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WomanOf the Month 3-08: Judy Browne, Founder and Owner, Workshop for Women LLC
Susan Klann

In 2002, Judy Browne, a manufacturing engineer, left her nearly two-decade-long career to work with Habitat for Humanity for a year. She formalized her commitment to Habitat as an Americorps volunteer, and one of the experiences that most energized her was serving as the assistant construction supervisor for the Women Build house.

Each year an all-women team of volunteers builds one home through Women Build, a subset of the Denver affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. Out of that experience came her inspiration for starting a business teaching classes for women in basic home maintenance and repair.

“Women are different when they are just around women,apostrophe she says. “I saw it on the Habitat Women Build site versus the coed site. They are so much more willing to take risk when they are in a women-only environment. When I started working for Habitat, I realized there was nowhere else for women to learn basic construction skills or home maintenance, and I saw the incredible difference it made in their lives.apostrophe

Today Browne’s business, Workshop for Women, at 47 W. Alameda in Denver, offers ten classes in topics ranging from using basic power tools to dry wall repair, to plumbing, how to hang things on walls and ceilings, to carpentry, basic electrical, closet design, to sprinkler maintenance. She estimates more than 300 women have participated since her launch in September 2005. Students are all ages and come for a wide variety of reasons. Some find themselves solely responsible for the upkeep of their homes, whether because they are single, widowed, or have a spouse who’s not interested or doesn’t have time to deal with home repairs or needs. Others are small business owners who want to be able to maintain their spaces themselves, or real estate stagers who want to offer additional services, such as basic dry wall repair, to clients. Some just want to be able to speak with authority to repair personnel, lessen the chance of getting ripped off, and understand the terminology they are confronted with when they go to the hardware store.

“What women enjoy is the environment where they can feel comfortable with giving basic repairs a try and knowing no-one will critique what they’ve done,apostrophe says Browne. All the classes are hands-on with students set up at individual workstations so they can practice installing a toilet-paper holder on a piece of dry wall, for example, with the appropriate tools and fasteners. Browne reviews all terminology and provides a manual of everything covered in the class for students to take home.

“We discuss where you use power tools, what everything on the drill is for, how to use a circular saw—women are intimidated by a saw and don’t know how to use one,apostrophe says Browne. “Electricity also brings up a lot of fear. I have boards where women replace a receptacle, install a dimmer switch, plug it in, and can make sure they did it right. It’s as close to what they would experience at home, and it’s in a house.apostrophe In the carpentry class, women learn how to measure, use a chalkline, look at basic drawings, and emerge from the effort having made a toolbox.

Browne’s business is in a bungalow she purchased and renovated for the purpose of teaching her classes. Because part of her mission is to help women network, she has also recently started up monthly “meet-upapostrophe groups with free speakers. Nearly 50 women have already signed up; the meetings are limited to 20 attendees so it’s on a first-come, first-serve basis. The first speaker addressed the evils of water damage, and another duo shared information about real estate staging and steps to organizing your home.

Browne encourages students to volunteer for Women Build, an organization she is still deeply involved with and which as part of Habitat for Humanity played such an important role in shifting the direction of her life.

A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Browne held stimulating jobs in the manufacturing industry after graduating from Penn State with a degree in mechanical engineering. As a woman pursuing that degree she was one of less than 5% of the total graduates in the major, but when she started her first job in Pueblo, Colo., with Sperry, all that mattered was if you were good at your job, she recalls. “We had very forward-thinking management, and they were just happy for competent people, there was no gender stuff.apostrophe Browne had moved out to Colorado with her identical twin sister, also an engineer, after falling in love with the state during a visit in college.

She moved to Denver after several years to take a job with Norgren, a company that was “heavenapostrophe for a manufacturing engineer, she says. “We did everything ourselves, from zinc and aluminum dyecasting to machining, automated assembly, etc. You could learn so many different processes—things that you could spend 50 years at another company and not learn all of them.apostrophe

After 16 years, however, as middle-age approached and her daughter graduated from high school, Browne began searching for that “something more.apostrophe She had always worked a four -day, 10-hour-a day work week, so she began volunteering on Fridays through her church with Habitat for Humanity. “I fell in love with it,apostrophe she says. “I loved construction. I couldn’t wait for Fridays.apostrophe The volunteers were building a series of townhomes , and Browne became involved in framing, installing windows, landscaping, and more. When she discovered they used Americorps volunteers she realized joining would be a way to formalize her commitment and become a more integral part of the construction process. There were some concerns, however. The Americorps “kidsapostrophe were largely twenty-somethings, and she needed to figure out if she could financially survive for a year as an Americorps volunteer. She also had to apply and be selected.

A Habitat for Humanity construction manager who had joined Americorps when he was 38, volunteered for two years, and is currently a construction manager for Habitat for Humanity, told her in no uncertain terms, “do it—it changed my life.apostrophe He also helped her figure out the logistics and financial strategy to make it happen. She sold her house and moved into a smaller home, stepped up her savings plan, cashed out of a house she’d invested in with her sister, and in the process, freaked out her daughter. “She wondered what I was doing—it wasn’t in my character, I don’t do things on a whim,apostrophe says Browne. “But once I got going I was so happy it actually was easier for her.apostrophe Americorps gave her the nod, and in 2003-2004 she helped build four houses, including the Women Build house, where the idea to teach women basic construction skills began to germinate. “I showed one woman how to install doorknobs, because her job for the day was to put doorknobs on all the interior doors of the house,apostrophe says Browne. “She had no id