This Nurse Wears a Tool Belt
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As a nurse, Beth Allen fixed people's health problems. After taking time off to raise a family, she returned to her fix-it roots -- this time focusing on problems with people's sinks, windows and doors.
Last summer she launched a business as a handywoman -- with a twist. She makes house calls to repair leaky pipes and takes time to explain each step of her projects so that the woman of the house can fix it herself next time. Allen also teaches DIY workshops geared toward women.
Allen got the idea for her new career after spending time running an interior design company. Visiting homes, she realized that many of the women she met had no idea how to do basic home repairs. "I saw there was a need and interest," the 40-year-old suburban Philadelphia resident says.
But having a good idea doesn't translate to instant success. She needed visibility for her new enterprise, HIP Chicks, so she hired a website designer and began using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. (HIP stands for Home Improvement Projects.) Being unaware of a similar business model, she created a hands-on company that is part service industry and part educational. "I am learning as I go but have the support of a few key smart advisors," she says.
Allen conducts workshops at home improvement stores and community centers. The workshops are a spinoff of home repair classes she began teaching three years ago after contacting local adult evening schools. One class offers "quick, inexpensive fixes to deal with things that pop up," like a jammed garbage disposal or a light bulb broken in the socket. Another course focuses on tools, as well as "all that tidbitty stuff in the hardware aisle that you walk down and go, 'I have no idea what that thing is.'"
"She comes in prepared and has a lot more material than she can ever cover in the two hours," says MaryEllen Huie, director of the Hatboro-Horsham adult evening school. "People always want more; they always want to talk to her after class."
Allen's classes are open to both men and women, but her in-home handywoman services are for women only.
"I feel so passionately that women need to know how to manage on their own," she says. "I grew up with a strong mom who taught me to be independent. I want people to be self-reliant and to have the skills to fix things without panicking. If they do choose to hire a contractor, they can have an intelligent conversation so they feel they are getting the quality and price they deserve for the situation."
Susan Singer hired Allen to update the kitchen in her Maple Glen, Pa., home. Allen put wainscoting outside the cabinets, installed a new tile backsplash and transformed a cabinet with a broken door into an open "cookbook nook," framed with wood. "She was full of great ideas," Singer says.
Clients often come to her from word-of-mouth referrals or through her classes. Sales are "not where I want it to be," she says, but she's focusing on developing herself as a resource. She talks about creating a line of tools for women and perhaps hosting a television show. She's appeared on two Philadelphia television programs, writes a column for Hatboro-Horsham Patch, an online news site, and is working on a how-to book.
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Allen, who previously worked as a registered nurse for seven years, including as director of nursing at a retirement facility, left her career to be a stay-at-home mom to her three sons.
"I was just 'mom' for seven years," she says. "I absolutely loved every minute of it. And if you asked me five or six years ago, I never had any aspiration for more. But as my kids started to get a little more mature and need me a little less, I found I wanted something that was for me and about me."
Now she relishes the challenge of learning about business operations and developing new skills, like public speaking.
"You have to live passionately and go after things that matter to you," she says. "It's a new stage. I feel like I have nothing more ahead of me than potential."
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