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Designed With a Woman in Mind

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Mae de la Calzada didn’t join the repair industry out of a love for the industry. In fact, she was downright mad.

In the fall of 2006, she brought her car to a local shop in California’s Bay Area, where, after she inquired about a repair, a mechanic made an icy remark to her boyfriend about women’s inability to understand car repair.

Only a month later, de la Calzada’s mother received similar poor treatment at another repair shop, when the service advisor refused to perform the repair unless her mother purchased an additional service.

“I remember driving from there to my school thinking about how stupid and awful it was,” she says.

She headed straight into her entrepreneurship class at the University of San Francisco, where her professor asked the class to think up a business that solved a problem in the world.

“That’s when I decided: I wanted to create an auto repair shop designed for women,” she says.

As the owner of LadyParts Automotive Services in Redwood City, Calif., de la Calzada has created a shop in which every element of the business—including the facility’s design, the staff, the customer interactions and the community outreach—is designed with a woman in mind. What’s more, de la Calzada’s ambition has led to a shop that’s seen year-over-year growth, and is slated for expansion into a new, larger facility.

Getting Started

Although she was confident in her idea, de la Calzada realized she was less than confident when it came to her knowledge of cars. She and a friend signed up to take automotive classes at a local college and found “it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” she says. “Touching and seeing and feeling the different parts. You don’t realize it’s a big toy after a while. It was so much fun.”

After completing her technician training, de la Calzada also signed up for shop management training.

In December of 2008, less than two years after her less-than-friendly repair experience, LadyParts opened its doors at its Redwood City, Calif., facility.

The name, she says, was a response to the constant reminders that she was entering a male-dominated industry. She wanted a strong name that embodied the philosophy of the business and sent a message to customers that she was different than the traditional repair shop.

“I’m trying to create something that resonates with me, and a service that I was looking for,” she says.

Comfort is Key

The shop’s slogan is “designed and created with a woman in mind… and we’re nice to men too!” And de la Calzada’s vision of educating, empowering and transforming extends throughout all areas of her shop.

Upon walking into the facility, customers are greeted by a serene reception area that de la Calzada says lets customers immediately know they can relax. She drew on her background in massage therapy to design the space to look like a spa.

“It’s an artistic expression for me,” she says.

The room boasts hardwood floors, warm tones, a large leather sofa, flowers, a waterfall, warm lighting and an immaculately clean bathroom. The space also features a workstation with free Wi-Fi in one corner and a children’s play area in another.

“There was a noble absence of benevolent sexism,” says customer Jaime Lehman, who found the shop on Yelp and was intrigued by the female focus. “It is so much less stressful, and there is something to be said about that when your car leaks coolant all over the place 30 miles from home. Like I want to deal with any more stress at that point!” 

Lehman has since become a regular customer. And women aren’t the only ones impressed by the shop.

Men make up roughly 40 percent of the shop’s customer base. De la Calzada sees this as indicative of a larger trend.

“I think it definitely proves that this industry needs to recognize that customers are looking for that quality service,” she says.

Empowering Employees

De la Calzada says that she trains her staff to remember that customers, not cars, pay the bills.

“Customers provide us with their permission to work on the car,” says Joseph Exner, customer service manager at LadyParts. “We really try to cater to people so you can see and have the problems explained to you. I’ve been to a lot of shops where it’s just, ‘We’re the experts and you have to trust us no matter what.’”

ONE VISION: The staff at LadyParts, including service advisors Audrey Mesla, center, and Archie Castro, right, all share de la Calzada’s passion for creating an inviting, educational atmosphere for customers.

During the hiring process, de la Calzada says she invests the time to get to know the person and makes sure they fit the culture of the shop. She then asks the candidates to come in for working interviews to evaluate their style of working.

What really makes the team work effectively, however, is leading by example, she says. That sets the tone for every other employee.

De la Calzada has strong procedures in place for answering the phone, interacting with customers, and explaining repairs in simple-to-understand language while encouraging questions.

Educating the Community

De la Calzada also draws on her background in nonprofits when it comes to the customer service portion of the business. LadyParts hosts monthly car care clinics for women.

Though it fits into de la Calzada’s mission of education, she says she also created the classes “to introduce fun when it comes to their car,” she says. “Women will say it’s too hard. It’s really not. You need to try it for yourself.”

De la Calzada says she keeps the classes hands-on and steers away from subjects that are too technical. Instead, the class covers how to do an oil change, checking fluids, vehicle safety inspections, brake systems, and how to change a tire.

De la Calzada has found that the clinics also have an added bonus—they inspire the techs. “It drives my team more,” she says. “I see them nurture their people skills better and they see the value in it.”

The techs lead the classes voluntarily.

“I love watching the ah-ha moments for the techs,” she says. “They realize that these people value their knowledge. It makes them better techs and really feeds the spirit of it.”

Besides the car care clinics, LadyParts is also a regular fixture at events around the community, has hosted breast cancer fundraising events, a gala celebrating hard-working mothers, and regularly mentors middle school students.

“Education is so big for us,” she says. “I want to inspire these kids, especially young girls, to think outside the box.”

Find Your Passion

De la Calzada says that she chooses all of her endeavors and services based off her passions, and that passion has paid off in a steady stream of referrals and sales. Later this year, the business will move to a new, bigger facility, which also means an opportunity to grow the staff.

She says appealing to customers isn’t hard, it just requires a conscious effort. For de la Calzada, her educational pursuits, community service efforts and customer experience are all part of her mission to create a shop centered around the customer.

“Actions speak louder than words,” she says. “You don’t go out with a girl and say, ‘I’m the best, go out with me.’ You don’t do that; you don’t bully them. You sit back, relax, listen. Our reaction is the same.”

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