When Eli Allison, founder of Repair Revolution, started as a mechanic, they saw a gap in the auto repair industry. As a queer person, they were working twice as hard to prove themselves in a notoriously homophobic, sexist, and racist industry. They faced rejection as someone perceived as female who used female pronouns.
“I faced a lot of harassment, discrimination, and it was a pretty hard path, but I was doing something that I loved so it was something I continued for a while,” Eli said. “Then, I decided that if I wanted to stay in this industry, I needed to open my own space.”
Eli realized they needed to create a space for technicians who looked like them to work safely and a place for customers who looked like them to bring their cars. Their work in the nonprofit world also showed them how transportation is often overlooked as a necessary resource for folks dealing with houselessness or income inequality.
“[Transportation is a] pretty vital piece of people being able to be successful — people being able to get to and from work, get to and from appointments,” Eli said. “Not having a reliable vehicle can really cause a lot of issues for folks especially when we think about [how] a lot of people can’t afford to live in the city where their job is.”
With the goals of having a safe space and a social justice-oriented business in mind, Eli got to work on Repair Revolution. While they faced many obstacles being a queer person trying to start a business, funding was the biggest issue. It took two years for them to secure funding. They only secured about a third of the funding they needed after being rejected six times and trying to tap into community resources and grants with little success..
“It was a huge risk, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pull it off with such limited means,” they said. “But here we are.”
Eli said those two years trying to secure funding and getting rejected were discouraging and frustrating, but they knew there was a way to make it work — they just had to find it. They said they wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of their partner and community.
“I remember multiple work parties where my friends all came to help me repaint the shop and help me clean up this dingy, crazy, rickety old building that was the only building someone would rent to me and help me make it beautiful as the gays know how to do,” Eli laughed.
Both the queer community and Eli’s previous customers from being a mobile mechanic continued to support Repair Revolution as it opened its doors in Seattle’s Industrial District in 2012. While Eli knew putting up their pride flag was important in identifying Repair Revolution as a safe space, they said it felt really scary.
“We put the gay in garage. The double entendre isn’t lost on me. It’s a happy place and it’s also a very gay place,” Eli said. “I would say we aren’t just fixing cars, we are trying to fix the industry.”
Eli felt like the community was hungry for an auto repair shop they could trust with people who looked like them working on their cars — people who understood what it’s like to walk up to an auto repair counter and not be taken seriously. It’s important to Eli that Repair Revolution is run differently. They work with their technicians and service advisors to lift the veil between the repairs and the customer.
“I think our industry in general tries to keep information from customers and drivers,” they said.
To combat this, Repair Revolution takes photos and videos of customers’ cars, writes long and detailed emails complete with links to informational resources, and will recommend holding off on a repair if it can wait.
“It’s just a huge part of what we do,” Eli said. “From the moment we walk in the door the reception area is out in the shop because we want you to feel comfortable seeing my techs working on cars.”
Overall, Eli is looking to give customers a better experience. Repair Revolution has social justice at the heart of it’s values, which for Eli means having a reciprocal relationship with their community. Repair Revolution donates a minimum of 5% of their profits yearly. They are also currently trying to grow their low-income auto repair fund in order to offer discounted services.
Positive Work Environment
Along with giving customers a better experience, Eli wants to give their staff a place where their identities and values are celebrated. Creating a safe, positive work environment is constant work, Eli said.
“Being intentional — that’s why I love Intentionalist — being intentional every step of the way is so important,” they said. “From the physical space that we create to the ongoing communication.”
Eli wants to make sure each member of their staff has the space to show up as their whole self every day — which includes making sure each staff member has a good work-life balance, even if Eli doesn’t. Eli gives their staff the opportunity to work four 10-hour shifts or five 8-hour shifts, and most take the opportunity to have three-day weekends.
Eli said another part of fostering a positive work environment is showing up for the community and, especially pre-COVID, hosting community events. They want Repair Revolution to walk their talk.
“We just try to really integrate all of our beliefs and values into everything we do and sometimes that means making really hard decisions,” Eli said. “A lot of our decisions aren’t based on money or profitability.”
One such decision was closing the shop multiple days last year during the Black Lives Matter protests. Eli said showing up to those protests was more important than making money.
The auto shop runs on a model of educational empowerment. Eli knows that the more people know about their cars, the more they can make informed decisions. One of the ways Repair Revolution fosters this education is through their repair workshops.
The repair workshops are a two hour long, hands-on look under the hood of your car with a certified mechanic. You can learn things like how to check the vehicle’s vital fluids levels and condition, how to perform a basic safety examination, and so much more. Recently, Eli held their first virtual repair workshop.
“[The virtual workshop] was kind of a test run, because we haven’t been able to do them during COVID and it was awesome,” they said. “Every time I do one I remember how fun it is and how great it is to have that time sharing with folks and answering questions.”
Repair workshops are something Eli has always wanted to do and is constantly looking for ways to do more of them. They’re excited to give people an opportunity they might not otherwise get to work on their own car. Additionally, teaching has always been fun for Eli, and they spent time as a preschool teacher.
“You know the super cheesy cliche that knowledge is power? It’s true,” they said. “And that’s what I want. I want my community to feel empowered.”
Repair Revolution charges on a sliding scale from $5.00-$40.00 for the workshops. Customers are encouraged to pay what they can to assist Repair Revolution in empowering the community.
Showing up for Small Businesses
Eli’s community-forward mindset is an example of why it’s important to spend with pride at small businesses this month and every month of the year.
“There’s kind of this idea that business owners are just these ballers that aren’t working their butts off,” Eli said. “And I look at these small businesses around me that are like me, working 60 to 80 hour weeks to make sure that their businesses are sustainable, and sacrificing a lot to give their employees an awesome quality of life.”
Eli didn’t pay themself for the first five years Repair Revolution was in business, a story that is all too common for small business owners. They said the sacrifice was important in order to make their business successful and be able to pay their staff.
“It’s super rewarding and I don’t have any regrets but I think that there’s a lot of things that people don’t know about how hard it is to run a business,” they said.
Eli encourages customers to show up, give feedback, and spread the word. They are grateful Repair Revolution doesn’t have to use traditional marketing. Instead, its customer base has grown through word of mouth. They also stressed that getting feedback from customers helps Repair Revolution be a better resource for the community.
It’s important to support diverse-owned small businesses because those business owners don’t open shop to make money, Eli said. Each business Eli could think of owned by a diverse owner was opened to help its community, and each business owner has a story — from wanting to share their family’s food to wanting to create a safe space.
“I think that small businesses make communities better,” Eli said. “Period.”
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