Eli Allison: Revolutionizing the Auto Repair Industry
Katharine Kurfurst

June 19, 2019

There’s no question that it takes diverse businesses to make a vibrant city. And our LGBTQ+ business community is a part of what makes Seattle special. This month, Ventures is highlighting the successes, experiences, and impact of local, diverse LGBTQ+ business owners in our community. Today, we’re highlighting Repair Revolution, an auto repair shop in SODO dedicated to empowering customers and revolutionizing the automotive industry through radical transparency. Their mission is to build strong, long-lasting relationships with their customers and believe the most important aspect of their business is trust.

Eli Allison, founder of Repair Revolution, is a panelist for our upcoming event LGBTQ+ Business Founders Panel & Happy Hour on June 25th at The Riveter. Similar to Ventures’ mission to provide accessible small business services to marginalized communities, we’re hosting an affordable event that celebrates the successes and experiences of local, diverse LGBTQ+ business owners.

We got a head-start on our Q&A happy hour panel and asked Eli about their experiences, challenges, and thoughts about being a business owner.

Why did you start your business?
We exist because we must! We love fixing cars but were appalled at the [auto repair] industry’s unethical and misleading practices towards customers, the hostile work environment for women and queer people and the status quo of sexism, homophobia, racism and sexual harassment. We are queer owned and operated, giving us a unique perspective on sexism in this industry. We have shifted the paradigm by curating a safe and welcoming auto repair shop for both clients and technicians alike. 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your business? 
The biggest challenge I have faced in my business is finding skilled technicians who also believe in our mission which is to disrupt the [auto repair] industry with radical transparency. In addition, technicians that we bring on must have an understanding that our shop is a feminist, LGBTQ owned and operated, community-driven shop with a social justice heart. We are a safe and welcoming auto repair shop for both clients and technicians. 

Skilled automotive technicians are already very hard to come by. They say for every 10 technicians that leave the industry 1 replaces them. Then add to that the environment of our industry which is male dominated where misogyny and homophobia are the norms. When I was researching my business plan, I found that less than 2% of automotive technicians were female. I can only imagine that this has something to with the toxic environment and extra hurdles women, people of color and queer people face to stay in this industry. I have talked to many women who “used to be technicians” or “went to automotive school” but left the industry because the amount of sexual harassment and/or discrimination they faced was too much. 

Personally, my biggest challenge is trying to have a work-life balance. Starting a business is often compared to having a baby. You pour your heart, soul, and 80 plus hours a week into it. This makes maintaining relationships and friendships hard because at the end of the day there is not a lot left. I am very grateful every day to have an amazingly supportive partner who I could not have done this without. 

Why did you come to Ventures?
Before finding Ventures I was working on my dream to open up an automotive repair facility that was radically different than what exists in the automotive industry today…I started working as a mobile mechanic going to people’s houses to fix their cars and simultaneously working away on my business plan to secure funds to have brick and mortar. Laying on my back getting rained on in city streets under people’s cars with wrenches in my pockets and a flashlight in my mouth was my strategy for starting to build a clientele. 

I approached six different lenders that give loans to small businesses and got rejected all six times. I was continually told that I needed to drastically change my business model in order to appeal to the bankers. The suggestions the various lenders wanted me to implement were incongruent with my vision. I was very vocal about this frustrating process and two different people suggested I get involved with Ventures who offered classes and loan opportunities. I had become a business class taking junky by this point and was excited to hear that there might be one more lender in town that possibly would believe in me.

How has Ventures helped your business?
I signed up for the Business Basics Course. I was skeptical at first because at this point I had been to a lot of business classes and worked with a lot of agencies that are supposed to help entrepreneurs. I realized very quickly that Ventures was different. They were really in touch with what small business owners actually needed and they had a very holistic approach with lots of offerings for small business owners. Then I joined the Financial Management Course to learn even more about personal and business financial planning and in order to qualify for the IDA program. This was a Ventures program that encouraged business owners to build savings by matching funds 2-to-1. I got my IDA funds at a time in my business where we desperately needed new equipment and had no way of paying for it. This was a huge gift.   

Repair Revolution: a feminist, LGBTQ-owned and operated business

What’s your proudest moment/what are you most proud of about your business, large or small?
I am proud of a lot of things, my staff has so much integrity and passion for our mission to empower customers and change their relationship with the automotive repair experience. 

Another thing that keeps me inspired and also makes me proud is that I receive several emails a week from LGBTQ people across the country expressing gratitude for the work we do. Many expressing a renewed hope for a successful career as a mechanic and others simply asking for advice on how to navigate a career in an industry that continues to be overwhelmingly oppressive.

How has your identity been an asset to your business?
I think my identity has been an asset to my business because I do not shy away from who I am as a very queer gender non-binary feminist. Ha! I’m a big believer in leading by example and being authentic about who I am. Hopefully, this helps make that possible for my staff and customers to feel safe to do the same. I also think many people in our community want to support businesses that are LGBTQ owned and operated and I have definitely felt the support of my community holding my business up.

Has “coming out” been something you’ve faced in your business career—perhaps with employers or coworkers?
I have to come out all the time, especially when I am at an automotive industry-specific event. This industry is like working in the 1950s. Not a lot of progress has been made around all issues of diversity. I cannot even tell you how many times one of my vendors has read my website or watched videos about us and then come back to me and said something along the lines of, “ I just watched the video on your website and it says you are or were a woman….uh?  is that true?” or “so it seems like your shop is a little different?”  or “I’ve never seen so many women working on cars before.” Then I usually get to go into a long explanation about gender or queerness or how women can work on cars. Mind blowing stuff for these people. (Ha I can expand on this more, but too many examples for me to write about.) 

How would you characterize the connection between the business community and LGBTQ community in the region?
I’m not sure how to answer this. I think the LGBTQ business community is very connected and think we have a great resource in the GSBA that helps make this possible. There are not many business chambers that also have a social equity focus. I also am a big supporter of Ventures and a graduate of their Business Basics Course and have felt a connection with the business community I have met through them. Primarily I think because folks that go through that program are mostly marginalized people that have faced and will face different obstacles in their businesses because of who they are.

On the other hand, I do feel a big disconnect from the greater business community outside of that. I do not believe in the very, very broken capitalist system and my experience of the business community outside of the above two communities is all about profits and not people. I feel like a big misfit in these circles and no desire to participate.

What can businesses in the region do better to support the LGBTQ community?
Don’t just look at the LGBTQ community as a chance to make a profit especially around Pride. Think about how your policies and procedures leave LGBTQ people out with gendered bathrooms or referring to your customers with sir and mam etc. Put POC and LGBTQ people in leadership in your company so everyone has a voice at the table.

Celebrate LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs with us on June 25th! Join Ventures and Eli to ask questions, hear stories, learn how LGBTQ+ business owners navigate challenges and bias, and celebrate their triumphs, large and small. Tickets are $10 and include appetizers from Thyme Well Spent Catering, craft beer, wine, and a free raffle with prizes from local businesses like Elliott Bay bookstore, Poppy and Lionhead, Caffe Vita, Stoup Brewing, the GSBA and more. Special thanks to our sponsors queer / bar, SAP Concur, and The Riveter for helping make this event possible.