Chaya Milchtein, known as “the Mechanic Shop Femme,” is an automotive educator, public speaker, and activist for a more inclusive world. With a great laugh and a tireless work ethic, she educates and even mentors LGBTQIA+ folks, women, and other people who are usually underserved by the automotive industry so that they can step into any auto shop with confidence.
Her classes are offered online and, with over 500,000 followers on her various social media platforms, she provides education to scores of car owners (or potential car owners) to navigate a world that is traditionally thought of masculine.
We recently hopped on Zoom to speak about her work. Chaya had just gotten back from Europe, where she had been honeymooning with her wife. Despite that timing, she didn’t miss a beat when I asked about what she’s been up to. The answer: a lot, especially considering that she never, as a child, knew she’d be working with cars in the first place.
Were you always passionate about cars?
Actually, I didn’t know anything about cars — I didn’t even have a driver’s license — when I got introduced to the automotive industry. I was aging out of the foster care system, 18 and pretty desperate for a job. I couldn’t find one anywhere, probably because I’d been involved in queer politics, which doesn’t make a good resume for a local McDonald’s. I started a GoFundMe, and connected with somebody who wanted to help but didn’t think that money was quite the solution. She connected me with the HR manager at Sears, and I went in for an interview. They said “appliances or automotive,” and I thought that automotive sounded like a good option. I didn’t know anything about it, so it would be interesting!
I just asked a lot of questions; it was a great learning environment because folks were willing to answer — which I later found was not the case across the rest of the industry. My car got totaled about two or three months later, and I decided I was moving to New York. Eventually they officially transferred me to Brooklyn and I quickly became one of the top 10 salespeople in the country… After I left Sears I bounced around a bunch until I landed at the Meineke in Brooklyn.
What made you take the leap from Meineke to being a blogging sensation?
I felt like I wasn’t making enough money to live in New York. I did everything — ran a queer-only Uber-style service, did billing for a podiatrist’s office, worked at a farmers market — all in my spare time. I was working on my resume with a career coach, and she suggested that I start a blog.
I was raised in a chassidic Jewish home that didn’t believe in secular education, so writing was not my strong suit. But I’m the kind of person [who] throws things against the wall to see if they stick, and if they don’t, I’ll move on. That’s when I started Mechanic Shop Femme, working at Meineke and writing in my spare time. People were extremely receptive, so I said, “Okay. It’s a blog. But now what?”
This must be when you decided to start teaching people, too. Was that a moment of realization or a slow reckoning?
I helped a friend through the process of buying a used car. Prior to my assistance, their cars had broken down pretty quickly after they had been purchased. We just bounced ideas back and forth, and eventually they found an excellent car for a really budget friendly price and in great condition. It just felt so rewarding to provide guidance that made a significant long term impact on somebody’s life.
Soon after, I was sharing one of my articles on social media. At the bottom, I added a message about teaching a class on how to buy a used car. Within 48 hours, my class that hadn’t existed yet was sold out. That was the start of the snowball. I taught that class — now I have seven different classes. I teach private groups, primarily made up of queer people, and I also teach at libraries across the US and Canada, at universities, and for for-profit or nonprofit businesses that are looking to offer educational opportunities for their staff.
The last time I ran the class on how to find a mechanic I actually ran it for free, if participants donated to the campaigns for the Senate runoff races in Georgia. I was concerned about the legality of giving money to those campaigns as a business entity, so I gave people a free class as an incentive to donate directly.
Why is it important for women and LGBTQIA+ folks in particular to learn how to navigate the car world?
Because of the way that the industry holds itself, folks who are not men (and actually a lot of men, too) walk in and immediately feel insecure. Part of what my classes are about is explaining to people that, despite not knowing about cars, they have to trust themselves. You’ve spent your whole life dealing with people; you’ve developed a sense of when somebody is telling you the truth and when somebody is lying. The only way you can find somebody to trust is if you offer them the opportunity to earn your trust. It’s also a general life lesson — it’s not just cars.
Does your Jewish heritage inform your work?
I am proudly Jewish. The way that I was raised, especially when it comes to building community, impacts the way I build and grow my business. The way I interact with my community has always been at the very, very center. Plus, Tikun Olam — I want to try to make the world a better place in my own way. When people think of changing the world they think of working on climate change, or abortion rights, or these huge topics. I’m working on helping regular people who are struggling with their cars, or going into places where they feel [that] they’re giving their money to people who are not making them feel heard or like a human being deserving of respect. I’m giving them and me the education to make these experiences better.
I look at a car as an opportunity to get out of poverty, to have more opportunities. With a car you can take a job a little bit further away or work a little bit later in the evening. Without my first car, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It was able to contribute to my having a life that I enjoy living, not just the life that I have to get through.