Seattle’s Eli Allison always loved cars, even before opening the now iconic Repair Revolution. But when Allison tried to get work as a technician at an auto shop, in a classically male-dominated industry, it wasn’t easy.
“It was like a time machine back to the ’50s,” Allison said. “At the time I was definitely more feminine presenting and used a different name that was more feminine. And I would get answers like, ‘Oh, we don’t have any receptionist available.’ Or this one shop told me, ‘You’re going to have to rotate tires and that’s probably too heavy for you. So we don’t have any positions open.'”
“After getting the door closed in my face 16 times, I finally stumbled into a dealership where I was given an opportunity,” he said.
But that opportunity wasn’t ideal.
“Being a female in the industry, I had to work twice as hard to prove myself in that shop,” Allison said. “It’s an old boys club in general, in the industry. A lot of sexism, a lot of homophobia, a lot of racism. After about five years working at the dealership I was at a crossroads. I was either going to quit the industry all together or I was going to open my own shop and do it radically differently.”
Allison did the latter and opened Repair Revolution in SoDo, with the motto Repair, Educate, Inspire.
At Repair Revolution, 90 percent of the staff is queer, trans or female. Allison’s goal is to create a comfortable work environment. But he’s also adamant about making things completely transparent for customers, who know nothing about cars, so they never feel taken advantage of.
He said that women, and other people, are often prayed up on at dealerships.
“I did an inspection on a vehicle and the brakes had 30 to 40 percent life in them,” Allison recalled. “They probably had a couple months left in them. I told that to the service advisor. I’m still hanging out in the lobby when I see the service advisor engaging with the customer. He says to her, ‘You’re going to need to replace those front brakes. They are unsafe to drive.’ She happens to have a child with her. He’s like, ‘I wouldn’t put my kid in that car.’ Total scare tactic. I was like, I just told you, she has two to three months. That’s so unethical.”
Allison said customers are pleasantly shocked by the honesty that Repair Revolution delivers. People often come in for a second opinion after visiting a dealership, and find they don’t actually need work done.
“When we are able to, we love to take you out to your car and show you what’s going on,” Allision said. “If you’re not here we take lots of pictures and send them to you so you can see what we see. If I tell you you have an oil leak, there it is in a picture. You can see it. Then we can talk about how soon it needs to be addressed.”
When Repair Revolution opened, it was initially tough to find a staff. Allison said most queer people and women had already left the industry, frustrated by the way they were treated. But he now has a staff of nine.
“Over time, word has spread nationally,” Allison said. “I’ve got a tech that’s come to me from Austin, a service manager that came from Oakland, another tech that’s come from Arizona. I continue to get emails all the time from people who are like, I have heard about your shop and I want to work for you. Sometimes they don’t have any experience at all and I direct them to the right place to start school.”
El Scherker did her first car repair when she was eight years old and got her first job in a garage when she was 16. But she eventually gave up on being a tech and sold all of her tools.
“I think the most traumatic thing that happened that was finally like, ‘No, I’m done with this industry,’ was when I worked at a Firestone,” Scherker said. “One of their senior techs and a couple of the guys behind me were joking around. I could hear them behind me giggling about something. Then, all of a sudden, I felt that very distinct sound of your hair being cut. Yup. As soon as I felt scissors cutting my hair I literally dropped my tools and walked out the door.”
Then she moved to Seattle and discovered Repair Revolution.
“I enjoy coming to work everyday,” Scherker said. “Everyone is super accepting of everyone, whether it’s the other techs here or the customers. When you’ve been doing something for 13, 14 years, basically since I was 16 years old, to finally feel comfortable and enjoy your job and go to work everyday and feel motivated to learn more and better myself. I actually see a foreseeable future here.”
Allison used to work with homeless and low-income families in the non-profit world and strives to bring the value of helping people to Repair Revolution. They also teach classes on basic car repairs.