Join MotorTrend in our celebration of Women’s History Month. Each week, you’ll hear about incredible women who leave their mark on the automotive industry. (Previously: Wendy Bauer)

It’s hard not to look at a car and immediately wonder how it works. How can a simple blend of air and fuel—or electrons alone—animate otherwise lifeless lumps of metal into motion?

It was this sense of wonder that led wrencher Riley Schlick-Trask of Riley’s Rebuilds and engineers Esther Unti of Lucid and Donna Dickson of Ford to pursue paths wholly devoted to taking cars apart and putting them back together again. These women are at various stages of their professional careers, but one thing’s for sure: If you’re smart and willing to work hard, there’s really no way you can fail.

Starting Out: Riley’s Rebuilds

Routine perusers of Facebook or YouTube might have come across the Riley’s Rebuilds community and channel. Started by Schlick-Trask during her early teen years, Riley’s Rebuilds began as a small carburetor-rebuilding service but has since grown to partner with Edelbrock and become a tuning shop, as well. Today, it makes Schlick-Trask enough money to pay for the college she attends in Connecticut.

“[It’s] a crazy thing,” she said in a recent interview, “to say that a business made by an 18-year-old can now pay for a very expensive college tuition.”

As she tells it, Schlick-Trask was basically born holding a wrench. She grew up in Florida working with her dad in the garage, and he’s why she finds comfort in cars. Everything kicked off when she was 13 and wanted to start saving for her first car.

Being too young to work and with the minimum wage in Florida at the time a measly $8 per hour: “That wouldn’t get me to what I really wanted,” Schlick-Trask said, “and I [would have] had to be working long hours.”

So instead, Schlick-Trask’s dad had her go into the garage to flip something. She spotted the carburetor on the shelf, and he taught her what it did and how to rebuild it. She learned what the profit margins were, found them agreeable, and that was that. Together, they spent a year driving around Florida, picking up old carburetors, and then fixing and flipping them. Schlick-Trask didn’t just make enough money for her first car, a 1995 Jurassic Park YJ Jeep, but she also could afford parts for modifying it, which is how she spent time during COVID.

Things really took off when she was involved in an accident with her best friend’s car and needed $10,000 to pay for the repairs. “By that time, we had actually bought out all the carburetors in Florida that were on Facebook Marketplace,” Schlick-Trask said. She put out an online request for parts; the post went viral, and over the next few weeks, she had more than 300 free carburetors on her doorstep.

It resulted in too much business for just one person, so she hired her four best girlfriends to help. One was already into tuner and newer cars, but the other three were not into cars at all. She sold them on one idea: This makes a lot of money.

“It’s a really good job … compared to their Subway jobs,” Schlick-Trask said. “Especially for the time that we’re spending doing the work. I also got to see them a lot and enjoy girl time in the garage while working.”

As Riley’s Rebuilds, Schlick-Trask and her friends fixed each other’s cars, tuned carburetors, got sponsorships and business deals, filmed how-tos, and dove into her Jeep. Schlick-Trask also won the Jessi Combs Foundation Rising Star Award.

Right now, Schlick-Trask is a full-time college student, juggling that with playing for the soccer team and flying home once or twice a month to bang out videos to edit and post, sometimes with her dad’s help. Her younger brother and his friends have taken over working in the garage while she’s at school. Knowing everything that’s happening behind the scenes, seeing Riley’s Rebuilds videos and posts uploaded across various social channels with regularity is impressive.

You might think Schlick-Trask’s skill with social media is simply a function of her generation, but that’s not actually the case. Schlick-Trask explained she was raised away from social media (by very smart parents) and that she treats it all as a tool. Obviously, without it, Riley’s Rebuilds wouldn’t have taken off the way it did, but for her, its value lies in being able to build a community.

