Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg maybe be urging women to "lean in" to their careers to achieve their goals, but Norma Serrano Williams is inspiring them with scaffolding and a paint brush.
“I thought the world was ready for a woman contractor who came into a house and didn’t talk down to women clients,” says Williams, owner of Excellence By Design, a residential and commercial paint contractor who hires women.
“I am up against men who have doing this longer than I’ve had a drivers license, which can be intimidating. The priority for me is growing a business slowly and methodically with all the dedication it needs for the long haul. You do that by connecting with each client as if they are the only one you have.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that through 2022 the painting industry will have a growth rate of nearly 20 percent, which is almost double the 11 percent average growth rate for other professions.
The Lew Wallace graduate, who started her small business out of necessity after her marriage ended, says her revenues have grown 300 percent in the last 12 months compared to 2012 after getting two guaranteed contracts.
“It felt like perpetual Christmas,” she says. “There isn’t a word to describe the feeling when you have been struggling for so long. It means buying groceries is no longer an issue.”
When she started the business nine years ago, she was a single mother with three children. She had dropped out of ill fitting jobs in corporate America and learned the trade on her own in order to feed her family.
Today she purposely hires women who are going through tough times and often have no experience. She has hired and trained more than two dozen women, some of which have gone on to start their own companies.
“My goal is not to see a total transformation,” Williams says. “For some, their hurt is big. My goal is to love on them while they are with me, let them know I am always there for them and to help them follow their own path to happiness.”
Rhese Fallon, 37, worked for Williams and in the process learned to reclaim and trust her intuition, which enabled her to get her own business rolling, a Merrillville-based residential and business cleaning firm called iClean. “She’s all about empowering women,” says Fallon.
“Working for her was a godsend. It was exactly what I needed when I needed it and it was coming from a very strong woman with a big heart. I was going through a tough time and she reminded me what I was capable of doing. I needed to hear that from somebody else besides myself.”
Williams is equally as passionate about empowering young girls. She has mentored young women who may come from disadvantaged circumstances and tries to make a positive impact on their future while teaching them a valuable skill.
She and members of her crew in 2013 trained six girls from the The Boys & Girls Club of Northwest Indiana’s Keystone Club program. The group painted the tech center at the Hammond Club.
Robert Montgomery, interim Vice President of Development and Marketing for the Boys & Girls Club, says Williams allows the girls to explore new parts of themselves and say goodbye to old stories and patterns. “She helps open their eyes to whatever dreams they may have,” he says.
“Their lives are challenging because nine times out of 10 the people that are supposed to be building them up are tearing them down. Williams’ mentoring helps them to visualize someone getting her self worth from herself instead of the world because the world would have told her she wasn’t good enough.”
Montgomery says Williams allows the girls to unleash their authenticity. “She goes against the grain,” he says. “You never see an all woman paint crew, and I don’t see very many women at all in construction or labor. She’s blazing the trail being a native of Gary – to grow up and be something no one would ever imagine. I think that’s remarkable.”
Williams in March received the Urban League of Northwest Indiana’s Workplace Diversity Award. She is ecstatic to have earned her recent contracts but insists the benefits aren’t always measured in dollars.
“I am a rich woman because I have some incredible women in my life that I get to bless,” she says. “I live a great life with my children and I am happy. Every day of my life makes a difference in somebody else’s life.”