There was a time when Diane McNair-Smith didn’t dare dream about the future. Her “here-and-now” wouldn’t allow it. However, were it not for those dark days, she might not have been inspired to become a light for others.
“I tell people, ‘Just make one step,’” she said. “I don’t believe in ‘I can’t.’”
The New York native is founder of 3 Girls Trucking, her own transport company. More recently, she started 3 Girls Trucking Academy, where she helps people from of all walks of life learn to drive tractor-trailers, thus gaining the skills needed to follow her lead to self-respect and financial security.
“I haven’t had a student that came to me yet that didn’t leave with their CDL. Since I’ve been doing this, I’ve had four students that failed. I retested them and they passed,” she said.
“Now, I’m not going to give you anything — you have to earn it,” she added. “You can kill someone driving a truck, so I’m real careful about how I grade my students. But if you enroll in my school, I got you. I want to spend time with you and get you what you need. That’s what I’m here for.”
McNair-Smith was born in Brooklyn, New York, but her family relocated to Magee, Mississippi, when she was very young. After high school, she started a career, but her life took a dark turn, and she finally reached a turning point.
“I went through a domestic violence relationship with my ex-husband, and I went to seek help,” she said. “During that time, I was in the hospital for two or three months. When I got out of the hospital, I went straight into trucking.”
A career in trucking wasn’t something she’d ever considered before.
“The reason I went into trucking was to feed my family. At the time, I had three daughters who were little, and I couldn’t afford to go back home to my ex-husband,” she explained. “I looked at the newspaper, and I saw the trade called truck driving. I said, ‘I don’t know if that’s for me or not.’ But I ended up making a phone call. I tried it and I liked it. I never looked back.”
McNair-Smith racked up four years on the road before launching her own company, 3 Girls Trucking, eventually building it into a five-truck operation. She said when she began her life behind the wheel, she was breaking a lot of stereotypes for as a woman truck driver, especially a woman truck driver of color.
“I got looked at funny. I got talked about,” she said. “And, at that time, my kids were ashamed of me driving a truck, because all the kids made fun of their mom because she drives trucks. In the long run, they realized why I was doing it.”
Two years ago, McNair-Smith was inspired to open her own trucking school. Recalling how her own trainer took a hands-off, disinterested attitude, she was determined to take a different, more personal approach to her students.
“I had taught at another school, and I didn’t like the way they taught. The student was just another number,” she said. “I just saw them take the students’ money and whether they passed or not, they just sent them home.”
At 3 Girls Trucking Academy, students are treated like people, not numbers, according to McNair-Smith.
“I try to work with them. A lot of people don’t learn like other people, so I’m patient with my students,” she said. “I talk with my students. I find out if they have a personal problem. I find out what it is that’s going to get in the way of their learning. If they have a problem, I tutor them myself.”
Even when students pose a challenge, she doesn’t back down easily.
“I had one guy, he had been turned down from two or three different schools because he just couldn’t get general knowledge and just couldn’t pass it,” she explained. “But I stayed with him for four months until he passed all his tests. I told him, ‘It’s not how quick you get it; it’s that you get it — and once you get it, no one can take it away from you.’”
The school’s clientele is 65% women, but accepts all comers. McNair-Smith says she doesn’t view people based on their gender, race or background. However, she admits she is particularly drawn to people who are looking for a second chance in life, the same as she was.
“I see myself in men and in women because I can relate,” she said. “I have men that’s been abused by women. I have a lady that came three weeks ago straight out of the shelter, straight to the school. I see a lot of me in them. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.
“You’ve got to have passion for what you do,” she continued. “If you don’t have passion for what you do, you’re in the wrong business.”
It’s not cheap to run a truck-driving school, especially considering 3 Girls Trucking Academy is self-funded. McNair-Smith keeps the lights on the same way she bootstrapped her trucking company — through sheer hustle and determination. She’s also got plans to purchase land on which to build a bigger facility and reach more students.
When the “ministry” mentality McNair-Smith takes toward her work doesn’t align with the bottom line, she walks on the side of ministry, confident that someone up above won’t let her fail.
“My school is very popular. Not because it’s my school, but people know what I do and people know that I give,” she said.
“I’ve given out 32 scholarships since I’ve been open, and without my school being funded. I just give back to the community. I don’t care where you’re at. My students come from all walks of life,” she said.
My goal with women is to let them know that we can do just as much as men can do or even better. I get a lot of people who write letters that want to come to the school that can’t afford to come. I have people from prison that come to my school that I place with a job.”
3 Girls Trucking Academy is a family affair.
“My daughter is here at the school with me, and me and my baby girl butt heads all the time,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes she’ll say, ‘You’re losing money, Mom.’ I say, ‘Baby, it’s not about the money. It’s my ministry. This is what I do. I’m trying to change lives one at a time.’ I say, ‘When you get to be my age, you’ll understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.’”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.