“It’s fun bringing people [together] through what I’m doing,” Schlick-Trask said. “That’s a big thing of ours: to bring kids into the industry, especially through older cars. There are boys and girls out there that don’t know or don’t have parents that are anywhere close to cars. They don’t know what they’re doing, and cars are scary to a lot of people. What we’re trying to teach is cars are just a big pile of Legos. Get yourself a nice, non-rotted car or truck, and you can really do anything to it.”

Post-college, Schlick-Trask hopes to stay in the automotive industry. Maybe Riley’s Rebuilds stays the same size, making everyone involved a little money as a tidy second job. Or maybe she can grow it so big that one day it can operate out of its own warehouse or garage. “I would love for it to get bigger, especially if it is just to boost me into the industry,” she said.

The beauty is the open-endedness of it all. But if Schlick-Trask’s savviness is anything to go by, she’ll land somewhere impactful with the sky as the limit.

Early Career: Esther Unti

What do loving cars, being good at math, and spending days as a professional passenger princess all have in common? They describe Esther Unti, currently a senior manager of controls calibration and validation at Lucid.

Those are her words, by the way: “Calibrators are professional passenger princesses,” Unti told MotorTrend. “[They’re] the people who sit in the passenger seat of a car with a laptop and make adjustments to the car’s powertrain to perfect the way [the vehicle] accelerates, stops, or handles.”

It’s Unti’s and her team’s job to bridge the gap between the hardware and software arms of the company, with the common goal being vehicle performance and comfort. They work with the simulation team to figure out how much power change is needed in a given car to hit a certain straight-line number, as well as with the dynamics team on all the tire sizing, braking, and powertrain controls to align on smoothness, comfort, and drivability.

Unti used the accelerator pedal as one “drivability attribute” example: Every time someone hits the pedal, what happens after that? How quickly does the car accelerate? How smoothly does it accelerate? What is the feeling between drive torque and regular torque? How smoothly does it transition? Are there any little irregularities in the experience? Those are all things she helps determine.

Working with EVs is especially fulfilling, Unti says, because the industry is still very much figuring out what proper EV drivability is. There’s not yet a prescribed way to do things. The formula for perfecting gas-car drivability has been developed over decades, she points out. That hasn’t happened for EVs yet, and it’s the big question: Do we want EVs to deliver an all-new experience, or do we want them to mimic a legacy experience that might be more familiar to buyers?

“As a consequence, I would say the field is very varied right now, just in terms of whether it’s more comfort-focused or more handling-focused, where the priorities are in the experience,” Unti said. “You can take something as simple as accelerator pedal feel and how quickly the motors respond when you stab your foot.”

It’s a pretty dope job, and it certainly sounds like one that doesn’t often feel like work.

Unti has always been good at math, and after she took a shop class in high school, she found she loved working on cars. “[I just had to] figure out a way in which I [could] work on cars and also do math at the same time,” she said. “As it turns out, [it’s] very easy. There [are] lot of jobs in cars that involve math.”

At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, Unti joined the Formula SAE team, which was full of like-minded people that helped put her on the path toward a career in the automotive space. (In fact, her teammate and mentor at school is now the manager of Lucid’s vehicle dynamics team, so “it feels a little bit like Formula SAE when we’re at work,” Unti said.)

After two internships at Tesla, Unti joined Lucid. Her decision to move companies was based on two factors: First, it was close to the Bay Area, which is where she lived and had all her connections. Second, the idea of a startup was appealing because she saw it as an opportunity to experiment with the big picture in ways she might not have been able to at an automaker with a more established identity and protocols.

The first challenge came when she advanced to the calibration team. Too soon, she found it was far too much work for one person. She asked for help, and her wish was granted: She was given the green light to hire. Now, Unti oversees a team of nine she helped pick out herself. When selecting candidates, Unti looked for a good mix of people of varying experience levels.

“The first person I hired had a bunch of experience in powertrain calibration, which is super useful because I didn’t,” she said. “I was looking for somebody to bring that knowledge to the team. Since then, it’s been finding people who are really passionate, hard-working, and easy to get along with. [Those have] been the guiding principles.”

