Women in Business: Jodi Lai - Flexing a Different Perspective in Automotive Journalism (Part 1)
It all started with a tweet.
When I decided to combine my interest in writing with my interest in cars, I searched for inspiration in people who were already doing it. Few of the people I found were women.
Jodi Lai stood out to me. She’s Editor-in-Chief at AutoGuide.com; one of the top automotive websites for reviews and news, and she’s Canadian. I like following Jodi’s sarcastic posts on Twitter. She’s edgy, diverse and always seems to be enjoying herself. I could relate to her, and little did I know, we had more in common than I thought.
In August of 2018, Jodi posted a story titled; “How the McLaren 720S Helped Me Live My Crazy Rich Asian Fantasy.” I remember reading it and feeling like she was speaking directly to me. As an immigrant, I could relate to the struggles she talked about. That’s when I mentally added her to the list of the people I wanted to interview one day.
Fast forward to April 2019, when I finally decided to reach out to Jodi and ask to interview her for my blog. To my surprise, she responded right away, and we quickly made plans to meet.
Now here is where the stars aligned...
As we’re making plans to meet, it appears that we live in the same neighborhood.
Without probing too much, I tell her my intersection and ask to meet at a nearby Starbucks. She says she lives at the same intersection - small world.
So we meet up one night, and I’m nervous as fuck. I get there early and pick a table by the window. Then I change tables three times before she walks in and catches me holding my jacket and purse mid-way to yet another tables; “Haha… I just got here too..”
“Ok so where do you live exactly?” thankfully, she asks first.
Turns out, we live in the SAME BUILDING, and she just moved in two months ago.
How CRAZY is that?! The universe has a funny way of making things happen, and I love it!
Let’s start with where you are right now and your role at AutoGuide.com?
My official title is Director of Editorial at AutoGuide Group. Vertical Scope is the company that I work for, and they have a few verticals, and one of the big ones is automotive, and AutoGuide is their flagship website. They have other sites and forums that also fall under that umbrella, so I oversee all of that.
Do you still feel like you need to prove yourself?
Every single day!
It never gets easier. I’ve been doing this since I was 18 and I’m 31 now, and every single day, I have to go out and prove myself - way more than a white man. There is a norm of what is expected and that; “Yeah that guy knows what he’s talking about and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
I do a lot of presenting on our YouTube channel, and if I were to say something that a viewer doesn’t agree with, they automatically say; “That girl knows nothing about cars.” If someone else were to say something that a viewer doesn’t agree with, then they would say; “I don’t agree with that, but he knows about cars. I just don’t agree with him.”
So yes I do have to prove myself every single day which can get exhausting sometimes. I enjoy what I do so that makes it easier.
How do you deal with some of that? Knowing that you’re being judged for speaking a certain way and being a certain way?
What I do is very rewarding and the rewards out-weigh the negativity that I get sometimes.
I’m on the North American Car of the Year jury. That was something that I felt very lucky to be on. I think I’m the first Asian and one of the very few women on that jury. So I thought that was all pretty incredible. I’ve worked really hard for it.
Then I over-heard someone saying that I was only on there because I’m a girl and they are only trying to fill in some female quota. That was hard to hear. I had a break-down that day, and I was so upset about it because this was from a well-respected guy in the industry and he said, and I’ve never been mean to him so why would he say this about me? But he’s just a jerk, and that’s really all it is. Is he upset that maybe he’s not on the jury? Maybe. So, at the end of the day, I have to get over it, because I know that I’ve worked hard for this. But saying that I’m on there just because I’m a girl, completely ignores the fact that I’ve been doing this for a dozen years, that I’m an Editor-in-Chief, and I’m only 31. I’ve worked my ass off since I was 18! Most people just see me and assume I’m young and I’m new at this.
I did a video where we were at the Auto Show for a launch, and this one person wrote a long couple paragraphs below the video saying things like; “I can’t believe they hired this girl, she’s taking jobs from qualified people.” They assumed I was a product advisor and working the booth, or a hired model to talk about cars. But what made you think that?? I was professional, I was dressed professionally, I knew everything about the car, and yet I’m not a qualified person.
Do you think it’s because you look young or because you’re a woman?
It’s a combination of all three. I’m a woman, I’m Asian, and I’m young. That is the holy trifecta. Mostly because there aren’t a lot of people who look like you and me in this industry, and most people have an idea of what an automotive journalist should look like.
What do you think of the social media Influencers who are creating automotive content on YouTube or blogs like mine? Do you think that’s taking away from what you do?
I love meeting Influencers who are doing automotive because usually, they are quite new. When I go to these launch events, the journalists and automotive people there who have been doing this for years are like; “oh these influencers don’t know what they’re talking about,” and they are immediately very standoff-ish to them. A lot of the time the Influencers are women, and that’s probably why the older men are put off because they feel threatened; “Oh I was doing this for ten years and what gives you the right to be here.” Just because they haven’t been writing about engines for ten years doesn’t mean they are not qualified to talk about a car.
*I’m holding back the tears and the urge to reach over the table and hug her at this point.
