Gearhead News

May 11, 2021
Jodi Lai Is Done Trying To Fit Into Car Media. She Doesn't Want You to, Either

As editor-in-chief of AutoTrader Canadathe site’s first-ever—Jodi Lai knows her shit. But that doesn’t stop people from asking her stupid questions. Questions like “How did someone like you get into cars?” and “Do you even know how to drive stick?” at press events. Obviously, she’s not ignorant of the insulting inflections. Or of the implications.

“What do you mean ‘someone like me’?’” Lai asks rhetorically in our recent interview. “I’ve been doing this since I was 19 and now I’m 33. Dude, I’ve been doing this for longer than you have. What gives you the right to ask me that? Did you ask that guy if he knows how to drive stick? What wouldn’t I know how? Who made you the police?”

Jodi Lai

In addition to running and writing for the website, Lai regularly appears in AutoTrader Canada’s YouTube videos, too. She’s also a juror on the North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year Awards committee, where she stands out starkly among the largely white and male group. Among automotive media, she is one of the mere handful of Asian women.

[May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Here at The Drive, we’re celebrating it by lifting up and highlighting AAPI voices in the automotive space. Our hope is that in driving visibility, we can help make the car community an even more welcoming space—to convince those who perhaps have not always felt like they belonged that they absolutely do belong here. Diversity in perspectives and backgrounds only strengthens the group as a whole. It is why representation matters.]

“When I started in the automotive industry, I just did this because I loved it,” Lai tells me. “I never really thought about being the only female Asian person until people said stuff like, ‘Why are you here? What got you into this industry?’ It was really weird I realized there was nobody like me doing this.”

Lai’s love of cars comes from her parents. As immigrants to Canada from Hong Kong, Lai’s parents were into cars and used them to help them find their people. “And I don’t mean people like other Asians,” Lai clarifies. “I mean car people.” Her parents were welcomed in the car community in the ‘70s and ‘80s, which gave them a sense of belonging, despite being new immigrants.

“They were really into Alfa Romeos at the time,” Lai recalls. “It was a huge source of pride for my mom, being one of the only Asian women in these car clubs who was driving these manual, very finicky sports cars with other old white dudes.”

Jodi Lai

But “otherness” wasn’t something they could escape altogether.

“Growing up, my parents had tried very hard to give us an upbringing that was as white as possible. That’s the only way they could see success for us,” Lai continues. “My own dad mispronounced our own last name forever. He kept saying ‘Frank Ley’ and I’m like, ‘Dad, why do you keep mispronouncing our last name? That’s not how you say it.’ And he was like, ‘I just don’t want to confuse the white people.’ That was his answer! I was so shocked because we have been bending over backwards for the comfort of white people. What have they been doing in return?”

While a journalism student at Ryerson University, Lai took a job as an unpaid summer intern at a newspaper, where she basically built its entire automotive section. Eventually, after hiring her full-time, the paper’s management team caught onto all of Lai’s efforts. They let go of her boss and put Lai in charge instead. By her mid-20s, Lai was managing a publication on her own.

“To be in charge of something at such a young age—while being a person of color and a woman—was really mind-blowing,” Lai says. “There was nobody like me doing what I was doing, so there were not a lot of places I could look for mentorship.”

Once she secured that management position, though, it automatically qualified her for other ones. A position as AutoGuide’s managing editor came next, then editor-in-chief. And now she heads up AutoTrader Canada. Of the job, Lai says, “I was really happy to land here and make my impact, not only as the first editor-in-chief ever, but also as a female person of color. I thought that was breaking down walls in a few different ways.”

Having been on the other side of that earlier in her career, it’s something she hopes to change. “My straight, white, male editors edited my work to reflect their point of view,” Lai says. “That also goes back to us trying to fit in an industry that wasn’t welcoming and wanted to erase our differences so we could fit in.”

While Lai agrees that the North American automotive community has been very welcoming to Asians, she notes that there’s still work that needs to be done for it to feel as inclusive to Asian women in particular. 

