If You’ve Ever Wanted to Learn How to Fix a Car (or Throw Knives, or Read Tarot), Bad Academy Is For You

Bad Academy’s eclectic workshops help women build life skills—and community.

It’s an absolute tragedy that Bad Academy isn’t accredited. If we were all walking around with a degree in Knife Sharpening, Bike Maintenance and Tarot (plus a minor in Roller Derby), the world undoubtedly would be a better place.

But even if we can’t hang a Bad Academy diploma on the wall, it’s still Vancouver’s good fortune that founder Amanda Kao made her way here from New York and felt inspired to start running her curiosity-fuelled collection of workshops in the first place.

Though the educational offerings run the gamut from lap-dancing to podcasting to taxidermy, there’s a throughline here: these are classes taught by women, for women, that champion self-sufficiency and self-love.

The “bad” in Bad Academy has a dual meaning. In Kao’s world, being bad at something is a good thing—an expression of brave vulnerability and an opportunity to support one another in jumping into the unknown. It’s also bad-ass. “I think women with more freedom are more self-sufficient and therefore more self-confident,” she argues.

Car maintenance workshop
Students in the car maintenance workshop. Photo by Amanda Kao.

“My entire life, I’ve found community through education,” adds Kao. “Whether through institutions like university or learning alongside women in climbing or art, I’ve always found it very… wholesome to be able to learn something and meet people at the same time.” Part of this, she reasons, is that it’s a productive use of time to level up your skills while meeting people with similar interests. So when she moved to Vancouver 10 years ago and started feeling hungry for community, she turned to classes to help her find it. “I became a workshop slut,” she laughs. “I went to every workshop you could think of trying to meet people to be friends with.” Wreath making. Vegan cheesemaking. Embroidery.

She had a good time exploring these endeavours, and they helped her begin to grow her social circle. But the homemaker-y nature of most of the women-focused workshops she was finding started to get stale. “I enjoy these things, but it’s sort of frustrating these are the only workshops offered to women,” says Kao. “I was realizing that there were too many things I didn’t know about in life. I want to learn about cars and finance and how to roll a joint.” She did half a day of googling and discovered nothing in Vancouver that would help her fill those knowledge gaps—so she decided she’d just create something herself.

Her initial car maintenance workshop was a smash hit, and Bad Academy exploded from there. Picture Strathcona Park, taken over by 60 women and girls, all falling off skateboards and cracking up. “I remember looking over the field and watching everyone laughing and falling and helping each other and thinking, this is truly what it’s all about,” says Kao. A “sex re-education” workshop was similarly moving, full of open-minded questions and a willingness to share the naked truth. “This is something we never talk about, and to see people come together and be so vulnerable together is really inspiring.”

Kao selects the courses by pure intuition, inspired by what is catching her own interest in a given moment, or by her observations of the zeitgeist—anything from polyamory to finance. “Everything that is Bad Academy just comes from my brain. The fact that people resonate with it doesn’t cease to be mind-blowing,” she says.

Stick-and-poke tattooing workshop
Photo by Amanda Kao.

These courses aren’t intended to make anyone an expert (though she reports that her lap-dancing workshop inspired one attendee to change careers), but rather to help women realize just how capable they are. “You can just feel the excitement of realizing that things aren’t that hard,” says Kao. “If you know you can change a tire, maybe you’ll try to fix your own toilet next time before you call your boyfriend or dad. Getting your feet wet with anything is scary, but let’s touch the car, get under the hood. I want to instill that behaviour in women: you can try it and figure it out because you’re smart enough and capable.”

The Academy has become Kao’s full-time gig, but prior to that, she worked in HR and operations in tech, social justice and environmental justice. Though the school has only been around since 2019—and managed to power through the pandemic with a popular roster of online workshops—Kao has produced over 120 events and has started facilitating for big brands like Arc’teryx, Lululemon and UBC.

Foraging workshop
Photo by Sid Barr of Amanda Kao. 

Five years in, Kao has become a real Renaissance woman (“I know a little about a lot of things,” she laughs) but the biggest reward of this experiment-gone-right has been the creation of the community she always craved. Her metaphor-
ical rolodex is now jam-packed with cool, capable women. “Many of my friends have come out of Bad Academy, so it’s definitely been a very productive project,” Kao laughs. And these friends often wind up teaching courses themselves—another opportunity for building skills and confidence, with extra support from Kao to help them create a syllabus and improve their public speaking. “It’s a cycle,” she explains. “That’s doubly inspiring for me.”

While Bad Academy students typically fall into the 25-to-35 age range, that’s not prescriptive: all are welcome. Kao describes the target demographic as “women who are kind of just curious by nature and wanting to view knowledge as self-care.” The courses end with a huge resource list, so anyone interested in diving in further leaves well equipped to do so—but they certainly don’t need to. Learning a little about a lot is a goal that Kao herself has embraced.

“I’m a lifetime student,” says Kao. “I used to think it was bad that I was a master of none. But it keeps things interesting.”