Overcoming stereotypes, blazing motorcycle trails
Woman working on a motorcycle in a repair shop.
Figarella is the owner and founder of MotorGrrl LLC in Brooklyn, New York. She sat down with FOX Business and explained that MotorGrrl has two crucial ingredients. First, the person and second, the community.
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“As a person, MotorGrrl is defined by any woman between the ages of 2 to 200 who has a motorcycle,” said Figarella. “The second one is community. MotorGrrl was devised to be a community garage where people could come in and work on their motorcycles and feel very comfortable to ask questions.”
Figarella’s road to starting her business was not planned, however, it was the result confluence of uncontrollable events. Riding motorcycles had been a hobby for Figarella since 1991, when she bought her first bike, a 1983 Yamaha Virago XV500, from a friend. That’s when Figarella began learning about some of the issues that female and novice riders face, and some of those problems turned out to be the building blocks to her future business. “One of the reasons I started MotorGrrl was because I felt taken advantage of in various motorcycle dealerships and independent garages who thought women didn’t really know about motorcycles,” she said.
She told FOX Business that she remembered taking her bike into a local garage, and the employee who she asked to change her tires gave her used tires and simply polished them. The experience prompted her to start working on her own bike to troubleshoot her own problems.
Customer Ashleigh Ide experienced similar maltreatment from other garages before MotorGrrl. “I’ve definitely been spoken to like I didn’t know much about my own bike. It was actually when I met Val that I realized that somebody was charging me too much just to replace my tires.”
Figarella quickly recognized that she was missing many of the necessary components to independently work on her bike. She needed a plethora of specialty tools and a place to dump her bike’s oil and dirty gas. Those would become problems she would have wanted her future business solve. “There were motorcycle garages, but none that specialized in where you could work on your bike, so I wanted to bring that aspect into motorcycle garages,” Figarella explained.
Figarella still had a day job. She graduated from SUNY Buffalo with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and had been a computer programmer for 10 years. Then the dot-com bubble busted.
“It wasn’t until after the dotcom-bust that I needed to look for an alternative job, and I said, 'why don’t I work on my hobby'?’’
Figarella’s hobby then became her full-time job. She opened MotorGrrl garage in Brooklyn, New York, in 2004. Figarella revealed to FOX Business that she faced many challenges from the get-go. MotorGrrl’s new owner did not have a lease, a business plan or business cards. She also second guessed her place in the male-dominated industry, and explained, “I was also challenged with how the community would accept me. Would men take me seriously?”
Success did not happen overnight for Figarella, but she said she remained determined and believed in MotorGrrl’s mission.
“The first year I started I had an opening party and nobody showed up,” said the MotorGrrl owner.
She did not give up, however, and Figarella explained she advertised on Craigslist and did a lot of guerilla marketing. Then, Figarella said little by little people began trickling into her shop.
She told FOX Business that sticking to her initial instincts by fostering an inclusive community environment in her garage has been a guiding principle for MotorGrrl.
“When I was riding, I didn’t have that, and that’s all I really wanted," Figarella said. "And I felt that if that’s what I really wanted perhaps others would also want that."
Figarella’s instincts proved to be spot on. Annick Magac has been riding motorcycles for nearly two decades, and is the host of Moxie Moto, a show that shares the stories of women who ride. Magac tells Fox Business that the MotorGrrl garage has unique and special environment.
“The reason I was drawn to MotorGrrl is because that within the motorcycle industry, it tends to still be male dominated,” Magac said. “In a place like this, everyone’s equal so it’s a place about learning and community that really draws women together.”
MotorGrrl’s membership system includes a Full Throttle Membership and a First-Year Membership Program. The Full Throttle program costs $250, and gives riders 24/7 access to their vehicles, free community tools, free specialty tools, technical support, discounts on parts and accessories, as well as one-on-one time with the technicians.
The First-Year program is geared towards riders who already have a place to house their bike. It costs $25 per month and allows a rider a place to work on his or her bike, consult a technician, use specialty tools and recycle oil at the garage. Figarella says, “Our price point differs us from other areas in the country, as well the fact that MotorGrrl is run by a female.”
MotorGrrl gives riders the chance to engage with their bikes with the necessary tools to effectively manage their motorcycles and become self-reliant. Magac recalled a scary moment when she broke down on the Brooklyn Bridge and had to push her bike the length of the bridge. Magac highlights how important a rider’s ability to troubleshoot his or her own bike truly is.
“It was one of the worst experiences of my life, and from there I knew I had to learn how to work on my bike,” Magac said. “In a place like MotorGrrl where you can come and be trained to work on your bike in a specific way, it is incredibly empowering.”
Empowering those around her has become a theme for Figarella. Before working at MotorGrrl, employee Emilie Schwenk said she’s been coming to the garage for years. “I started coming on the back of somebody’s bike as a passenger and Val is the one who made me realize that motorcycles are for everybody,” said Schwenk. “There’s nothing that is going to make you feel as strong or as powerful or as free as you will at the throttle of a motorcycle.”
As for what’s next for the MotorGrrl garage, Figarella said she wants to continue building an educational motorcycle community. MotorGrrl is doing that through developing workshops.
“We’re one of the pioneers in this community workshop business model,” said Figarella. “Our workshops are what we’re really looking forward to next, and we also have technicians who are really interested in supporting that business model as well.”
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