Build It and She Will Come
Celebrating women who are paving the way for next generation of female construction-industry talent.
As we mark Women in Construction Week March 1-7, NKBA applauds the success of all women in the design and construction industry while we seek ways to attract more women to the field. For young girls who have an interest or curiosity in a hands-on career — but who worry that construction is solely a “man’s world” — let us introduce you to three professionals who beg to differ.
Tami Gamble-Gurnell: From Young Girl Discouraged from Taking Shop Class to “Girly Shop Teacher”
Tami Gamble-Gurnell, Certified CTE-Building Trades and Construction Instructor — also known as the “Girly Shop Teacher” — was just six years old when she had her construction career “a-ha moment.” Her epiphany came the day her stepdad was preparing the cement machine to fix their home’s front steps, but
couldn’t get the mixing process to start. When he went inside to call the company, Gamble-Gurnell looked at the machine — sitting straight up — and remembered she’d always seen cement barrels on trucks placed sideways for mixing. She decided to push the cement machine with all her might to a side tilted position, and…the machine started working!
Soon after, she got more involved helping her stepdad fix things around the house, including the water heater and plumbing. But to her dismay, she wasn’t able to get more immersed in her “build and fix” passion at school because, in the 1970s, girls were not encouraged to take shop class. Therefore, pursuing a career in construction was never on Gamble-Gurnell’s radar because it was perceived to be a “man’s job.”
Gamble-Gurnell graduated from Howard University with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Education. She started working with the Houston Achievement Place, helping children learn skills and develop relationships for success in school, at home and in the community. While this position solidified her love of working with kids, she couldn’t shake her yearning to “build and fix.” She left the Houston Achievement Place to homeschool her sons for 10 years before returning to the workforce. During this time, she also resumed her passion for building and construction.
She recalls the stars aligning at the hair salon in 2014, when her stylist informed her about a shop teacher position. Within a week, she received an offer to teach construction at a Texas high school. She also decided to pursue certification in Career and Technical Education to become a building and construction instructor.
Gamble-Gurnell attributes the strong rapport with all her students to her fun, interactive approach in the classroom because “when you are on a construction site, you are constantly moving around and working with other people.” Yet Gamble-Gurnell kept hitting a wall with a tight budget that could barely cover maintenance of older, faltering classroom machines and tools.
In 2019, Gamble-Gurnell decided to step away from the classroom and become an advocate for construction industry education. Calling herself “The Girly Shop Teacher,” she partners with construction companies to teach her hands-on class that provides youth with the hard and soft skills that will prepare them for successful careers.
But, she hasn’t forgotten her former students, nor her love of teaching kids.
Gamble-Gurnell has since re-connected with the high school where she taught to help students prepare for the 2020SkillsUSA competition in the construction sector. She is thrilled that many of her former students have pursued successful careers in design and construction. One of her students received a full scholarship to study construction management at the University of North Texas and she is also among other former students who help Gamble-Gurnell teach her “Girly Shop Teacher” classes.
Serendipity Sends Danielle Bohn on a Journey to Pursue Interior Design
Danielle Bohn, CMKBD, describes her entry into the design industry as “serendipitous,” as she initially wanted to attend an art college to pursue a degree in education. Around the time she realized on numerous college tours that teaching art might not be the right fit for her, she happened to interact with an interior designer at a friend’s house. She began visualizing the space and the designer said: “you really should do interior design.”
Bohn decided to pursue interior design studies in college. She relished the idea she could ignite her creative juices in residential kitchen and bath design and enjoyed developing layouts and space planning to create functional, safe and beautiful places in the home.
Danielle acknowledges the NKBA as the foundation for building her career in the kitchen and bath industry. In fact, she received her first summer internship in Anchorage, Alaska, with Hollie Ruocco, CMKBD, after participating in an NKBA student interior design organization at her college. Ruocco eventually offered her a full-time job. Danielle credits Ruocco with inspiring her deeper involvement with the NKBA chapter in Anchorage and encouraging her to pursue CMKBD certification.
