wanted it to be like, a clubhouse for women, where you can just come and hang out and be around some other dope chicks,” she explained.
Among them, Crystal Lewis. She can help you out at the Clutch Beauty Bar.
“When you’re waiting to get your car fixed, you have nothing to worry about because you can come next door,” Lewis said. “And get your nails, feet and your hair done, and little waxing, little makeup, and then you can go to work, and then you’re all done, and you don’t even gotta worry about it.”
Running this hybrid business is one facet of Banks’ grand vision. She runs a free monthly car clinic for women; she has a book on the Girls Auto Clinic coming out next year with Simon & Schuster; and she has a TED Talk called “How I Plan on Disrupting the Auto Industry … in Red Heels.”
“I’m a mechanic, I cater to women,” said Banks, imitating a loud gasp. “I get this,” she said, gasping. “Because it’s so unique. And it’s so needed, and most of the time, it’s like, why hasn’t this been done before?”
Her monthly workshops fill up fast. Ten women each session. And no question is off limits.
“You’re going to learn how to pop your hood. You’re going to learn what to touch underneath your car. How to change your air filter, right, how to check your oil,” she said.
That’s how Philadelphian Susan Sweeney first found Banks.
“I did not know that girls could go into the automotive field,” Sweeney said.
Now she’s one of the mechanics at the Girls Auto Clinic. Before fixing up cars, she went to cosmetology school, but deep down she wanted something else.
“There was nobody in my immediate family that was a mechanic, so my mom was always like, take it to so-and-so, and it was always thousands of dollars, like seriously, why?”
These days, she’s doing the repairs herself. She said she’s learned quite a bit from Banks, who’s like a walking how-to guide.
“When you tighten down the lug nuts, you go in a star pattern when you’re putting them on, not like one, two, three, four in a circle. Some people don’t know that,” she said just before tightening down some wheels with the impact gun.
Banks wants to take her Girls Auto Clinic concept nationwide. And she says some of her mechanics could be the ones opening up new locations.
“Let’s go open one in Conshohocken or King of Prussia or Delaware. South Jersey. And now let’s start expanding to Houston, to Atlanta, to LA. I get emails every day saying, ‘When are you coming out to LA?'”