Bogi Lateiner Of 'All Girls Garage' On The Empowerment Of Repairing Your Own Vehicle

Illustration for article titled Bogi Lateiner Of 'All Girls Garage' On The Empowerment Of Repairing Your Own Vehicle
Screenshot: TEDx

Bogi Lateiner epitomizes the term “car enthusiast.” She may not have grown up going gaga over four-wheeled machines, but after buying a Volkswagen Beetle—her dream car—while in high school, she knew she’d found her path. She rebuilt that car from the ground up and, in the process, learned that few things in life are as intimidating as they seem at the start.

Advertisement

Since then, Lateiner has ascended to global recognition as a result of the MotorTrend show she co-hosts, “All Girls Garage,” and her development of female-forward auto shops and repair classes that teach women to take more control over their car ownership experience. Not that women are the only people who need a hand in the garage; Lateiner is happy to clarify that she’s dedicated to helping the novice, no matter where you fall on the gender spectrum.

I had a chance to chat with Lateiner about her career trajectory as part of our “What Drives Her” series on A Girls Guide to Cars and thought you fine Jalops would be interested in hearing more, too.

Elizabeth Blackstock: I read that you initially started out in law wanting to work with domestic violence victims.

Bogi Lateiner: I did. Crazy career path! Crazy journey. It’s been interesting

EB: How did you get into cars and how did that come to be the thing you wanted to have as your profession?

BL: It didn’t come naturally or early on, when I was young. I didn’t grow up around cars. I didn’t know anything about cars. Nobody in my family was into cars—they don’t know where I came from. It started out less about cars and more about the challenge of it. I had fallen in love with Volkswagen Beetles when I was little. I thought they were really cool and I was a little hippie kid and I wanted one. I started reading Volkswagen magazines to figure out what year I should buy. I noticed that women never showed up in these magazines unless they were wearing high heels and bikinis. That was the mid-90s, early-90s, and that was pretty much the norm. But my little feminist hippie mind was like, “That’s not cool!”

It really started out as being disturbed by the fact that there weren’t women. I wasn’t seeing women. It made me want to do something more with my Bug when I got it than just have a Bug. I wanted to rebuild my Bug. That became my mission. I was going to buy a Bug and rebuild it, and I was going to be in the magazine, and not in a bikini in high heels.

Advertisement

That’s kind of how it started. I wanted to take auto shop in high school so that I could rebuild my Bug. It was the most hairbrained thing ever; I was this 16-year-old girl who knew nothing about cars and was like, “Yep, I’m gonna rebuild a car!” I wanted to take auto shop, and they discouraged me from it. Not just my guidance counselor, but teachers and friends. It was kind of like, “Why would you want to do that? It’s not for girls.” All of that of course made me want to do it more to prove a point. It really started out as a proving of a point. Of course, I’d go to the repair shops once I bought my Bug, and I always felt really vulnerable, and that added fuel to the fire.

So I ended up doing it. I rebuilt my Bug from the ground up in high school with the help of my auto shop and the students in it, my teacher, and some really awesome mentors who helped me out along the way. And I loved it, I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t really see it as a career path, necessarily. It wasn’t ever presented to me as a career path. I didn’t know that was an option.

Advertisement

I went off to college because that was what I was supposed to do, and it became increasingly apparent to me that what I had learned in auto shop was really empowering. It was a really empowering thing to dive into something that I knew nothing about, that scared me, that I wasn’t supposed to know anything about, that I was being told girls shouldn’t know anything about, and to figure it out and make sense of it. It became less scary and less intimidating. I found myself in college teaching my friends about their cars and really enjoying seeing the light go on when they’re like, “Oh, I get it. That makes sense. That’s not so scary.” It really became apparent to me that, when we teach people and help people learn about things that intimidate and scare them, and they realize that they’re not so intimidating and scary anymore, that translates to other areas of their life. Like, if this wasn’t as scary I thought it was, what else might not be so scary?

Even in college, it was my thought that I one day wanted to use automotive as a vehicle for empowering women. In order to do that, I had to become a really good mechanic. After college, I went to Universal Technical Institute—again, to the shock and awe of all of my friends who had no idea or understanding of what I was doing. I went off and became a mechanic and worked for BMW for seven years and worked on the line as a master technician for a long time. And then it was time to go on to the next chapter, which was starting my own shop and creating my own space that was about empowering people, whether they wanted to become mechanics, whether they just wanted to have a different relationship with their car, whether they wanted to just feel like they were not be treated poorly at a repair shop. That’s what led me to become a shop owner.