J: A lot of people who follow Influencers are looking for cars and who are they going to trust with their opinion; this person they follow or this old man they don’t know? So I do think the old guy is threatened by it.
It doesn’t bother you?
No, it doesn’t bother me because I’m comfortable where I am. I’m not threatened by it, and I like to go out and help people. If there is someone new, then we have to help them because that is the only way we can get more woman into the industry. If they are going to be scared, then that is not good for anyone. I don’t think it’s competition. I think we can do it together. The more people, like you and I, doing this then the better the industry will be.
Which do you enjoy more; Writing or Making Videos?
That’s a good question. I love writing, but sometimes video is more satisfying to do. It’s fun to see how everything comes together in a video. There are a lot of factors too. It depends on who’s shooting and who’s editing, or if you’re co-hosting with someone. I develop more professionally when I’m making videos than writing. I think I’ve always been a pretty strong writer, but my videos haven’t always been so strong. So the more videos I make, the better I’m getting, and the more I enjoy it.
Now let’s talk about the cars. How have you seen the cars change over the years?
I think they have in general become better. It’s not possible to have a bad car these days. Every single car that you buy today is so good. I remember when I started doing this, there were cars that were legitimately awful. Even ten years ago, it was worst. The technology has changed a whole lot, and it’s moving so much faster now. EVs, autonomy, the tech, that’s where the conversation is now, and no one is going to be driving internal combustion in the future.
*DING DING DING *
Do you think the shift to EVs is going to happen soon?
Not in the next ten years … maybe in the next 20 years. EVs will be pretty much the norm, and internal combustion will be for people who consider themselves enthusiasts. That’s the way things are going, and you can’t deny that it’s going to happen.
What do you think of Autonomous Cars?
I think it’s a long way off. I think everyone is talking about it as if it’s going to happen in the next month or so, but it’s still far away. The problem is mostly with infrastructure, and the legislation hasn’t got up to the technology. The technology is mostly 70-80% there, but it’s missing the laws of the infrastructure. I think it will happen eventually, just not as quickly as everyone is saying.
OK now let’s go back. Why cars?
It’s the culture surrounding it. I’m not a very technical person, and I can’t sit here and talk to you about how a transmission works or the mechanical aspect of it, but I do love the cars and the culture, and that’s what makes it interesting for me. I always want to know from other people; “Hey why did you buy that car?” Or from the people who don’t consider themselves car people, I always want to know what they think. It gives me a perspective that maybe I'm a snob and I need to bring it back a little and understand what people are looking for.
I like learning why people buy the things that they do. For example, my sister’s fiancé was looking for a new car. He was looking at the VW Atlas, and I told him to also consider the Subaru Forester or the Honda Pilot. I think those cars are better than the Atlas, but he just liked the way the Atlas looked, and that is a completely legitimate reason to buy a car that a lot of car people don’t consider. It seems basic, but I think most people buy based on style. The car you drive is a reflection of who you are.
If you had to drive an electric vehicle, which one would you choose? Would you even consider one right now?
Yes, I would definitely consider it if our building had a charging station. I feel like the Kona EV would be good. There aren’t a lot of options. I don’t think I would get a Tesla. Nissan Leaf is good, but I guess I would go with the Kona EV.
What I would absolutely love is a hot-hatch EV, which doesn’t exist right now. At the NY Auto Show, Genesis came out with an EV concept called the Mint. I want that car! I liked this concept car the most because it was small, luxurious and it was so cool.
So why not Tesla?(Obviously, I was going to ask)
I have nothing against Tesla. I just feel like it’s a bit of cult. *we both laugh*
I’m sure you’re not like that.
A: I am a little bit, and I’m ok with that.
J: A lot of Tesla owners are very cult-ish about owning a Tesla. I’ve driven the Model 3, and I think it is fantastic. It is undeniably an incredible car. I feel like it’s a little too expensive and that the Kona EV is much cheaper. But I loved the Tesla when I drove it. I had it for three days, and it was fantastic.
A: Well, whenever you want to drive it again, my Model 3 is parked in your building. We can swap cars the next time you have a McLaren.
What do you drive?
I just got my dad’s old car. It’s a 2015 VW Golf diesel. He’s convinced that this car will be a classic one day because it’s a Dieselgate and it’s manual. I sold my 2008 VW Rabbit, which I loved, but I guess now I have a newer version. My mom also drives a diesel wagon. For a while, all three of us were driving diesel VWs.
Earlier in your career, did you have anyone that you looked up to? Or do you have someone that you admire still today?
Jil McIntosh – She’s been writing for a long time and now contributes to Driving.ca. Her and Lorraine Sommerfeld have been doing it for a long time, and they are both amazing and extremely talented. Whenever I have issues, questions or feel lost, I will ask them. They are so direct and so honest. They have dealt with a lot of bullshit. I look up to them a lot. There is an automotive journalist named Basem Wasef who is the most talented automotive journalist that I know in North America. He’s Egyptian American, so he’s a person of colour, and he’s highly respected. He mostly drives supercars, and he’s the nicest, most humble person you’ll ever meet. In an industry where people are just flexing all the time, it’s refreshing to see someone who is still so humble. He’s so talented but doesn’t brag about it. He just wrote a car book that I’m reading it right now. It’s cool, and I like to support a friend.
