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Thirty years ago, Jay Barnhart purchased a two-family home along with another single mom in Boston, Massachusetts. After doing much of the renovation work on the house herself she realized she had a knack for home improvement and design. She founded Jay B Home Decor and hasn’t looked back since. After three decades in business, she’s living in Eagle River, Alaska and hoping to pave the way for other women in the construction industry.

Barnhart’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:

I was a single mom in the early 80’s and purchased a two-family home with another single mom after we received a government grant for the target neighborhood we lived in. We had to do a lot of the work ourselves. There, I discovered I had a talent. I began my business in 1984 and felt I had to push through in this line of home restoration because no females did this kind of work. I came across a man who took me under his wing and taught me everything about houses. While working with him he told me he built a house for Nelson Rockefeller while he was vice president – I had no idea who Rockefeller was. I know I learned from the best. Now I will be passing this knowledge forward in video form to teach what I have been doing all these years, so I can give others knowledge so they can seek employment, start their own business or do their own kitchens. It’s been my passion all these years and it took me on journey I never thought I could have had. I hope I have helped pave the way for women. 

For me success was finally being accepted as a female in this type of business. It took many years to get to that point. Another success was giving myself a nice hefty raise because the $3.65 an hour could not support me and my two children. The $15.00 an hour to the $70 an hour rate of today, is success for me. Third, I do quality work and I have something that people like and want and therefore have hired me without any doubt that I could do the job. Lastly, being in this business for 34 years and loving it every last day – I would say that is success in and of itself. 

“I began my business in 1984 and felt I had to push through in this line of home restoration because no females did this kind of work.”

– Jay Barnhart, Founder of Jay B Home Decor

My highest achievement was being invited to a round table with the head of SBA from Washington DC, Maria Contreras-Sweet, under the Obama administration in Anchorage, Alaska. I felt I had accomplished so much. Because I followed my heart, I pushed and fought through it and became respected because of it. I have become friends with many of my clients.

My top challenge was being chosen to work on a school in the 80’s. The contractor who hired me and my crew of 16 at the time (I did construction for three years) decided for the heck of it that the added work that we did, was not going to be paid for. The man who owned this company was a lawyer in Boston and he just told me, “I know I owe you but I am not going to pay you.” I was very intimated by this man. Even so, I took him to court. I knew I would win because I had learned to log everything on a daily basis and that because I was a minority and a small company that he would look foolish. I think he knew it too, because it never went to court and I got my due payments. I had many challenges but to me this whole job and the way I was treated by the owner of the company and the men on the job site was the biggest challenge. But by the end of the job, most of them cheered me on because I stuck it out. 

I am starting to create videos that teach others what I have learnt. These videos will teach anyone how to do what I did and with great confidence. My hopes for these videos it to give others job possibilities and maybe even a business one day. If not then, home-owners can follow these videos and save a ton of money. I am so very grateful I stuck with it through the thick of it. And maybe some women may even get further than I did. I will also be having a web site made to sell these tutorials and will be doing consulting all over the country via Facebook and Skype. I am very excited that I get to stay in this business, but in a different way. 

Bill Ricci is my role model. The man who built the home for Nelson Rockefeller. I loved him. He was so calm and patient, he taught me so much. Precision, perfection, how to treat clients. He taught me everything about houses and we even built an Italian Bocce Ball court together in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. He was the kindest man I ever met. He brought me a banana every day for years. He invited me into his home and we became lifelong friends until he passed at age 90 last year. He and his wife kind of adopted me. His wisdom, his caring, his knowledge, his teachings and asking me my opinion. The first day we worked together I told him as a child the nuns had us keep silent for 3 hours on Good Friday, he said, “lets do that.” I must have talked a lot. We worked so well together. He hired me off an on for 11 years. The last time I spoke to him was on the Good Friday before he passed away, our anniversary. I have tutorial videos in the making right now and they will be dedicated to him.

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