Advertisement

EB: In that process, it’s both learning about cars but also about how to respond to the people around you who are discouraging you. How did people respond to your presence in the shop, and how did you respond to them?

BL: There were a variety of reactions. It’s changed a lot over the years. I’ve definitely noticed a shift in the industry being more accepting, but when I was coming up, it was the late 90s, early 2000s, and I was not welcome in a lot of places. It was very challenging to get my foot in the door and get my first jobs. I was looked at like I was weird. My motives were questioned. I had people who I worked with who were vehemently opposed to my presence. I definitely dealt with quite a bit of that, people point-blank telling me, “You don’t belong here, women shouldn’t be here, you have no right and I don’t know why you want to be a man.” Like, I don’t want to be a man, I want to be a mechanic—that’s different!

Advertisement

I also had a lot of folks who were incredibly supportive. Sometimes their voices were harder to hear because, as humans, we tend to hear the negative voices louder. It wasn’t always easy to focus on the positive voices.

I’ve come to think there’s three different groups of reactions that I get from men. I get the, I don’t like this, you shouldn’t be doing this. I get the, oh my god, that’s so awesome, we need more women in the industry, women make better technicians! Then there’s the, I don’t really care if you’re male or female—can you do the job?

Advertisement

Those I like the best because that’s what it should be. It shouldn’t be “I’m a female mechanic.” It should just be, “I’m a mechanic.” It shouldn’t have anything to do with my gender. I don’t think women make better mechanics than men. I think that women make equally good mechanics as men. Some are good and some are bad and some are worse and some are amazing, male or female. Gender doesn’t dictate our ability to work on cars.

A lot of my passion in doing what I do now is driven by a desire to make the path a little easier for those who come after me. There are trailblazers who came before me who paved the way and made it even possible for me to take auto shop in high school and become a mechanic. I was the second girl in my high school to do it. As hard as it was for me, it was easier than it was for people of my parents’ generation. If I can be a part of making the path a little easier for the next generation, that’s what drives me. It drives all of the work I did within my repair shop. It drives the coaching I do with shop managers and shop owners across the country, teaching them customer service and community building within their organization. All of that is toward, how do we make auto repair less intimidating for women, both as consumers and as potential employees and co-workers.

Advertisement

EB: When it comes to your own shop, I know you did a lot of work to make it a comfortable atmosphere—to encourage women to come in and bring their kids, decking it out with art. How did that fit into your mission to make things more comfortable for women?

BL: It’s what it’s all about. That was the point of it. I was committed to creating a space that was going to be welcoming to women who wanted to become technicians, so always keeping an apprenticeship open for women. It was terribly hard for me to get my first job in the industry, and I wanted to make sure that I was creating opportunities for women to come into the industry. But I also know that not all women—or men—want to be technicians. Some people just want their car fixed, but it shouldn’t be an intimidating experience, so if we can change people’s relationship with their car and show people that this doesn’t have to be scary. If I can help people help understand their vehicles or the repair process a little better, where I can create a space where it’s me and you against your car and not me against you, then that’s all good stuff. We’re bringing more people in, we’re changing people’s perspective of the trades.

Advertisement

I think there’s a relationship there, too. If little John or Jane comes home to mom and says, “I want to be an auto mechanic when I grow up,” and mom or dad’s only experience with auto mechanics is horrible, dirty, grungy shops that treat them poorly as women, they’re not going to be excited about their kid becoming a technician. If we want to get more women in the trades, we need to make the trades really represent themselves better and have a better impression on the influencers—the moms and the dads and the guidance counselors and the teachers who are helping guide children into their career paths.

It all commingles for me. The perception of the trades, women in the trades, women as consumers of the trade.

Advertisement

EB: Women influence a majority of car buying decisions. Women take their cars into the shop. But they still feel very excluded. What specific things do you do to make sure women feel a little bit more involved in the process?

