Belinda Harford stood in front of six women at a wood shop and garage off Amnicola Highway one week day evening in January and began teaching the group how to attach brackets to a shelf.
Harford is a tall woman with a thick accent that is a mix of the two places she grew up and then later lived — South Africa and Australia. She wore cowgirl boots, bedazzled jeans, a snake-skin patterned shirt and her long, blonde hair was tied to the side and adorned with colorful feathers. Her fingernails were painted bright red, and she wore a fringed leather tool belt around her waist.
While Harford doesn't look like the stereotypical contractor, she has over 30 years of experience in building and remodeling and learned everything she knows from her dad. It turns out they were good skills to have when she became a single mom later in life, she said.
"I never have a man, but even when I had a man, I was always the handy woman," she joked to the class.
I never have a man, but even when I had a man, I was always the handy woman
Harford was the instructor for the "Creative Shelf Hanging" workshop organized by Women Repair Zone, a new business in Chattanooga founded by Bea Lurie, the former president and CEO of Girls Inc. of Chattanooga. The mission of Women Repair Zone is to have women instructors teach other women how to make basic home and auto repairs, which many women are traditionally not taught.
Lurie had a different experience with building than Harford. She was told by her father at a young age that remodeling and repairing were not things that girls needed to learn. When she was 10, her dad began renovating the family's basement, but when Lurie asked to help, her father turned her down.
"I was devastated," she recalled. "I was mortally wounded. I went back a week later, and he said the same thing."
As she got older and married, Lurie bought older homes in New York and Chattanooga and had to make calls for all of the repairs because neither she or her husband knew how to do them.
"It bothered me because I should be able to do basic auto repairs and maintenance and basic home improvement and repairs," Lurie explained. "It's expensive hiring people."
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Lurie said her experience as a young girl planted a seed in her mind for this business idea decades later, and it became the root of her feminism beliefs today. When she left Girls Inc. in January 2017, she began formulating a business plan, taking business courses in town and talking to female business owners.
In her research, Lurie learned that people are choosing to stay in their homes longer and longer, and that women-only spaces make women feel more supported and at ease to ask questions and try new things.
While many men have come to her since she launched the business in June 2018 saying they would like to participate in a workshop, Lurie has stuck to her original business plan of only allowing women to take them. She explained how the dynamics of a room change when a man is there, citing her own experience at a larger home improvement store where one man tried to talk over and correct the female instructor and students in a tiling workshop.
"Not all men do that, but you don't want somebody in the room who is going to do that," Lurie said. "You want women feeling comfortable to ask any question no matter what it is."
Down the road, Lurie said it's possible she might create workshops for men that are taught by men. She also hopes to franchise the idea to other cities and see the business grow. Currently, the staff includes just Lurie and a part-time director of operations, Julie Heavner Thurman.
The creative shelf-hanging workshop had women of all ages there, some newly married, some single and others who were retired. Lurie stood up at the very beginning and made it clear that every question was a good question over the next two hours and everyone was allowed to make mistakes.
The women learned everything from how to find a stud in the wall to how to use a jig saw. They made their own shelf, were taught the differences between the different types of screws, how to attach a drill bit and the best kind of varnish to buy among other things.
This was the second workshop 24-year-old Emily Scheevel had attended after learning about Women Repair Zone on Facebook. The first one she went to with her best friend and was about how to improve a home's curb appeal.
Scheevel said she wanted to take the shelf-hanging class, so she could overcome her fear of drills.
"I'm scared to death of drills," she said at the start.
But by the end of the two hours, Scheevel felt comfortable enough to use the drill by herself to attach brackets to her new shelf.
April Steele, 38, isn't a homeowner but said she wanted to take the class because she wants to start woodworking.
"I just want to make a hobby out of it," Steele said. "I always wanted to make furniture."
Steele plans to take more workshops with Women Repair Zone, including the "Tiling a Kitchen Backsplash like a Pro" class on Feb. 11 with her mom.
Workshops are focused on topics such as furniture repair, plumbing basics, starting a spring garden, how to change a tire, how to improve your home's curb appeal, how to not get ripped off by a contractor and/or a mechanic and more. The hands-on workshops range from $60-$70 and have an eight-person limit while lecture-based workshops are usually around $30-$45 and have a 10-person limit, Lurie said. For all the classes, there is a cut-off point where the class goes up $5 three days in advance.
The goal is to keep all classes small and intimate.
"We are trying to balance the camaraderie piece, everyone having the opportunity to ask all the questions they want to ask and having the right space to do it," Lurie said.
Lurie is trying to raise money to build out her own space for the all of the workshops, but at the moment, Women Repair Zone meets at different locations around Chattanooga based on the topic. Lurie has a partnership with Kelly Subaru for the auto repair and mainentance classes.
"The workshops are just really fun," she said. "There's nothing more powerful to me than watching somebody who thought they couldn't do something learning how to do that skill."
Contact staff writer Allison Shirk Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org, @AllisonSCollins or 423-757-6651.