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Reverse engineering the auto repair industry

Patrice Banks '02 turns Lehigh degree into an opportunity to empower women in the field of auto mechanics.

In a field predominantly managed by men, Lehigh engineering alumna Patrice Banks '02 made the decision that she would no longer be intimidated by the subject of auto repair.

Formerly a self-proclaimed "auto airhead," she used to run in the opposite direction from the auto mechanic.

"I waited until the last minute to do repairs," said Banks. "I think that it's almost the culture ingrained that women don't understand cars. We're taught very young [to believe] ... you're not going to get it ... [to] let a man handle it."

Next month, the materials science and engineering grad prepares for the grand opening of her own auto repair shop in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania -- the Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center. While the shop will offer full service auto repair and detailing for all genders, Banks envision the establishment as more of a "clubhouse for women," staffed with female mechanics.

The path to automotive independence for Banks began nearly two decades ago, working three jobs before turning 16 to earn enough money to purchase a car for her family. She broke barriers in the classroom, earning a scholarship to Lehigh and become the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college.

The Phoenixville, Pennsylvania native immediately transformed her materials science degree into a job at DuPont, working as an analyst in its engineering and research technology divisions. But after nearly nine years at DuPont, it wasn't enough.

It was time for a career change.

Banks' interest in cars -- and frustration in being "nickeled and dimed" every time she went to the mechanic -- motivated her to enroll at Delaware Technical Community College, where she earned her degree as an auto mechanic technician.

"I went up to the teacher and said, 'I'm here to learn everything so I can create a shop for women,'" she said.

In 2014, Banks left DuPont, initially working for free -- at an auto shop in Philadelphia. The shop offered the opportunity to gain some valuable experience under the hood and a chance to see what it really took to run a finely tuned garage.

At the same time, Banks started up a series of clinics, teaching area women the basics of car maintenance, including how to change the oil, air filters and more. She saw it simply as an opportunity to help empower women, whom she felt had been taken advantage of at auto dealers and shops across the country for far too long.

She published a book on auto repair for women, the Girls Auto Clinic Glovebox Guide, which turned into a book contract with publisher Simon & Schuster for a biography due out next year. You can also watch Banks online in her 2015 Wilmington University TEDx Talk, "How I Plan to Disrupt the Auto Industry in Red Heels."

Utlimately, Banks hopes her new shop will "create a safe space for women to have their cars serviced, ask questions about cars, and provide opportunities to women for career growth in the automotive industry."

September 9, 2016

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