“Continuing education is so important because it allows you to hone your skills as your craft evolves. It also shows your clients and peers the level of knowledge, experience, and professionalism under your belt,” says Bohn. “If you don’t continue to thirst for knowledge, you become stagnant. Constant learning is how you become better.”
Ebony Stephenson: Legos and Barbie Dolls Pave the Way to a Successful Design Career
Ebony Stephenson, CAPS, also found her passion for design ignited as a young girl, attributing it to playing with Legos and Barbie dolls. She asked her parents for a new Barbie “Dream House,” and when they said no, she took an empty cardboard box and built her own. That’s the day she knew she wanted to be involved in design and construction.
In fourth grade, Stephenson began spending half of her time in regular school and the other half at an art school, where she studied architecture. In high school, she spent half of her studies at a vocational school. She eventually enrolled at Virginia Tech, an accredited NKBA institution, where she studied urban planning and landscape architecture as well as kitchen and bath design.
After Stephenson was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue during college, she realized her dorm bathrooms didn’t have shower grab bars or comfort-height toilets. This awareness inspired her to shift her studies completely into kitchen and bath, concentrating on design for aging in place and for people with disabilities to help others lead a safe and independent lifestyle.
After college graduation, Stephenson worked as an architectural designer and kitchen and bath showroom manager. With her medical condition, however, the long hours began to take a toll on her. Therefore, Stephenson decided to put her health first and start her own business, Designs By Ebony.
“As a business owner, I make my hours and do the work in the comfort of my home office. I also get to choose the talented people I want to work with,” says Stephenson. “The perception of the design and construction industry is that you won’t make a lot of money. When I went out on my own, I had the power to pick my ideal projects, and also the power to say ‘no.’ Believe it or not, this approach tripled my project workload!”
Stephenson currently mentors female high school and college students, allowing them to shadow her when she’s on a construction site or at a showroom. Stephenson, who has her CAPS certification, emphasizes how important education is in this industry, where technology is constantly evolving. She also emphasizes that continuing education is critical because it keeps professionals on top of their game; she plans to pursue CLIPP certification this year.
Young Girls Can Rule with Power Tools! Our Professionals Share Their Wisdom
Stephenson believes young girls don’t want to pursue careers in the trades because they are fearful they don’t have a place in this industry. She says we need to teach girls not to be afraid and to demand a level of respect.
Gamble-Gurnell agrees that it’s important to help young girls see the construction industry in a different light — especially if they get push-back in this “male-dominated industry.”
“We need to teach young girls that women can show their feminine side in this industry and be just as proficient with tools as our male counterparts,” Gamble-Gurnell says. “I’m a ‘girly girl’ who loves shoes and painted fingernails… but The Home Depot is my favorite store!”
Bohn encourages young women to take risks: “There’s no right or wrong, and journeys aren’t linear…just look at my story!”
Bohn also says it doesn’t hurt for youth to reach out to companies asking for shadowing opportunities.
“One of the advantages for women in the kitchen and bath industry is there are so many avenues for women to pursue outside of becoming a designer,” adds Bohn. “For example, they can be a product sales representative for cabinetry, appliances or tile. Or, they could pursue a position as a product trainer for a manufacturer or even explore other industry roles, like becoming a general contractor or electrician. The possibilities are endless!”
Adds Stephenson: “I think we’ve lost touch with the starting-from-the-bottom mindset. Be someone’s assistant. Be someone’s intern. If I see young female talent, I’m going to hire you!”
During Women in Construction Week, the NKBA acknowledges the success of Danielle Bohn, Tami Gamble-Gurnell, Ebony Stephenson and all the women in design and construction. As the NKBA aims to recruit and empower desperately needed talent to fill the overabundance of jobs in this industry, it’s stories like these that make it apparent young girls are an essential component for the next generation of design and construction pros.