the smell of my desperation has become a stench

One woman’s quest to change the automotive industry for other women

This post is brought to you by American Express.

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Recently American Express approached me to talk about a very exciting endeavor of theirs called the #PassionProject. You have probably noticed banner ads for this project here and on other various websites featuring portraits of the individuals involved, including charity:water founder Scott Harrison, individuals they call “doers,” people who are turning their passion into a livelihood. Amex supports these individuals financially and sets them up with partners in their industries to strengthen the projects. It’s a part of this whole cultural movement to live a more fulfilled life, to make noticeable changes in the world around us, and they asked if I’d like to speak with one of the participants.

You might understand why I responded with an all caps, high-pitched YES followed by a multitude of unnecessary exclamation points when you watch this:

Audra Fordin is my new hero. Mother of three, entrepreneur, unwavering advocate.

Here is someone who discovered a major problem in the industry she was born into and has since dedicated her life to fixing it: too many women are intimidated to step foot into an auto repair shop. That intimidation in turn leads to roadside breakdowns, accidents, injuries, and preventable deaths.

She’s gone so far as to say no to television producers who want to cash in on her audacity because her work on this problem isn’t finished. She’s that devoted. I recently had the privilege of speaking with Audra over the phone about her work and why she sees it as her mission to empower women. What’s interesting is that American Express had no idea that I am the woman Audra is trying to help. I am intimidated and scared by everything under the hood of my car. I feel hopeless when it comes to anything concerning my vehicle and subsequently feel terrified that if anything did go wrong I’d have no idea if I was being taken advantage of.

Audra is everything and more that you see in that video. We talked instantly like old friends, and I could tell immediately how authentic her enthusiasm is for this cause. If you’re anything like me when it comes to cars and their inevitable maintenance, you’re going to love this conversation.

How did you get involved with the #PassionProject?

AUDRA: Heather, I’ve got passion! That’s the bottom line. They have a team who is seeking out people who are on missions for social good and they found me and called.

So they just called and said, “We love what you’re doing.”

AUDRA: Yeah. They said that they’d been watching all of my exciting adventures and would I be interested. I didn’t know what it was at first. It could have been a scam, it was like I had won a prize! But it was the real deal. They’re doing it for so many people. It’s not just me. There are so many other people like me who are truly trying to make changes and they’re giving them that opportunity, sharing their reach to just touch more people. It’s amazing.

You’ve been in the automotive industry your whole life?

AUDRA: Yeah, my whole life. My family started Great Bear Auto, so I was born into it. And, I don’t know how you integrate your kids with work, but I have my daughter and she’s 11 and she’s doing a powerpoint, you know, and the other one is doing data entry. It’s constant contact. You’re born into the business, whatever it is, and I feel very lucky to give my kids so much more, I mean, isn’t that what it’s all about? Your parents gave you what they could and then you make it better for your kids. I’m lucky to be able to do that.

Your family was always supportive of you doing this?

AUDRA: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing without their support right now.

I hear you, especially with kids.

AUDRA: How old are yours?

I have a nine-year-old and a four-year-old. Two girls. You?

AUDRA: I have two girls, 13 and 11, and a six-year-old boy.

Oh, wow. Does he get in on the action, too?

AUDRA: You know, he’s got his own things going on! Kids are all so different. We’ll figure it out.

Do you find that most of your clients are female? Is there a mixture?

AUDRA: Well, that’s what is so interesting. The percentage is 46% men, 54% women for people who are interacting on my website womenautoknow.com. We have 450 shops that are listed, and people are sharing reviews. I have a goal to get 10,000 reviews—we have 4500 to go—by December 31. So I’m on this crusade here. It’s very clear on what I see needs to be done.

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What do women need to know?

AUDRA: Well, this is my passion, right? Is there anything that you need to know? Sure you do, you need to know how to control your car when it’s hydroplaning. You need to know that when you’re late to go pick someone up from dance while you’re dropping the other one off at soccer and you left your lights on and now your battery is dead that you’re out of there in five minutes. Sure there are things you need to know.

I was looking up statistics for getting cars towed and roadside assistance. 23,000 crashes last year associated with that. People are getting killed for a breakdown in understanding. To avoid this we need to establish relationships between the driver and the auto shops.

I’m on both sides, because I have an auto shop, right? I was born into it. But I’m also a woman. I’ve been in uncomfortable situations. So I wrote up the pledge which is what you saw in the video from American Express and the pledge is there to overcome the misunderstanding between both sides. It’s just a promise that says, as a shop we’re going to have a place for you to sit, we’ll have a clean bathroom, no inappropriate things on the walls, we’re going to recycle and guarantee our work. These are the types of things people are asking for.

And on the other side, as a consumer, because you need to know that you’re saving money and saving time, what do you really need to do? It hasn’t been about relationships, it’s not a sales business, and when we fix that disconnect we are going to save lives. Because you should be looking at your tires. As a mom of two who is always on the go with what I imagine are a million things to do, you need to know that if your tire is weak you should replace it. People are getting hurt. 23,000 crashes last year due to roadside assistance! A lot of people got hurt in 23,000 crashes, you know?

There’s a big picture here! So I’m done preaching. I’m sorry.

No, no apologies! I love your passion. When you talk about the pledge, I’ll be honest: I’m very intimidated to take my car into a shop. Just the idea makes me queasy. I wouldn’t have any idea what they were telling me.