Chris Smart / csmartfx.com

“The few times I have gone out to a car meetup or something and there were a lot of Asian men, there was still a level of ‘Whose girlfriend are you?’” Lai says. “They didn’t expect me to show up in some sports car. They just assumed I was someone’s girlfriend.” 

Being objectified or made to feel like an accessory—someone who was dragged along to a car event by a boyfriend, husband, father, or brother—with zero autonomy is still an image issue that Asian women in the automotive industry face. 

One of Lai’s first assignments as a young journalist to profile a group of west Asian female enthusiasts who, sick of feeling unwelcome, went ahead and created their own car group of racers and tuners. They called it Team 24K.

“It was during the time when Fast and Furious was a big thing,” Lai remembers. “So they all souped up their own cars. I thought they were cool as hell. They had created this group because they felt like the car space was not welcoming to women of color. Instead of trying to fit into someone else’s space, they just made their own thing.”

Lai goes on, “It’s interesting to go to a car meet that’s all women of color. It automatically removes one of the barriers. You don’t have to step into a place feeling on guard because you know somebody’s about to say something shitty to you or make you feel like crap for just existing there. We can all feel safe and like we can lift each other up without being intimidated. It’s not nice to have that.”

Lai said it wasn’t really until Crazy Rich Asians came out in 2018 that she finally felt that it was cool and acceptable to be who she is. (The big-screen validation also hit close to home for so many.) “It was a turning point for me—I realized I’m not going to hide who I am anymore,” she says. “The reality is I don’t fit in. I will never fit in, so fitting in is no longer a priority for me. My priority now is opening the door to other people like me.”

In fact, she feels it is her responsibility to do so because she believes that is truly how you get more women and people of color into a very monochromatic industry that isn’t always the friendliest to either. Being visible at her job is a big part of fixing that. For one, it can help diverse people visualize themselves in the space. 

“I’ll be asked to go on TV as an automotive expert for work,” Lai explains. “I never turn down those opportunities and it’s not because of a vanity thing. It’s so other Asian girls can see me on TV talking about cars and know that it’s a possibility for them. I actually hate seeing myself on TV, but I think it’s so important to be visible doing what we do.”

Then there’s finding the actual writers. “Someone had to take a chance on me. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t happen for most people who look like us,” she says. “We’re not used to things being handed to us because of the way we look. That’s something that a lot of people in our industry take for granted. I worked hard for this job and now that I’m in a position where I can make these hiring decisions, I have to do everything I can to keep that door open for folks like us.”

Chris Smart / csmartfx.com

Her tactic? Removing all of the gatekeeping requirements that might deter a diverse candidate. “There used to be a school of thinking that said if you’re not an engineer, you can’t be a car writer, which I think is bullshit,” Lai says. “That was just old white guys trying to gate-keep their space from outsiders.” 

You can pick up on it, too. There’s an acute sense, especially when reading some of the legacy outlets, that the stories “are clearly written by dudes talking to dudes—people who look like them,” Lai points out. To people who don’t identify that way, it can be off-putting. “You read a piece of content and might not notice at first, but you internalize all of that,” she continues. “When some dude talks about how a car looks ‘really feminine,’ what are they actually trying to say?”

And so, when looking for diverse writers—women of color, queer people—Lai removes that barrier. “I don’t care if you have automotive experience,” she insists. “You just have to be a talented writer.”

Obviously, you need some level of experience when it comes to reviewing cars, but she believes everyone has to start somewhere. So as someone in management, it’s her job to help people get that start. 

“It’s a matter of how open you are to coaching and mentoring somebody,” she says. This is something Lai takes very seriously. “If there’s anybody, Asian or otherwise, who wants to get into this industry, then I’ll take it upon myself to mentor them on how to do it.” It’s extra work, but necessary work if you really want to move the needle on who’s allowed in this industry. It will only make the industry better as a whole.

“Cars are the great equalizer. Anyone can own one. Anyone can like one. We”—she refers to the two of us—“were still able to foster our love of cars, even when the environment was so shitty. Just imagine by making the environment less shitty, how many more people could get into them.”

Got a tip? Email me at kristen@thedrive.com