Audra Fordin is a female entrepreneur making her mark in the stereotypically “manly” world of cars as the owner of Great Bear Auto Repair, a family car mechanic shop in the New York City borough of Queens.
And she has no intention of being the odd woman out. To get more of her sisters comfortable with cars, she founded Women Auto Know to empower women to learn more about car maintenance and safe-driving techniques, while connecting them with female-friendly mechanics.
The organization isn’t just a good service — many of its workshops are free — it’s also good business. Fordin has seen a bump in her garage clientele thanks to increased word-of-mouth recommendations. She says her shop revenues have increased from $200,000 in 2008 to $800,000 in 2015.
Fordin, herself, is all too familiar with the experience of men underestimating women in the garage. Despite a lifetime of automotive experience, even her father was reluctant to hand Fordin the reigns to the business when she first took over in 1998, and reportedly micromanaged her and her employees even after stepping down.
“I was sheltered as a kid — as most girls are — so there was some skepticism about my ability to handle the challenges of running a business,” she says.
But ultimately, his concerns proved unwarranted. The business, which currently employs nine people, including two women, continues to grow stronger.
Life in the Empowerment Fast Lane
Fordin’s great-grandfather first opened Great Bear in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens in 1933. When it came time to pass the torch, he split the business into four locations, giving one to each of his sons.
From a young age, Fordin was involved with her family’s shop, helping with odd jobs as a child, then graduating to more significant tasks as she got older. By the time, she was working under the hoods of customers’ cars, she knew the ins and outs of the business well.
She became a certified mechanic in 1996 after graduating from New York state’s Automotive Technical Training Program, and in 1998, she officially took ownership of the whole operation.
But a major challenge came one decade into her time in the driver’s seat, when the Great Recession of 2008 caused a drop in business. During the resulting sleepless nights, Fordin came up with ideas for workshops to educate and empower women on proper car maintenance.
“I know how intimidating it is for women to visit a mechanic,” she says. “I feel it’s important to help women, because they outnumber men on the road … and because the auto industry hasn’t done a great job of relating with them.”
To flip that script, Fordin started hosting free weekly workshops at her garage under a new organization she dubbed Women Auto Know. The positive feedback she received inspired her to add paid speaking engagements to the organization’s line-up. As word spread, her calendar also began to include television appearances.
Though her efforts have generated thousands of dollars, Women Auto Know is not a revenue stream for Great Bear Auto Repair — all its proceeds are donated to a fund that covers car repairs for single mothers. Indeed, most of Fordin’s professional efforts are now focused on her primary goal of making sure everyone feels comfortable with their cars, and their mechanics.
The Road Ahead
Now 44, Fordin has big plans for the future — chief among them, expanding Women Auto Know beyond the Big Apple. She’d also like to license her concept to automotive vocational schools across the U.S., and is developing products related to her workshops whose sales can further fund the efforts of Women Auto Know.
As for Great Bear Auto Repair, she’s still in charge, and says she continues to see steady increases in female customers. It’s also still a family affair — her two teenage daughters and 9-year-old son are now helping out around the garage. But Fordin says she’s not putting pressure on them to enter the family business. “If they choose to pursue another career, I won’t be upset. I want them to be happy.”
Others’ happiness has truly become a focal point in Fordin’s life, and she couldn’t imagine it any other way. “Every woman I help — whether it’s online, at a workshop, or a one-on-one interaction with a customer — reminds me why my work matters.”
Why do you deserve to be featured?
I built my business model on educating and empowering women. So far, over 1,300 female drivers have come to my workshops. My hope is to reach millions more.