AUDRA: Exactly. And that’s a big problem. Because you know what, you’re not an uneducated person. And you should not be feeling that way. I just did a presentation in front of a women’s organization in Kentucky. When I was talking to these attorneys, a team of attorneys, they’re saying the same things as you. So when did it really start for me? My life changed when I really got that vibe. It finally clicked in my head, that you really don’t know. You really are scared, and this is a really easy fix.

If you were going to go to a shop that makes a promise that says that they are going to guarantee their work, they’ll have a place for you to sit, and they will talk to you in a language that you understand, would you give them a try?

Of course. For me it’s like walking into a foreign country. It’s culture shock. But if I knew that they were going to explain things to me in terms that I would understand that would make me feel so much more comfortable.

AUDRA: See? It clicks. And if you’re going to give them a try, then imagine this: so you go to the shop and they’ve taken the pledge. They are now inviting you to be a free member, membership is free, and you will have all those tools and resources for BOTH of you to mingle together because the auto shop is a separate portal on the website where they can now communicate with you. They can send you pictures and updates. The intimidation is removed. We’re taking the fear out of the experience. And by sharing the review, I mean, have you ever been stuck on the road before?

Of course. My dad once taught me many, many years ago about how to replace a tire, and it went in one ear and shot out the other. Because he was using terms I didn’t understand. How much safer would I be if I were out with my two kids and I knew how to change a tire? I can say that as an educated woman I don’t know how.

AUDRA: Well, as an educated woman, don’t change a tire, Heather. Like, don’t do it! That’s not one of the things on the list of what you need to know as a mom of two kids. Period. You need a can of Fix-A-Flat in your trunk.

Well, see? I’m glad I heard that from you because I’ve been under the impression that this was the one thing I should know about cars.

AUDRA: The major piece here is that marketing never changed. How long are we going to sit back and be like, this is okay, I have no idea what you’re talking about but I’m going to buy it and let you intimidate me. How long are we going to keep this up? Now there’s an awareness. If we don’t move forward to make a change, then it is our fault. Before this we didn’t know, but now we can take a pledge, we can all apologize and move forward and fix it and save lives. That’s the big drill.

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You seem really fulfilled. Does this thrill you every day? When you come home are you filled with satisfaction about what you’re doing?

AUDRA: I feel like this was born for a reason, and I’m nurturing it to carry it the whole way through. I MUST see this through. The reality shows have called me, oh my goodness. I didn’t know that there were so many! Truly. It’s ridiculous.

Well, you know, I won’t sell out. I’m like, hang on, Audra. Hang on, hang on, Audra. When I established that this is a real issue, everything changed. And that’s the drive right now. Our children will not know that we had this issue. People are getting hurt because the shops are fighting with the customers and it has to stop.

How are you generally treated by male mechanics? Do they respect you? Do they value your opinion?

AUDRA: Of course I’ve been challenged. I’m going to take that from two different aspects. One being people are coming to me now for resources well beyond what I have created here. People need resources, women specifically, because they are asking about that male/female interaction. People need a safe place to go. There is no place to go right now and I feel very responsible to carry it through so that women have a place to go.

So that being said, if you’re a writer then you carry a pen and paper, right? It’s the same in the auto industry. If I am fixing cars then I have an air gun and a ratchet set, and then you see me work. You challenge me. If I were in the kitchen and the chef said, “Give me a butter knife,” and I gave him a fork, then I’d have no respect. It’s all about earning. I don’t think males or females are any different in this regard. I’ve earned my respect. So maybe I’m challenged once, but we never go there again.

I love that. You’re like, “Here’s what I think of your challenge.”

AUDRA: Right? The industry is hurting itself. People think it’s this dirty job. But it’s really not. It’s kind of like an IT tech. Holy moly, the car is like a really big computer that goes really fast and there’s so much more to it! There’s this big gap. This huge disconnect.

So I saw the video about the first three things that you should check before you hit the road:

Are those pretty much the most important things for every person to know?

AUDRA: Well, it depends on the consumer. Those tips were given with a certain type of driver in mind. If I’m thinking about a single mom with two kids, I would talk about tires which is your first line of defense. And something simple like replenishing wiper fluid. You need visibility because 90 percent of your driving decisions are based on being able to see.

I can proudly say that I stay very much on top of my wiper fluid.

AUDRA: That’s good! You absorbed something of what your dad was telling you long ago. You remember.

I do. I do carry jumper cables, and I have my car serviced every six months. I try to do as much preventative work as I possibly can.

AUDRA: Well that’s good. That will save you so much money in the long run. Definitely do your maintenance. Excellent, excellent move.

Where do you see this ending up? Do you see this being a massive move to educate everyone to the point that no one has to be afraid to step foot inside a shop?

AUDRA: Well, I do. I actually see it going further. I see it where it is just a regular conversation at the kitchen table, like, “I walked past your tires and I saw something.” Or, “Rust is showing up.” There are so many things where the whole family can be empowered by participating in it. Let your kids do the tire pressure. It’s good for the car and they feel like they are participating. It’s certainly a task that they should be empowered with because it’s their lives and they are being responsible for it. And that’s something so great to teach them.

Is there anything else you wanted to add, wanted my audience to know?

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AUDRA: Tell them to take the pledge! [see TAKE THE PLEDGE here] Dedicate themselves to being more proactive about car care. We’ll send them an “I Took The Pledge” sticker to affix to car windows. And that way we have an empowered driver. Like, “I’m the one who knows.” We’re now empowering the drivers to have more confidence to go into the shops. This is an automotive community where women belong. Men, too, because I don’t discriminate, but especially women.

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“This post is brought to you by American Express. Audra is just one Member of the American Express PassionProject. See all of the inspiring stories here.” 

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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