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Double Tar Heel Nora El-Khouri Spencer named a Top 10 CNN Hero of the Year

(Photo by News and Observer)

UNC School of Social Work 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award winner Nora El-Khouri Spencer, MSW ’17, a 2001 graduate of Carolina’s journalism school, is the founder and CEO of Hope Renovations in Carrboro, N.C.

Last spring, Spencer was featured in a CNN Hero series about “everyday people doing extraordinary things to change the world.” In November, CNN added her to its Top 10 CNN Heroes of the Year roster, putting her in the running for the 2022 Hero of the Year award, with prize funding of more than $110,000.

In a live broadcast event from New York City on Dec. 11, Spencer was recognized for her work in launching the nonprofit in 2020 to empower women, via a hands-on training program, to pursue living-wage jobs in the construction trades. Through Hope Renovations, trainees provide repairs and renovations to the homes of older adults, enabling them to age in place within their own communities.

We spoke with Spencer prior to the event and although she did not win the top CNN Hero of the Year award, she raised additional awareness for her organization, which she eventually hopes to replicate across the country.

The following was edited for length and clarity.

You were born in Fayetteville six years after your father graduated from Carolina. Did that influence your decision to study at Carolina after graduating from West Rowan High School in Salisbury?

I’ve been hanging out on campus since I was a little girl. My Dad taught classes at UNC Public Safety, and my husband Brian and I became Rams Club members five years ago. One of my earliest memories is playing under what were the student bleachers at Kenan Stadium during a Carolina football game. So yes, there was never a doubt in my mind! As a matter of fact, Carolina was the only college I applied to — if I didn’t get in, I wasn’t going anywhere (laughs).

I was a big theater person in middle school and high school, and I’ve always had a strong interest in writing. I originally intended to double-major in drama and journalism at Carolina but quickly realized I needed to focus. I narrowed it down to journalism. I was supported by a Johnston Scholarship during those undergraduate years.

Since you launched Hope Renovations in Carrboro in 2020, you and your team have had the chance to tell your story on the local news, in an AARP video spotlight, and even on The Drew Barrymore Show—twice! You look like such a natural on TV. Is that because you had some broadcast experience while working toward your 2001 undergraduate degree at Carolina; or is it more about your first job in Charlotte?

Those appearances on Drew’s show are fun!

After a short interview, I taught everyone how to fix a leaky faucet. I returned in November to demonstrate how to securely mount a TV on the wall. I’m excited to head back to see Drew at the NYC studios in January.

Yes, I graduated in what was called the “electronic journalism” track [now the broadcast journalism track at UNC Hussman] and landed a dream job as an associate producer at WSOC-TV in Charlotte right after graduating in 2001.

Later in life, during my years as a corporate recruiter with Lowe’s Home Improvement and then IBM, I advised all of the college students I met to do an internship in the area they thought they wanted to go into. But I never had that opportunity, and was thrown into the deep end with that first job! At WSOC, with September 11 happening about one month after my first day on the job, everything about being a network news producer was amplified by 100 — and it weeded me out pretty quickly. I realized I wasn’t cut out for the job.

But both of those experiences ended up preparing me for the work I’m doing now to promote what we do at Hope Renovations.

I read that your employee discount at Lowe’s motivated you to start doing your own home repairs back in the day. Tell us about that career transition into recruiting.

I just happened into recruiting. I was temporarily working for a staffing agency after leaving the TV news job. My communication skills and college experience were extremely useful there, and I hadn’t been there long when I started helping with recruiting. I spent nearly 15 years in recruiting, and many of my colleagues were journalism, media and communications majors. We had the skills to read people; quickly assess what they were interested in; and understand what might intrigue them about what we had to offer. And it was a way of helping people find the right career fit — that part was very rewarding.

What motivated you to come back to Chapel Hill 13 years after you graduated to pursue an MSW degree in the School of Social Work’s three-year degree program?

I was ready to explore what was next for me.

As you hinted at earlier, I’d become a self-taught tradeswoman after trying my hand at a lot of renovations and buying lots of discounted tools. And my recruitment work had given me a chance to focus on women’s empowerment in the workforce. Combining those passions was on my mind as I looked for the next opportunity.

I still had strong ties to Carolina. After considering my options, I landed at the UNC School of Social Work because I realized that the thing I most wanted to learn about was social justice and how to be an effective advocate for change. That’s what drew me to the School.

The three-year MSW program gave me the flexibility to work part-time for IBM, and later at the UNC Undergraduate Admissions office, while I was taking graduate level classes and doing my field placements. I was also the recipient of a Joan Phillips-Trimmer Scholarship during that time.

I continued gravitating toward organizing and advocacy in graduate school. That’s one of the great things about the School of Social Work! I had the choice of macro-focused or direct practice concentration, and the former [Community, Management and Policy Practice] was a great fit for me.

How did your idea — for a non-profit that helps train women for living-wage jobs and provides elderly clients with home repairs and renovations that allow them to age-in-place — come about while you were at Carolina?

In my last year at the School of Social Work, Professor Gary Nelson started a Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab. Beth Lowder and I were the interns who helped get that lab off the ground [editor’s note: Lowder is now Innovation Program Manager at the School].

We wrote a business plan, strategized together, and consulted with community organizations. Those learning experiences really drove home the fact that social entrepreneurship was a good fit for me.

Beth was instrumental when it came to figuring out how that would translate to my interests. For example, she knew I wanted to get more women into the construction trades. She asked, “What about a training program?”

Then I took a class at Kenan-Flagler Business School on social entrepreneurship with Professor James Johnson Jr. One day, co-instructor Heather Altman, an adjunct faculty member from the Gillings School of Global Public Health, told us we were all going to create a venture with a focus on aging.

‘That doesn’t really fit with my construction plans,’ I thought. ‘But I’ll stick around and learn something.’

Three classes later, Dr. Johnson mentioned that repairing and renovating homes to allow inhabitants to age-in-place was the fastest-growing niche of the construction business.

An explosion went off in my brain!

I emailed my husband while sitting in class that night with the whole idea [for Hope Renovations] fleshed out in the email and the subject line “Read this! I’m serious!”

My team framed that email and signed it. They gave it to me for the organization’s first anniversary. It’s hanging on the wall in my office right now.

And to circle back, Heather Altman is who nominated me for the original CNN Local Heroes feature!

So you graduated with an MSW from UNC in 2017 and launched Hope Renovations in 2020. Then what happened?

When we launched in 2020, we had four staff members. Today, we have 15. Our revenue has grown sixfold since then. And I’d like to continue growing!

Back in 2017, I talked a lot with Professor Gary Nelson and with my mentor Carl Baumann, a big supporter of and board member at the School of Social Work, who eventually also served on my Hope Renovations board. They both drove home the fact that if I knew I wanted to scale and replicate the model, I needed to create it that way from the start.

Carl helped me write the original 56-page business plan and it ensured that one day, we could pick it up anywhere in the country, all over the country. We’re making some changes this winter to more effectively reach the right people, and our next cohort will receive a living wage stipend during their hands-on training and an hourly wage during their internship.

That reflects something we learned at the School: Providing services or things they need to under-served people is great. But giving them the resources to be self-sufficient is even better. So we’re moving to provide hands-on skills, work experience and the funds to address those barriers that make it hard to try to gain better employment while you are making ends meet for yourself or your family.

So when the kitchen faucet needs to be replaced at your house nowadays, who does the repair?

Me, of course (laughs)! Brian is a very good assistant. He’s great at carrying things and cleaning up after me.