Hope Renovations Founder and CEO Empowers Women to Build Careers in Construction Industries

Share This!

Nora El-Khouri Spencer’s nonprofit prepares women for jobs in construction trades

Nora El-Khouri Spencer, founder and CEO of Hope Renovations

By Emily Davis | Photography by John-Michael Simpson

As a former recruiter for companies like Lowe’s and IBM, Nora El-Khouri Spencer has a passion for bringing women into these male-dominated spaces. She attributes her Lowe’s employee discount to helping her discover an additional passion for DIY home repair and remodeling. So when Nora left the corporate world to pursue a master’s degree at UNC’s School of Social Work – her undergraduate alma mater – she saw an opportunity to merge the two interests in a nonprofit.

Hope Renovations prepares women for careers in the construction trades with hands-on training and community-centered projects. Nora incorporated the nonprofit in 2017, the same year she finished her master’s. It officially launched in 2020.

The program runs for 15 weeks, including nine weeks of hands-on training in the workshop and a six-week paid internship with the Hope Renovations construction crew, which is made up of women and nonbinary people. The crew works three days a week on aging-in-place projects, which provide critical repairs and renovations, such as wheelchair ramps, comfort-height toilets, lowered countertops and widened doorways, that allow older adults to stay in their homes as they age.

Nora saw the opportunity to incorporate an aging-in-place component into the model of Hope Renovations during a social entrepreneurship course during her master’s studies. She learned how much people’s quality of life can be improved when they can age in their own home, but such jobs are a neglected niche in the construction industry. “It really was a lightbulb moment,” Nora says. Her early idea for a nonprofit that trains women in construction took its final form during this time. “It dawned on me that we’d need a great hands-on training opportunity for this training program,” she recalls. “[I figured] why not make it aging-in-place so that we can fill this gap and learn while they’re doing it?” Over the past two years, the crew has completed nearly 200 jobs.

The cohort participants have ranged in age from 20 to 62 and are highly diverse. “We’ve had everyone from a single mom in the rural part of the county to a Ph.D. [student] who was just looking for a new opportunity,” Nora says. Plenty of the participants have struggled with barriers to secure employment. They may have criminal backgrounds or be in recovery. Nora says the key to their success in the program is the confidence and support that it focuses on fostering. In addition to hard skills, students receive training in networking, interviewing and intercommunication skills. So far, three-quarters of the 61 graduates have gained employment in the industry.

Nora El-Khouri Spencer and Bri Kaplan building dog houses to hone their construction skills.
Nora chats with trainee Bri Kaplan while the crew practices woodworking. As part of their training, the cohort builds dog houses to hone their construction skills.

Since its 2020 launch, the nonprofit has received national attention and widespread support. She has received calls from all over the world, from Nevada to Ghana, seeking to replicate Hope Renovation’s model. Last year, Nora was honored as one of 10 CNN Heroes, and recently, she was awarded The National Association of Home Builders’ Woman of the Year award. Her rapid success, although gratifying, is also her biggest challenge.

“It’s all fantastic and better than I ever could have expected, but it’s really hard to manage all that as a startup,” Nora says.

When she was a recruiter, she says one of her bosses impressed upon her the importance of not only hiring for skills, but hiring for passion. This advice helped her build a lasting leadership team that has carried the nonprofit through a hectic 2 1⁄2 years. “I have a team of 16 incredible people who are totally passionate about what we’re doing,” she says.

With all that’s on her plate, Nora jokes that her favorite hobby is Hope Renovations. When she does find the time to relax, though, she enjoys gardening, beach vacations and exercises classes at SPENGA. As a double Tar Heel, she also loves to attend UNC sporting events with her husband, Brian Spencer.

“Chapel Hill has always had a magic for me,” Nora says. “To be able to be back here, running this dream organization and helping people, I’m a very, very lucky person.”

Share This!

Chapel Hill Mag Intern

Scroll to Top