Materials science and engineering alumna Patrice Banks ’02 is becoming an overnight phenomenon as an entrepreneur who founded an all-female staffed, full-service garage that not just fixes cars, but aims to empower women. Lehigh alumni in the Philadelphia region gathered at her garage, Girls Auto Clinic, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, to hear of her journey and participate in an interactive workshop on car care and maintenance.
For someone who did not have a car growing up, was raised by a single mother on welfare, and, even as a young engineer, didn’t know how her car worked, Patrice Banks ’02 has recently turned the heads of many in the automotive industry. Banks shared her journey from engineer to founder and CEO of Girls Auto Clinic at her full-service garage in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, with Lehigh alumni and students on May 9. The event was co-sponsored by the Lehigh Club of Philadelphia, the Lehigh’s Women’s Professional Alliance, and BALANCE alumni affinity groups, and it included an interactive workshop and networking reception.
Banks’ story goes back to when she attended Lehigh and earned her degree in materials science engineering. After graduating, she began as an engineer at Dupont and was surrounded by men in a male-dominated profession. Her determination to succeed and excel, despite being a woman of color and a first-generation college graduate, took her to heights she never imagined, which included becoming a manager. However, she was never fully satisfied with her time at the company.
“Ever since college, I had a case of imposter syndrome, even though deep down I knew I belonged. Even at Dupont, I didn’t feel like I fit in,” Banks said.
She spent 12 years at Dupont but desired to do something professionally where she could contribute more to society. She decided to open her own auto shop tailored for women with a staff of all-female mechanics. Aware of the way that women are taken advantage of too often by the automotive industry, she wanted to be part of the change in giving women the knowledge and tools to stand up for themselves.
At the event, Banks explained that while women are the number one customer ¾ spending more than $200 billion a year on the automotive industry ¾ they have the smallest voice. In starting her own garage, she had one goal – to educate women so they feel better informed about their vehicles and more confident when talking to auto mechanics. Banks calls these newly empower ladies, Shecanics.
In order for her to follow her dream of opening the shop, she had to start from square one again and take classes at automotive training school.
“There I was, a manager at Dupont, sitting aside 19-year-old boys — picking up tools for the first time,” Banks said. “My mentality was that I am here to learn; either you’re in my way, or you’re here to help.”
Banks opened Girls Auto Clinic in January 2017. The auto shop is a full-service repair shop that also hosts clinics to educate women about cars. Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster published her book, entitled “Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide,” as a way for women to better understand the basics about cars and to know what questions to ask auto mechanics.
During the interactive workshop on May 9, Banks gave one of her now-famous clinics to an eager group of alumni and students. She reviewed car care basics in a way that was both relatable and easy to understand — and in her iconic red heels.
“And don't forget … when the car's air filter gets dirty, it’s like boogers. When you have junk in your nose, you can’t breathe as well … right?” Banks said.
For Alexis Leon ’14G, the ability to understand some of the mechanical basics of a car was very rewarding.
“As someone who feels like an intelligent, educated woman, I had no idea about cars,” Leon said. “The workshop was an amazing opportunity. The day the event was offered, I signed up!”
During a Q&A, Banks spoke about her time at Lehigh and credited her participation on the rowing team as a formative experience. Although, initially, she didn’t want to join the rowing team because of the early 5 a.m. practices, she was convinced by Rowing Coach Carmen Mirochna to give it a try. She reminisced about the tough practices at McClintic and Marshall residence hall where she would run stairs with the team.
“Rowing taught me about structure, commitment, and dedication,” Banks said. “There were eight girls in a boat, and we succeeded and failed together — it taught me a lot about the importance of working as a team.”
After her TED Talk, Banks entered the national spotlight in 2017 when she opened her one-of-a kind shop and published her book. She was subsequently interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross on the nationally-syndicated program “Fresh Air.” As luck would have it, a few celebrity producers including Elizabeth Banks caught the program and individually reached out to Banks about turning her life and story into a scripted comedy show. Elizabeth Banks’ idea won, and FOX purchased the pilot “Patty’s Auto” which began shooting in April.
In addition to the FOX pilot, Banks is scaling up her shecanic brand with hopes to expand her message of empowering women to national, and even global, audiences.
Lehigh mechanical engineering student Annaliese Cunnife ’19 was inspired by the amazing work that a Lehigh alum like Banks has done to educate and uplift women.
“It was really inspirational to see that she picked a cause that she is passionate about,” Cunnife said.
Lehigh alumnus Reginald Jennings ’70 weighed in on the importance of Banks’ journey.
“What we are seeing is empowering for Lehigh, not just women,” Jennings said. “This is a great example of showing what hard work and determination can achieve – even when all odds are against you.”
As the auto workshop and the Q&A session came to a close, Banks bounced around the room eager to hear about what other alumni have been up to and announced her search for a COO to join her at Girls Auto Clinic.
Lisa Getzler, executive director of Lehigh University’s Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship, Creativity & Innovation, commented on Banks’ impact.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s Girls Auto Clinic or something completely different than that. When you’re an entrepreneurial thinker who brings your authentic self to the world, you can change it. And Patrice Banks is proof of that,” said Getzler.
Photos by Daniel Moyer for Academic Image
View a photo gallery from the event.