Driver’s Seat: Female Auto Shop Owner Empowers Women, Gives Back To Community
Hilda Mera’s story defines the classic immigrant experience: She came to the U.S. with nothing — but worked hard and became a successful businesswoman.
In eight years, Mera and her husband Jose Masache transformed a rundown building in Newark, New Jersey, into a thriving enterprise — S&A Auto Repair — that had gross sales of $400,000 during an economically challenging pandemic.
“Our gross revenue increases 10 to 20 percent each year,” Mera said. “My goal is to get to $1 million. Knowing myself, I know I can do that.”
Mera emigrated from Ecuador at 19 — and worked as a cleaning lady. Today, she teaches women about cars and how to drive their own businesses.
“Dreams come true if you put in the time,” she told Zenger.
“It’s not just about doing business. It’s about giving back to the community. We don’t just want to be business owners, we want to be someone people can look up to and say: ‘This person came from Ecuador with nothing. Look at what they’ve realized for themselves and their family.’”
Being a female owner of an auto-repair shop breaks stereotypes. There were 19,236 female auto mechanics (2.1 percent of all such workers) and a total of 130,174 women in the automotive repair and maintenance field in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Mera, a mother of three children, is happy to defy expectations. Believing that investing in herself meant investing in her future, she attended classes to learn English and eventually earned an associate degree in accounting from Essex County College in 2012.
After working various jobs, she and her husband decided to start a business that would be an asset to the community. Masache always wanted an auto-repair shop, but neither knew how to kick-start a business.
Operating on faith, Masache took auto-mechanic classes at night in New York for 13 months before completing a six-month apprenticeship as a mechanic. Then one day, he came home and told his wife: “I found a place.” And S&A Auto Repair was born.
“We were nervous, but we decided to go for it,” Mera said. “Thank God I had a good credit score. We used credit cards that allowed up to 16 months before charging interest. That’s how we purchased the equipment and everything that we needed.”
The shop offers a variety of repair services for brakes, engines, transmissions, alternators, struts and shocks, and antilock braking-systems, along with tune-ups and computer diagnostics. But the principals still lacked specific business knowledge.
In 2015, Mera found her way to Rising Tide Capital, a nonprofit based in Jersey City, New Jersey, that offers business development services to young entrepreneurs. The information and instruction she received, earning a Community Business Academy certificate, proved invaluable. It also made her determined to succeed.
“I always say Rising Tide Capital is the door that opened the rest of the doors for me,” Mera said. “Since then, I haven’t stopped.”
In growing her business into a staple of south Newark, Mera was named among the top 100 leaders in Transportation and Automotive in 2020-21 by the International Transportation and Automotive Summit. “I believe there’s a reason why I was recognized,” Mera said. “I’m just going to ask God for wisdom and accomplish whatever He wants me to do.”
No one is more grateful than her husband.
“Without her, the business wouldn’t be what it is right now,” Masache told Zenger. “Having her drive and her vision have been a blessing.”
The couple made it a priority to give back to the community by empowering women intimidated by interacting with mechanics. Too many women have come to Mera with stories of being ripped off for unnecessary repairs. Mera and her husband invite women to be hands-on in the repair of their cars, explaining what is being done and why.
They also hold educational seminars, so women understand their cars — how to check fluids, the lighting system, brake system, tires, battery and other basic maintenance.
“I’m a woman, and I don’t like anybody trying to take advantage of me,” Mera said. “Unfortunately, most women don’t know anything about cars, and a lot of mechanics take advantage of that and don’t tell the truth.”
She remembers one telling story.
A mechanic told a woman she needed to replace her transmission, a job that costs thousands. “The lady came here in tears and asked me how much is a new transmission,” Mera said. “I told her to let my husband look at the car and listen to the noise. It turned out to be a piece of loose metal. Nothing was wrong with the transmission. That really upsets me. When women come to the shop, they are hands-on. We want them to look at the car and touch the car and see what we’re doing.”
It’s also important to Mera to leave a legacy.
She and her husband plan to open a tire shop this year and utilize that space to hold workshops during off-hours. “Everything is getting better because I have a purpose. I’m going to do things honestly and do the right thing,” she said.
Mera also has gone from being a student to an instructor at Rising Tide Capital, sharing her experiences and knowledge as a Latina entrepreneur and business owner. “I want to be a role model for women who want to do something but might be afraid,” she said.
“I’m here to let them know not to be afraid, and that we can do whatever we can, if we want to.”
Edited by Fern Siegel and Matthew B. Hall