As someone in her late 20s, Unti had zero intention of stepping into a management role this early in her career. “But [Lucid is] a place where if I wanted to do something, nobody said no,” she said. “Especially because it was a space that no one else was working in. If you go and find voids to fill, nobody stops you. I had free rein to create a team that could fill a gap I saw in the company.”

Unti may not have set out to be a leader, but she sure as hell sounds like a good one. “When you’re a young engineer in a school setting, you get into this mindset of, ‘It takes science,’ or, ‘It just takes drive, and we’ll figure it out,'” she said. “But there’s so much more to making a good car that comes down to interpersonal communication, motivation, and teamwork that I did not at all expect. It’s absolutely a question about management. If you can make people feel supported, they’re in a structured environment they can succeed in, and you give them leeway to succeed, amazing things happen.”

As a Mentor: Donna Dickson

If you’re in the business of building cars, the massive industry shift from internal combustion to battery electric can mean learning plenty of new skills. But it also means relying on certain nuggets of know-how gleaned from years of experience. In her three decades at Ford, Donna Dickson has seen and done some of everything. And it all primed her for her current role as chief engineer of the Ford Mustang Mach-E.

Appointed in 2021, Dickson is responsible for everything concerning the overall vehicle, from cost to quality to delivery. Her time working with F-Series trucks taught her the value of listening to customers and giving them what they want. Despite loud critics on the internet balking at the use of the Mustang nameplate on a four-door electric crossover, Dickson says Mach-E sales are strong, especially among women.

Making and selling EVs poses unique challenges, but Dickson called out the refresh cycle as a particular hurdle. “If you look at a lot of the ICE programs, they usually have a three-, six-, 12-[month] cadence, and it’s usually around emissions,” she told MotorTrend. “You have to get to the next emission level, cycle, or requirement.”

However, as EVs aren’t beholden to meeting emissions, Ford’s approach involves refreshing the product every six months, which is a much more aggressive workload. To meet these requirements, Dickson knows it isn’t a one-person show. She needs the best people she can get around her, people who are agile, flexible, and able to handle a lot. That’s exactly what she has now.

“Everybody from the chief engineer down to an engineer or analyst had a role, and they were all empowered,” Dickson said. “I’ve always leveraged that. And this team I’m on right now, what we’ve built, we embrace it. We don’t take offense to criticism. We want to hear it, and we want to make [the product] better. Our goal has been to make this vehicle better [and] get more people in it.”

And because of the shifting industry, the workforce is changing right alongside it. You need fresh talent to keep up and bring new ideas, like younger engineers to help with cars that are very technologically forward. Ford has done the smart thing and staffed up outside of the usual spots: It looked to Silicon Valley and hired people like Doug Field away from Tesla and Apple.

Opportunities for women seem more plentiful than ever. “I look around, and I see more women in the chief engineering world than I ever saw maybe 15 or 20 years ago,” Dickson said. “Us being out there more, it shows the young women that this is a path.”

At this point in Dickson’s career, the people are just as important as the product. “We’re helping our young engineers get in,” she said. “That’s as much my responsibility as delivering the vehicle. How do we help them grow, develop, and not get lost in the shuffle? All of us that have been here at Ford [a long time] have that responsibility.”

As a mentor, Dickson stresses flexibility and being able to pivot in different directions. Her time at Ford has taken her through trucks, product development, and manufacturing, as well as the launch of the Lincoln MKC, being the vehicle team manager at the Flat Rock assembly plant for the Mustang coupe and the Lincoln Continental, and time on the C2 platform underpinning the Ford Escape, Bronco Sport, and Lincoln Corsair.

Embracing change helped Dickson rise through the ranks. “You can get comfortable in what you’re working on,” she said. “Be open to different things in your career. I always tell everybody I mentor that responsibilities or projects find you. When you’re passionate about it, you take it on. You never know where it’s going to lead.”


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