In the wake of George Floyd's killing, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kerri Wise and some work friends around the country wanted to do something — something that would help lift people up and open doors, something that was dear to them.
"I was inspired by all of the discussions that were happening this past couple of months related to race," said Wise, whose day job is vice president of communications at TrueCar. "It's something that is challenging to talk about, particularly in an industry that isn't overly diverse."
But talk about it they will.
Wise and three Black or biracial friends this month formed the Women of Color Automotive Network to provide exposure, awareness and support in an industry that they know can provide good jobs.
"It's hard to be it without seeing it," co-founder Amanda Gordon said in a statement. She is CEO of Gojo Auto, an independent dealership in Denver. The other founders are Erikka Wells, a sales manager at Town Center Nissan near Atlanta, and Patrice Banks, CEO of service repair shop Girls Auto Clinic, based near Philadelphia.
The geographically dispersed founders want to expand their advisory board to include more representation from other racial groups as well as from the supplier, automaker, marketing and even racing communities.
Whether Black, Hispanic, Asian American or Native American, women of color in the professional world often are the first in their families to go to college or to achieve a middle-class lifestyle, Wise said. The group aims to help these women identify their peers and potential peers.
There are fine organizations working to support women or minority groups, she said, but women of color often feel alone if they are the only nonwhite in a women's group or the only woman in a minority club. "We really sit at the intersection of gender and race," Wise said. "And so you have this other element that you contend with — that makes you have different perceptions and be seen differently by others."
Wise said when she meets younger women of color, she often asks what they think about a career in an automotive field — and almost none have given it a thought. The group, which drew more than 1,000 followers of its Facebook page in its first week, has found women from other fields who are newly interested in autos now that see people like themselves.
While women of color account for 18 percent of the U.S. work force, they make up only 6 percent of the auto industry — and 3 percent of service technicians — according to the group. They are an underutilized source of talent in sales, service — anywhere companies have trouble finding good people.
"We think the customer experience will be better if the automotive industry has more women of color, because when your work force matches your customer demographics, you can serve that customer in a better way," Wise said. "They're going to see themselves. You're symbolically telling them that, 'Hey, everybody is welcome in this business.' "
While the creation of the group — which the founders had considered for more than a year — came in response to racial-justice issues around law enforcement, it also coincides with the exit this month of one of the highest-ranking women of color from the auto industry: General Motors CFO Dhivya Suryadevara, 41, is leaving for an online payments company.
"She was the ultimate representation in terms of her position and stature," Wise said of the finance chief, who was born in India. "You're happy for her and you understand why she's highly sought out. ... But you're also disappointed to lose such a talented woman of color in automotive."
The group has held some Facebook Live events to get out the word and looks forward to hosting educational webinars, making career-development resources available and eventually listing job openings.
For these women who already have a home in the auto industry, Wise said it's about paying it forward: "We're creating this because we wish we had this early on in our automotive careers."