What kind of books do you usually read?
I haven’t been reading as much as I use to. For a while, I was reading a lot of Second World War books, but then it got too depressing.
I was just upstairs working from home, and I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and that’s just what you need sometimes. A lot of the people who do what I do, their whole lives revolve around automotive. Everything they consume is automotive, and I think that’s so boring. I love cars, but my life does not revolve around cars. I have other interests. I don’t go to car meets. I would enjoy it, but there are other things I would rather do that make me a more well-rounded person.
A: I go to Tesla meetings *lol
J: Really? There are Tesla meetings? Like in a parking lot?
A: Oh yea! It’s the Tesla Owners club of Ontario. It’s quite nerdy, and I enjoy it so much. I learn a lot, and I like being around other Tesla enthusiasts. As you said, it’s the culture, and I love it. I think Tesla owners get a bad rep because they tend to have to defend something they are so passionate about.
J: It is a great car, and everyone knows that. I think the problem is the Cult of Elon Musk. He is kind of crazy but a genius, so it’s a very interesting part of the industry.
A: Like most geniuses, he is a little crazy. Should he be CEO or on the board – probably not. He’s an engineer, and that’s what he’s good at. He’s a visionary, and he’s done great things with Tesla and SpaceX, that’s undeniable, but I guess he’s not the best business person.
So, it all started with a tweet, and now you are sitting here with me having a super honest conversation. I remember you posting that story about your experience as an Asian woman in automotive, and I thought that was so brave and real.
I remember I almost didn’t publish that story. I almost deleted it. I wrote it up in a day, but I almost didn’t publish it, because I was afraid of putting myself so far out there. For a long time, I didn’t want to mention that; “hey look at me, I’m an Asian female.” I was trying to succeed quietly, and sometimes you do need to beat your chest and flex a little. Because if you don’t, you can fade in the background. Guys take for granted that everyone is paying attention to them. I never wanted to be that angry Asian feminist, but that’s who I am.
Who decided that flexing was a bad thing? Men don’t see anything wrong when they do it, because that’s natural to them and it’s part of who they are. Women, on the other hand, are raised self-conscious, and we learn to be careful about what we say. So what made you post the story and not delete it?
I was afraid that it would backlash. I was afraid that people would not understand my point of view. After I thought about it, I realized that this story had not been written before. Nobody is equipped to write this story, except for me at this point. I thought that I would be doing a disservice to people if I didn’t share it. And if one person read that story and felt that it was similar to what they had experienced, then that’s all that mattered. Most of the feedback was incredible. People would say; “Hey I’m not Asian, I’m Mexican, and I feel the same way.”
A: It’s important to share these stories, so other people who are struggling with similar experiences can see that they are not alone.
J: This is still something that I’m dealing with day to day. I still get a tone of social anxiety every time I have to go to an automotive event where I KNOW I’ll be the only women there or even the only women of colour there. I get anxious because I’m scared I’ll say something stupid and that fear is the worst because that’s not who I really am. That fear and insecurity is something that is projected on to me. So even though I know it’s happening, it’s still something that I have to deal with, and it still exists.
So you’re aware of it, but how do you deal with it? Do you talk yourself out of it?
Yes basically! It goes back to realizing that your perspective is important because it is different. The more I can be myself around other people, the more comfortable I am, and I don’t doubt myself as much.
A: Thank you for taking the time to do this. You’ve done very well for yourself, and it’s nice to see. For someone like me who wants a place in this industry and who wants to do things, it’s inspiring to have someone like you to look up to. I can say; “If she did it, then I can do it too.”
J: That means so much to me. It blows my mind that people see this. It’s a nice feeling knowing that you have an impact on people. This one time, I was driving a Lamborghini, and we drove two hours to get Pizza ...because why not. We were in a small town, and there was this girl and her mom, and she was maybe ten or eleven. She was a young Asian girl, and she saw the Lamborghini, and her mom came over and said, “She’s freaking out, can you please let her touch the car.” She was so excited and was asking all these questions about the car. She sat in the car and took pictures, and her mom said; “She’s never seen someone like you do this.” At that point, I realized that if I can do that for somebody, then it became almost like a mission statement at the back of my mind. If I can inspire one little girl to do whatever it is that she wants to do. If you want to play soccer, DO it! If you want to play with cars? Do it!
I remember when I was young, my dad’s friend said to me; “Jodi, I know you’re a good writer, but you have to write about your experiences about being a first generation Canadian.”
I would say; “No one wants to read about that!” Back then, I wasn’t convinced that my perspective was a perspective that mattered or that people cared to hear about it. But the longer I do this, the longer I see that is wrong. People do care, and they do care about what you have to say because you do bring that unique perspective. The more perspectives we can have in this industry, the better it will be.