Nora El-Khouri Spencer
Hope Renovations Nora El-Khouri Spencer

As a 501(c)(3) charity, Hope Renovations heavily depends on the generosity of supporters to keep it going, but also the leadership of founder and CEO Nora El-Khouri Spencer, MSW, GC, CAPS, who is just as passionate about construction as she is about gender equity in the field.

Armed with a team of women, Hope Renovations, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, builds and renovates for older adults to age in place while also instilling confidence in women and gender-expansive individuals to pursue construction careers through its pre-apprenticeship program. BUILDER talked with Spencer to learn more about her career in construction as well as the work Hope Renovations is doing.

How did you find yourself in the renovation/construction industry?

Completely by accident, which is a story I hear from a LOT of other women in this industry. We tend to not be “invited” in the way that men are, but we find ourselves gravitating to construction at some point.

I was working in human resources for Lowe’s Cos., when my husband, Brian, and I bought our first home. It was a foreclosure and was in need of lots of love. I started looking into renovation costs and realized quickly that if I knew how to do some simple things, I could save a lot of money. So, I took advantage of the employee discount and started buying tools and learning how to do stuff (via a combination of following contractors around and asking them to show me, blogs, and “YouTube University”). Over time it grew into a bit of an obsession—I realized I was good at it. And I began to get annoyed that I’d never considered this as a career … or, more accurately, that I’d never been told it was an option.

As I started getting into more renovations, I began to realize it wasn’t just me … I wasn’t meeting ANY women doing this work. And I was constantly frustrated by the comments from other women in my life who would say, “I love that you know how to do this kind of thing, I could never.” Of course they could … why did we think that? Eventually, that curiosity led to my starting up Hope Renovations.

In a few sentences, what does Hope Renovations do?

We are a nonprofit with a dual mission: We prepare underemployed women and gender-expansive folks for construction careers, and we help older adults age in place. Our nine-week training program empowers our graduates with the skills, resources, and confidence they need to succeed—including four weeks of on-the-job learning alongside our construction crew, carrying out repairs and renovations for seniors. The program is completely free, offers a living stipend to participants, and our construction services are offered on a sliding scale so we can serve clients no matter their income.

Hope Renovations

What are some strategies you believe could help more women want to pursue construction/skilled trades?

Our industry has an exposure problem when it comes to trying to recruit diversity. We say all the time at Hope, “If you can see it, you can be it.” The opposite of that is true, too. If you CAN’T see it, why would you ever think you could be it?

Even though the percentage of women in our industry is low—hovering around 11% (and only about 4% for trades workers)—we’re here. We have been for decades. But when we are girls and young women, construction is not presented to us the way it is for boys and young men. And once we grow up, start working, have families and responsibilities, going back to school for the education you need to move into a brand-new industry can be incredibly difficult.

We have to bridge that access gap for women, helping them move from “I think I’d be good at it, but I don’t know how” to “I can do this.” Mentorship, targeted recruitment (with women interviewers, please), networking opportunities where folks can meet others like them, and training programs like ours are critical to bridging that gap and getting women to consider jobs in this industry.

What are some of the hindrances you see for women wanting to enter the industry?

I think people assume it’s men. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our male allies are critical to our success. … Trust me, they want us here because they understand the severity of the worker gap. In reality, the biggest hindrance we see is lack of confidence. It can feel impossibly daunting to move into a male-dominated industry where we’ve never had a seat at the table, even when you have relevant experience or you’re someone who has a knack for this kind of work.

The key is being part of a supportive network … a “village” of folks (men and women) who want you here and want to encourage and help you along the way. We actually measure self-confidence before folks enroll in our program and after they graduate. The results are astounding—every single graduate of our program has either maintained or increased their personal confidence during our program. Why? Because they’re surrounded by a group of their peers who believe in them, cheer them on, and understand where they’ve come from and where they want to go. The same can be true in a work environment. Ensuring women and diverse groups have peers, mentors, and champions is the key to helping them overcome the confidence barrier so they can be successful.

How do you hope to make an impact on not only women's lives but the individuals you serve?

We’re young—less than four years old. And it’s exciting that in that time, we’ve been able to develop a platform where we are regularly invited to talk about gender diversity in our industry. We’re part of a movement that has really picked up speed in the past few years, and we take our responsibility as part of that movement very seriously: to advocate and engage our industry so we can help folks access these great career opportunities.

But on an individual level, the impact these opportunities have is truly transformational. We’ve had trainees come to us with all kinds of barriers—recently incarcerated, in active substance use recovery, single moms with no resources—and we watch as they go out into the industry, make living wages (sometimes for the first time in their lives), and launch themselves on a sustainable career path they can be proud of. And most important, their kids, their families, their neighbors, their communities … they all get to watch this happen and be inspired. That kind of exposure is how long-term culture change is going to happen.

What are some of the skills women can learn through the pre-apprenticeship program?

Our pre-apprenticeship program offers core construction skills, providing knowledge in safety, tools, materials, blueprint reading, construction math, and general familiarity with carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. We also spend an entire week on career development, coaching our trainees in everything from conflict resolution to teamwork to resume writing and interview skills. And finally, trainees get to spend four weeks working alongside our construction crew, carrying out projects for seniors in our community. That’s where the rubber really meets the road. You learn pretty quickly when you’re building a ramp on a 102-degree day whether you want to be a carpenter.

How can women reshape the trades industry?

Research has proven that diversity is a huge benefit to business. Having diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and thoughts is how we ensure we remain innovative. And for our industry, having a workforce that looks more like the clients we serve is going to ensure that we stay relevant and keep growing. Just imagine, 20 years from now, driving past a construction site and seeing women working … not just a couple, but a lot … and NOT thinking to yourself, “how unusual.” Imagine expecting that—because that’s what our world looks like. That’s the future we’re working toward, and that’s how women will reshape our industry.

What are some traits that women tend to have that can be considered strengths in the field?

Anecdotally, you always hear “women are more detail oriented.” Well, research actually bears that out, so it’s definitely a strength we bring. We also tend to have great soft skills, which are on most employers’ list of most-wanted employee traits (particularly in our industry, where we’ve traditionally had the opposite reputation).

But what I think women bring to the table most when they’re in the field is our perspective. Building means something different to us. Our homes, our churches, our schools, our workplaces—we engage with these spaces in a different way than our male counterparts. That results in a very different lens on what it means to build our world. Personally, I’m a general contractor by trade, but I’m also a social worker by training—and you wouldn’t believe how many other women I meet in this industry who have a similar background in the “helping professions.” The two go together beautifully, and women seem to naturally understand that. In my opinion, that’s something companies should recognize and invest in.

Are there any goals Hope Renovations has set for 2024?

2024 is going to be big for us. We are expanding to two new locations in our region, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau. We’ll be partnering with two community colleges and bringing our classes to their campuses. We’ll also be expanding our construction services as part of this growth. This all means we’ll be able to triple the number of people we serve—and hopefully put ourselves on a path toward further expansion throughout North Carolina and, one day, the entire country.

And on a personal level, I’ve got an expansion of my own happening. I’m due in a couple weeks with my first child, a boy. A future feminist tradesman.