Ladies from the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club of Laurelton, Queens, faced off two by two, answering questions in a style reminiscent of Family Feud.
It wasn’t simply a game though. Through fun and laughter they learned about automotive repair and how to empower themselves at one of Audra Fordin’s “What Women Auto Know” workshops.
“[The workshops are] to empower you about the car and give you basic information that you need to know when it comes to taking care of your car, to prolong the life and make you safe in the repair shop and on the road,” Fordin said.
Fordin, 39, a petite brunette with a heavy Long Island accent, is a mechanic and the fourth generation owner of Great Bear Auto Repair and Body Shop in Flushing, Queens. She has been working at the shop since childhood, but now she’s the first woman to own the business in its 78-year history.
The shop has a woman’s touch, she said.
Free coffee and cakes have replaced the pictures of swimsuit models and muscle cars that used to reside in Great Bear Auto . The smell of scented candles fills the tidy office where Fordin consults with customers and holds her workshops.
“I still live by the same business practice that my father lived by which is it’s about people,” she said. “You have to take care of the people and that hasn’t changed at all.”
Fordin is one of 7.8 million female business owners in the country, according to recent findings by the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners. Census Bureau deputy director, Thomas Messenbourg, said in a press release that women had “a major impact on the economy” in terms of the amount of people they hire and the amount of money their businesses make.
“Women are much more persistent,” said Alexandra Keleman, Vice President of Diversity for New York City’s chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, referring to women’s ability to run thriving businesses. “We have a resilience and women look for mentors, not out of weakness but because we want our business to succeed.”
Fordin, who has owned Great Bear for 14 years, has recently branded herself as an educator and the shop as a place where women can come to feel safe and learn about car repair in a judgment free environment.
She decided to start the “What Women Auto Know” workshops after witnessing a mechanic try to convince a friend to replace a part that the car didn’t even have. That combined with the realization that women frequently pay mechanics to do work they could easily do themselves prompted her to become a teacher and a champion for female empowerment at the auto shop.
The workshops have expanded into take-home DVDs, an iPhone application and most recently a segment on FiOs channel one, a local news station on Long Island.
“[Women] are coming because there’s a need,” Fordin said of her decision to focus on helping female customers. “The stereotype about auto repair never changed. There’s a huge hole in the industry and that hole is women. It’s a huge untouched market.”
At the workshops, women learn everything from how to change a tire to when to have their car inspected.
“You know how in real estate it’s always location, location, location,” Fordin said. “Well with cars it’s maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. People need to know that.”
The women from the Laurelton club learned April 16 how to check tire pressure, basic brake knowledge and asked plenty of questions – all of which Fordin was able to answer.
Lenora Hines, from Jamaica, Queens, was in attendance and thought the experience was invaluable.
“We could have used this 25 years ago,” she said of the information she gathered. “We’ve only learned over time and experience about cars.”
Fordin accepts donations as payment for the workshops, which she uses to pay for repairs needed by some women who can’t afford them on their own. Both the workshops’ and the store’s kind-hearted, mom-and-pop feeling are what Fordin attributes to maintaining good business.
“I think that word of mouth played a big part in turning the store back around [after the recession],” she said. “We are really about working in the best interest of the people. My business has grown from me doing the right thing.”
The “What Women Auto Know” workshops allow Fordin to teach outside of regular business hours. She holds them the third Saturday of every month after the shop closes and says that she isn’t satisfied unless everyone there has learned something new.
“[I do it] to take away that anxiety and empower them, because all you need is a little bit of information and you got,” she said. “When I see that I make a difference and you get it, that makes my day. And that motivates me to keep going, keep helping, one person at a time.”