Vehicle for virtue

Nation’s first ‘garage for good’ helps victims of domestic violence

Posted on Jul 31, 2018 :: For the love
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

It was a group of women who knew nothing about cars deciding they wanted to open an auto repair shop. When Katie VanderWielen first heard about it, she thought it was a cool idea … that was destined to fail.

“I thought they were all really crazy and nuts and had no idea what they were getting themselves into,” she says.

Consider her a convert.

VanderWielen, a veteran mechanic, serves as general manager of JumpStart Auto Repair, the nation’s first “garage for good.” The startup recently opened in a new location, where business is booming.

It’s the culmination of a vision five years in the making.

Two domestic abuse agencies — Harbor House Domestic Abuse Programs of Appleton and Christine Ann Domestic Abuse Services of Oshkosh — got together to collaborate on social innovation ideas. They began looking at issues they could address to help their clients and quickly landed on transportation.

It’s something that touches all people, says Jenny Krikava, who serves as development and marketing manager for Harbor House and first devised the idea for JumpStart. Domestic abuse victims need reliable transportation to get to work and school as well as to remove themselves from potentially dangerous situations.

In addition to helping domestic abuse victims, Krikava always wished there was a place she could talk to a female mechanic. She came up with the idea of a garage focused on helping and empowering all women. Profits from services performed at the shop fund auto repairs for domestic abuse victims.

“It served a real need in the community,” she says. “Nobody was really focusing on the needs of women.”

Grant money and funds from the Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region’s Basic Needs Giving Partnership helped JumpStart get off the ground. The endeavor began in 2017 and initially operated out of Fox Valley Technical College’s J. J. Keller Transportation Center.

VanderWielen says business at the FVTC location started a little slow, but JumpStart caught on quickly. In June, it moved to a new location on South Commercial Street in Neenah, and these days, the shop is booking out about two weeks for its services.

JumpStart, which provides services including brake work, oil changes and tire rotation, promotes its “purple carpet experience,” which is designed especially for female customers. VanderWielen says customers don’t need to feel intimidated about asking “stupid” questions, and they can sit in the shop’s comfy waiting area and eat a cookie while their car gets worked on.

“We want it to be like, ‘OK, I get to see the girls and get my car worked on,’” she says.

Krikava says JumpStart, which won the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce Rising Star award in 2018, fills an important void in the marketplace. Studies show women who know nothing about cars are most likely to get ripped off in a repair shop, while on the flip side, women who are educated about cars get the best value of any customers, she says.

“It starts from a place of respect,” Krikava says. “Sixty-five percent of auto repair decisions are made by women, but no one was tailoring these experiences to women.”

Education is a big part of the purple carpet experience. VanderWielen and Jenna Bundy, another mechanic on staff, take the time to explain issues. They provide support to customers as they make expensive decisions, although knowing that part of the cost goes to a worthy cause makes people feel good, Krikava says.

Beth Oswald, executive director of Christine Ann, says the partnership between her agency and Harbor House provides an example of how nonprofit organizations can work together rather than compete. The two agencies recognized their geographic proximity and looked at ways to come together to help a larger number of clients.

JumpStart’s impact became apparent quickly in the days it was operating at FVTC, Oswald says. They found that 80 percent of survivors were able to keep a job and get back on the right track because they had a reliable vehicle.

Providing access to female mechanics also is impactful, Oswald says, because for many of the organizations’ clients, going into an all-male shop, and even being around men in general, can be intimidating.

Oswald says she and Krikava have been floored by the community response. People want to help domestic abuse victims, but they can’t necessarily get involved in client work. This gives them another avenue to assist. In addition, it raises awareness about the issue.

“It’s been a wonderful vehicle for talking about domestic violence,” she says. “The more we talk about it, the more it breaks down the stigma and embarrassment.”

At the same time, JumpStart helps raise the profile of non-traditional job opportunities for women. For example, a group of fifth- and sixth-grade girls recently toured the shop and were excited to learn about a career option they hadn’t considered as a possibility for them.

Krikava says she’d love to franchise JumpStart, and VanderWielen says she could see garages popping up in Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. With people hungry to spend their dollars in a way that also does good, the possibilities are endless — from salons to cafés that help introduce the women they serve to new career options, Krikava says.

For now, though, the women are basking in the success. “It really feels like everybody’s kind of been touched by it,” Oswald says.