BL: One of the biggest things I hear is that women feel like they’re being taken advantage of in repair shops, and yes it happens—there are shady shops that take advantage of people in general. And yet I feel, often, it’s more the impression of being taken advantage of, not actually being taken advantage of. Automotive is becoming increasingly technical, and the words are incredibly technical and foreign. When someone sits down to tell you that your kaneuter valve is bad and they don’t take the time to explain that to you, it sounds fishy. There’s this assumption that, I don’t know what it is, they’re not explaining it to me, I’m super confused, this feels yucky, I feel like I’m being taken advantage of.

Advertisement

What I coach other shops to do is not assume that your customer knows nothing because you don’t want to insult them, but you also don’t want to assume that they know. Our fundamental method of sales is explaining and education versus selling. Saying, “we found what’s wrong with your car. It’s X. Do you know what X is?” Just asking. Not assuming they do, not assuming they don’t. If they say no, it’s just asking another question—would they like to know? Would you like me to explain it?

Some people don’t care, they’re like, “no, just fix it.” Other people do want to know. To take the time to explain and to validate people’s fears. People walk into repair shops scared. We need to take the time, as automotive professionals, as repair shops, to calm those fears, to let them know that we’re here for you, we’re here to take care of what’s going on with your car, not to take advantage of you.

Advertisement

EB: The conversation aspect seems so important. If you don’t feel like you’re part of the conversation, how do you know what’s happening? How do you figure it out? Just having someone to say something makes such a difference.

BL: I teach basic car care classes, and a lot of what I teach is not necessarily how to become a mechanic but how to become a more aware consumer and how to not feel vulnerable. You know, what questions to ask, to not be afraid to ask questions. To insist on understanding. To ask to be taken out to see what’s going on with the car. To build a relationship with the repair shop. To change the relationship and really think of car mechanics and technicians as car doctors. How do we find a good doctor? Can we create that same relationship with automotive and take a little bit more of the power back and feel less vulnerable and feel more like, “I’m a part of this process.”

Advertisement

EB: How has the response been within the automotive industry as a whole? I know it’s fairly male dominated today, but people have also been making an effort for more qualified diversity hires.  

BL: I think there’s a lot more effort now than there has been in the past. There’s a recognition that we need more people in the industry, period. Male or female, we need more people. And I think people are more and more realizing women are a large buying power, so we have to make the industry more accessible to women as consumers and participants. It’s not pervasive enough, in my opinion. I think there are still a lot of folks that are not excited about more diversity within the industry, but it is starting to happen, and it is starting to change.

Advertisement

EB: I didn’t graduate college all that long ago, and I was part of my Formula SAE team there. I was one of three women on the team. We were all really passionate, I could machine my own parts and have competent conversations about the work we were doing. But I was still treated with kid gloves, and so were the other women. How do we move past that as an industry?

BL: I think it’s time, unfortunately. Change doesn’t happen as fast as we want it to. As much as it sucks being treated with kid gloves, it’s better than being treated as a punching bag. It’s baby steps. We went from a pervasive mindset that women don’t belong here and we’re upset about their presence to a little bit of a glorification of women in the industry. That’s all great, too, but it’s the next stage. I think it’s just going to be a matter of time.

Advertisement

I’m excited about the next generation. When I tell a 50-year-old man that I’m a professional automotive technician, I get weird looks, I get questions, I get challenged like they want to test my knowledge to see if I really know what I’m talking about. But when I tell a 10-year-old boy, he says, “Cool!”

As much as I hate this because we want change to happen more quickly than it does, 20 years from now, I think it’s going to be a different landscape entirely. It doesn’t help what we’re living in right now and what we all deal with as women in this industry right now, it’s nice to know that change is happening.

Advertisement

When I started out as a tech, women made up 1.8 percent of all automotive technicians. We’re up to 2.5. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. There’s literally thousands of us more than there was. That changes things. Now, when people meet me, I’m more likely to find someone who has worked with a female tech once versus never having met a female tech.

The more of us there are, the more normalized it gets, the more visibility we have, the more little girls and boys see those images and think it’s normal. That change happens generationally.

Advertisement

EB: You brought up your mentorship programs and training women. How crucial is that to make sure there’s space for women?

BL: It’s so crucial to know that you have allies and that there’s other people like you out there. I came up pre-social media. I had a newspaper clipping of one other female mechanic who had an article written about her. I cherished it because it was like, somebody else did it because I can, too. I think mentorship, whether it’s direct or indirect.

