With people skills and natural ambition she attributes to being a Capricorn, Chaya Milchtein has steered masterfully into every challenging turn life has taken her.
The 26-year-old Wisconsin native endured early childhood abuse. Being raised a Hasidic Jew, she had very limited access to math, writing, and other non-religious subjects. She also came out as queer when she was a teenager. Then during her senior year of school, she got involved with LGBTQ activism and political training programs. But as she approached 18, she faced aging out of foster care. Forced into independence, she realized she needed to find a professional and financially sufficient opportunity. Ultimately, she began working for a Sears automotive department, which changed the course of her life forever.
“I grew to love cars,” says Milchtein, on an early fall Zoom call. “But more importantly, I grew to love helping people better understand their car.”
As a service advisor, Milchtein helped people understand their vehicles’ issues and potential solutions. Milchtein enjoyed the work, but her queerness and appearance weren’t well-received as she moved deeper into the male-dominated automotive industry.
“I worked with a lot of macho [males] who had a very narrow idea of what the automotive industry…should look like,” Milchtein explains. “And while they would be willing to bend those ideas for women, [it was] their version of what women should be—feminine, small, beautiful—and they found the traits that made men successful in my field incredibly difficult to wrap their brains around when they came in a fat queer person.”
Still, Milchtein continued navigating the industry until another obstacle arose in April 2020: a pandemic-induced lay-off from her collision company job. Milchtein was upset, but soon realized it offered a chance to prioritize Mechanic Shop Femme, the blog-turned-automotive education platform she launched in 2017. She expanded the business to the point where she could employ herself full-time and hire others. This allowed her to introduce new segments, and vow to never again work for someone else.
Milchtein’s business has many arms. She teaches automotive literacy classes at libraries, universities, nonprofits, and corporations around the U.S. and Canada. She also offers online classes to the public. As a social media influencer, she discusses cars and other topics across platforms. She has over 437,000 TikTok followers and more than 92,000 Instagram followers.
Additionally, Milchtein speaks at events, and writes about cars, body positivity for various publications. She gives back to the community, too, offering scholarships for classes to low-income people of color and people with disabilities. She donates ten percent of the revenue from each public class to various organizations like Trans Lifeline, Love on Black Women, and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.
Milchtein’s work all stems from a passion for helping people. Providing car literacy is particularly important to her because she feels cars are crucial for escaping poverty, as they enable access to employment opportunities. And people are often taken advantage of by car companies – to dooming financial impact. Milchtein compassionately addresses these issues, making sure people of all backgrounds feel heard and supported.
She says success requires encouraging people to ask questions, and sharing knowledge respectfully, rather than condescendingly, as automotive professionals tend to do, especially with women and queer people. What’s also made Milchtein successful: an openness about her own struggles and experiences, which helps people feel understood.
However, such authenticity invites challenges, like internet trolls who criticize other things she presents, like her queerness, size, or politics. Nevertheless, she continues to share all her life and insights, and, as she wishes to always learn and grow, she hopes she can help others do the same.
“I dedicate my work to serving queer people first, women second,” says Milchtein. “But it is a space anybody can be in and learn from — as long as they understand what I’m trying to create.”
Milchtein is uncertain what forms her drive to help others will take next. A book is in the works, but otherwise, the road is open. Says the groundbreaking educator: “I’m not even one percent of the potential of the things I can do.”
Spoken like a true Capricorn.