All Photos by Tessa Marie Images.
Patrice Banks was the first in her family to attend college. Shortly after graduating with a degree from Lehigh University, she took a job with DuPont, where she worked for 11 years as a materials engineer and manager.
The Phoenixville native’s passion to do more eventually pushed her in a different direction. In her final months with the chemical giant, Banks took a personal-development role to support fellow engineers. That small taste of teaching others has led to Girls Auto Clinic, a unique female-focused shop that’s scheduled to open this fall in Upper Darby. “DuPont really set me up nicely,” says the 35-year-old Banks. “I wanted to fix things, solve problems, look for resources. That’s what engineers do.”
But an engineer isn’t an auto mechanic, so Banks educated herself thoroughly for her new mission. She also saw the gender disparity in a field where women make up less than 10 percent of the workforce. As you might expect, male mechanics weren’t falling over themselves to hire Banks. But she kept searching, eventually finding a job at Keller’s Auto & Truck Repair in Manayunk. Her tenacity came, in part, from her years at DuPont, where she’d had trouble fitting in as a woman of color in the sciences.
Even after the founding of the online component of Girls Auto Clinic in 2011, Banks was routinely told she was “too pretty” to work on cars. But that didn’t deter her from honing her craft and making plans for her own brick-and-mortar shop. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “Being able to take something that’s daunting and teach it to someone who doesn’t understand it is one of my strongest qualities.”
Banks gained a loyal following through Crest Auto in Philadelphia, which became a temporary home for her free clinics for women interested in learning the basics of car care. “I helped a stranger in a diner parking lot jump her car,” says former student Nicole Nimchuk Cellasio, who has since taken a job at Napa Auto Parts. “I can’t answer all the questions yet, but I’m getting there.”
For her Girls Auto Clinic, Banks initially set out to employ female mechanics. Not surprisingly, she had a difficult time tracking any down. So she started the sheCANic training campaign to help staff the location she’d found at the busy intersection of West Chester Pike and State Road. “It’s what makes me get up in the morning,” says Banks. “I no longer look forward to Friday; I no longer snooze my alarm.”
Among the perks at her shop, Banks offers the So Clutch on-site beauty salon, which provides blowouts, manicures, pedicures and eyebrow waxing. “I hope to have shops across the country,” she says. “I want to make women smarter drivers and confident consumers.”
Banks’ enthusiasm seems to be catching on. She’s appeared on TED Talks and was recently a guest at the White House for the inaugural United State of Women Summit. She also won the Miller Lite Tap the Future award, which helps fund budding entrepreneurs, and she even has a book deal for her Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide.
Despite her can-do attitude, Banks admits that she still gets nervous working on cars. “Women tend to have that feeling a lot, especially when we step into a male-dominated world,” she says. “I just have to trust that I know what I’m talking about.”