Advertisement

And mentorship isn’t always direct. I’ve had women who have reached out to me and expressed how just knowing I existed helped them. And that’s huge. And then there’s direct mentorship, where it’s people that we know and talk to and can go to, people who have been through the struggles we’ve been through and can relate. I don’t know where I would be without my mentors in the industry, women and men but in particular women. I have a ton of male mentors and a ton of men I look up to, but I think it’s the women that I form the closest bonds to. They paved the path for me. They’re there to support and help and normalize. And I feel it’s like my responsibility to continue to give back to others.

EBL I know the Jessi Combs Foundation just announced the winners of its women in the trades scholarship. It’s awesome to see these women getting so many new chances.

Advertisement

BL: Absolutely. It’s very encouraging to see. What they’re doing with the Jessi Combs foundation is fantastic.

It was hard for women to come by opportunity in the past, and there’s a lot of opportunity now. That’s a good thing. It’ll translate into more substantial change in the not-too-distant future. I’m hopeful.

Advertisement

EB: I’m sure you get asked this one a lot, but let’s say you meet a woman who doesn’t know much of anything about cars but wants to do some learning and figure things out with her own car—where should she start?

BL: Depending on the level she wants to get involved, there are tons of resources out there now that are geared toward the novice, the person who knows nothing about cars. There are articles and videos and information online that explains things simply, like how your power steering works or how your brakes work. We’re very fortunate to have social and digital content. There’s a lot of information out there.

Advertisement

More and more, repair shops are starting to offer women’s car care clinics, basics classes. A lot of dealerships are doing programs for new car owners to learn about their car. I think that’s a great starting point.

And then just asking questions. Being curious. When we go to the doctor and he tells us we have a disease, what’s the first thing we do? We ask questions. We search for it and read about it online. We want to see what it is and what people are saying about it. Do the same thing with your car. When someone throws a word at you that you don’t know, look it up. There are tons of resources out there. And ask the questions!

Advertisement

EB: You’ve achieved quite a lot in your career, probably a lot more than you even expected when you started out. What do you still want to do? What’s still on your bucket list?

BL: Oh God, everything, I have all sorts of dreams and ambitions. I think it changes shape over time, but I just want to know that by the time I leave this planet, I’ve had some impact on improving the industry and improving its relationship with women. I’d love to see our numbers grow. I’d love to see women being called a “technician,” not a “female technician.” And I’m just going to keep chipping away in whatever way I know how to keep that conversation going. I’d love to build out more mentorship and scholarships and opportunities and create more conversation. There are so many things I want to do. It all feels like a drop in the bucket. No matter how much I’ve accomplished, it feels like nothing in the grand scheme of things. That keeps me pushing forward to do more.

Advertisement

EB: What do you think the biggest change will change the relationship women have with their cars in the future?

BL: I think visibility is the number one thing. I think representation of women in these roles and not necessarily in just the female role. I was just asked to be on a podcast. He does automotive people all over the country. He said, “we really want to do a section on women in the industry.” I thought, why wouldn’t you just have me on as a technician or a shop owner? It’s awesome that they want to do something on women in the industry, but we need to see women showing up on panels and in commercials and in articles just as experts, not as women.

Advertisement

Women ask me often how they can help. They’re women in the industry, and they want to know how they can be more involved in creating change, and I think the number one thing they can do is be visible. Be visible, project a professional, successful appearance. Keep doing what you’re doing, and I think that’s going to make the most change. People just need to see images of women legitimately working on cars, even if they’re not technicians. If they’re hobbyists or car owners just checking their air filter or changing their own oil. Women need to see that so it becomes less weird. So when a young girl goes into a shop and applies for a position, it’s not this like, “You want to be a what?” and instead it’s just, okay, yeah, of course.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

Too bad that most High Schools( as well as the new to me Middle School, rather than Junior High around when I was a kid) no longer have Shop or other Vocational type programs.

I’m glad that when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I had access to Wood, Metal and Auto Shops.

My Parents thought I should have wide exposure to all types of instruction, so also took Computer Class, back when it was all Punchcard and Fortran, plus Typing, and Home Economics.

Got some ribbing on the last two from the other guys, til I brought up that I also got to spend a lot of time in class with cute girls, with few other guys around

That and I discovered I was little good at sewing, but liked cooking, as well as the more ‘manly’ Metal and Auto Shop programs.