Kerri Wise says two things helped prepare her for a career in the auto industry.
Wise’s preparation began, she says, with her family. She was sandwiched between two athlete brothers, with an older sister, too — and all of them were accomplished and successful.
“My dad didn’t raise us to be different. Often women are raised differently and pushed into traditional ‘girl’ activities. In our family it wasn’t like that. Girls and boys, we all fished, we did the same things,” says Wise, chief marketing officer for AutoFi. “I often say I was prepped for the auto industry in my household.”
She also says playing basketball at California State University, Northridge honed a competitive spirit that has buoyed her. “Even in the times when I felt I wasn’t very welcome in the auto industry, that competitiveness is what has kept me focused on staying in the business,” Wise says. “At those moments, I’d say to myself, ‘There is no way I’m going to let someone make me feel I’m not welcome.’”
Growing up in Northern California, Wise had no special interest in the auto industry. But like many Cal State, Northridge students, she had an opportunity to intern with J.D. Power — whose late founder, Dave Power, was an alum and at the time was also teaching classes at the university’s business school. The firm offered Wise a permanent job after graduation.
She spent 12 years at J.D. Power, working first in research, then in consulting and finally in sales, and says she fell in love “with the people side of automotive.”
Wise moved on to become director of client insights for Edmunds, and while there, she was recruited by TrueCar — at the time a serious disrupter in the industry. “I said no multiple times but eventually decided to jump to TrueCar. It was the biggest risk I’ve ever taken,” she says. Like many women, she says, she’s a people pleaser, and so it was a challenge was to work “for a company that was not loved by dealers.”
After helping TrueCar increase its industry penetration by almost half, she moved on to AutoFi in 2021 and was named chief marketing officer in November.
During the past two decades, Wise has been involved in what she calls the “women’s movement” in the industry, including as a board member for Women in Automotive. Then, she says, the Black Lives Matter movement arrived, with its focus on social justice and racial equity.
“Being someone who’s not just a woman but a Black woman, 2020 forced me to put my gender on the back burner,” she says. “As women of color, we face a lot of the same challenges all women do in this industry, but there are unique issues that are not always addressed by diversity programs. We felt we had to address that gap.”
Wise is one of four women who founded the Women of Color Automotive Network, offering support through scholarships, mentorships, information, networking and more. It’s a personal mission for her.
“When you look at women of color in our organizations, oftentimes we are the first in everything we do,” she says. “We’re often the first in our families to go to college. The first to be Americans. And we might be the first and only in certain companies. Imagine being the only person of color, or woman of color, in an entire company. We’re often navigating a space with no one around who’s ever done it prior to us.”
That is especially true in automotive. Wise points out that only about 1,000 dealerships are owned by women. And only 70 of those owners are women of color. “We cannot solve these problems with broad strokes,” she says. “Pushing for women in general doesn’t solve all the problems for women of color.”
Improving the presence of and opportunities for women of color in the industry requires a multifaceted approach. “We have to be more intentional in how we recruit women and women of color to this business,” Wise says, including being thoughtful about how job postings are written and that diverse images are included on websites and social media.
But she also says, “We can focus all we want on attracting them, but if the culture is not welcoming, we are going to lose them. It’s about the line the industry is going to draw about unacceptable behavior, things that indicate that we’re not welcome. I remember the moment that I knew I was not welcome. They wished I wasn’t there. It was clear to me.”
Despite the challenges, Wise encourages all women to embrace who they are. She says success in the industry starts with “recognizing that you have a powerful voice no matter how people treat you. Have confidence in that,” she says. “My differences are my advantage.”