CROWN POINT | At 22, Norma Williams was a single parent and unhappy in corporate America while working in poorly fitting administrative jobs, until one day when she opened up a Martha Stewart magazine and heard the sounds of harps and angels.
"It was like a light bulb went off over my head and all the heavens opened up and started shining down," said the now-42-year-old Williams, a painting contractor and owner of Excellence By Design LLC.
"She was masterful at using her hands. I thought if she could, so could I. Whatever she cooked, I cooked. Whatever she baked, I baked. When I saw her transform a piece of furniture, I ran to Goodwill to buy a bedroom set to stain and strip. That was the start of it for me."
Williams got married, had two more children and was the painter for her husband's handyman business. Her marriage ended, and out of necessity she started Excellence By Design in 2005. Times were tough and she applied for public aid to support her children.
Stewart once said she could almost bend steel with her mind and Williams seems to have the mental resolve and determination of the exalted homemaker she idolized. She decided to work for herself and was off public aid within a year.
"I had no idea what starting my own business was going to encompass," she said. "I printed some flyers, put my newborn babies in a stroller and walked on foot." Today, her business is growing and she is also mentoring and empowering women.
Williams, a Gary native and Lew Wallace graduate, is working with Purdue University Calumet, Indiana University Northwest and Ivy Tech to increase the awareness of women in construction. She currently has two paid student internship employees.
"I get the same response from people now as I did six years ago," she said. "They grasp that I can pick the right paint color and paint the walls but, even though this is a new millennium, they have a hard time conceptualizing that I also carry in the scaffolding and do the grunge work."
Her business card has a picture of a woman wearing overalls and a string of pearls. Her mother, who raised five children while working full–time at a hospital, is her role model. "This is what propels me to do community work and inspire women.
"She never expected a handout or said 'woe is me.' It's a farmer's mentality. We all got up at 4 a.m. and helped. Hundreds of years ago there were no spoiled American teenagers. On the farm, everybody – no matter how young – worked."
Williams is also involved in a program at the Gary Area Career Center where she will mentor high schoolers interested in the building trades. Eventually, the teens will be able to job shadow Williams in the summer months.
"I come from their community and tell them I was on welfare," she said. "They listen to me because they can relate to me. I want them to know it can be a pit stop and that it doesn't have to be their destiny."
Williams said critical to teach young women, some who may become single parents, how to navigate their way through life.
"There is nothing they can't do," she said. "I want to love these girls first, and then give them an opportunity to have a voice and inspire them for greatness."