In 2007, DIY Queen and local resident Jo Behari swapped a desk job for a sledgehammer, and set up the UK’s first all-female home improvement company, Home Jane. Since then, she has gone on to become a Channel 4 TV presenter, author, columnist and screwdriver guru. We spoke to her about helping vulnerable women, Bow’s best hardware store, and smashing up stuff with sledgehammers.
A few weeks ago, Behari’s daughter was asked to draw a picture of someone at work and her daughter drew a builder. A woman. ‘She did it totally independently of me and I was so proud of her,’ Behari says. ‘With her growing up on the doorstep of the Suffragette movement with all of its powerful momentum, it’s just amazing. She knows she can go out and do whatever she wants.’
Behari has been handy around the house from a young age, watching her father do DIY when she was growing up. ‘My dad was quite keen on me being independent and making sure I could do stuff for myself,’ Behari says. She left home at 18 with a suitcase in one hand and a toolkit in the other.
In her early twenties, Behari worked in a fast-paced, corporate job at Deloitte, which made her ‘wholly unsatisfied’. ‘It didn’t make my heart sing,’ she adds. But the income from her marketing job meant she was able to buy a flat in Bethnal Green, so she set about renovating.
‘As much as I wanted to do everything myself, my job didn’t allow me the time to do so,’ Behari says. ‘As a young woman living by myself I often felt very patronised by tradesmen and there was one particular experience where I felt very unsafe. That’s when I started researching all the women out there who were tradespeople, and there were a lot.’
Behari realised that with her marketing experience she could create a business that would showcase these women, a bit like an agent. So she left her job in the City and started Home Jane, the UK’s first home improvement and renovation company that employed just women.
Behari began with three tradespeople: a plumber, a carpenter and a plasterer. ‘I created a company which became an umbrella for them,’ she says. ‘I did all the client sourcing, the invoicing, the marketing, and sent the tradeswomen out to each job. Because I was doing all the administration, they could concentrate on doing their jobs well.’
Initially working out of her home in Bethnal Green, Behari coordinated jobs in the Roman Road area, as well as across London. ‘Tradespeople probably don’t ring you back on time because they were under a bath, trying to rejig some taps, and they’ve probably put your number on the back of a wrapper that some tiles came in.’ Behari filled a gaping hole in the market.
Within a year, Home Jane grew from a team of four to 25, developing its reputation for providing efficient, honest and good-value work. The tradespeople were all still women, but the clients were always mixed.
‘We’ve worked with people in million pound properties to small studio flats‘ Behari says. ‘The range has been vast: from hanging chandeliers which cost thousands of pounds to wallpaper which costs hundreds of quid a roll, to tightening up a leaky tap.’
Because of their all-women employees, Behari and the Home Jane team were also able to work in women’s shelters. ‘We went into hostels where there a lot of vulnerable women, a lot of them there anonymously,’ she says. ‘We would go in and do odd jobs, fixing a loo roll holder or getting some plumbing done. And then when they were transitioning into their own environment, we would go and help them so they knew they had a friendly, familiar woman coming round.’
By this point Home Jane could do everything for you, from putting up shelves, to fixing a bathroom, to rewiring your house. Did they ever come up against any resistance? ‘Surprisingly no,’ says Behari. ‘I thought that when we came to being on site with other contractors that we would be a bit sidelined by male contractors, but they were always very welcoming.’
‘The only time we ever had any negativity was from older women. They’d say, “well, who’s going to do the work?” They just couldn’t get their head around it that women are out there using tools.’
And talking of tools, Behari gets all of hers from Thompson’s on Roman Road. ‘Finding a good local hardware store is invaluable,’ she explains. ‘I love Thompsons. It’s a great little store. You can go in there and say, “I’ve got this weird flibberty-jibbet, I don’t know what to do with, how do I fix it?” And they’ll always give you advice.’
Behari has lived off Roman Road for eight years now, and loves everything from its great advice about hammers to Sylvia Pankhurst’s blue plaque. ‘I love the fact that it’s its own little community – I rarely leave E3 anymore.’
As well as living in Bow, Behari has worked on lots of houses in the area. One major difference about her local projects is the prevalence of modern builds, which, surprisingly, always cause her problems. ‘I’m not a massive fan of a modern build because they put them up really quickly and there are always shortcuts that have been taken,’ Behari says. Instead, she backs ex-local authority properties, which are ‘sturdy, well built and well maintained.’
After the rapid growth of Home Jane, Behari sold the company in 2012 and went on to write two books, present a TV series, project manage builds, write regular magazine columns and have two children.
Today, it is Behari’s workshops that she feels particularly passionate about. In the two hour classes she teaches people how to use a drill, put up shelves, hang blinds, and even put together flat-pack furniture. ‘I love teaching people they can do this stuff themselves and that it’s not scary,’ Behari says. It is confidence, more than anything, that people learn from Behari’s workshops, whether it’s knowing the builder-lingo or getting out the right spanner.
‘I also want to teach them how to speak to tradespeople, what their builder is saying, and secondly, how their house actually works.’ It was initially lots of women that came to the workshops, but as the gender-stigma has died down Behari now sees a mixed crowd.
Among her days project managing big builds, presenting Make, Do and Mend on Channel 4 and authoring two books, what the best bit about her job? ‘I just love demolition,’ Behari says, laughing. ‘I really like taking a sledge hammer to stuff and knocking stuff down.’ What is it that one of the Pankhursts said? Deeds not words.
Jo Behari’s next workshop is on 12 July. Visit her website for more information and to book a place.
If you like this, you might like our piece about local photographer, Zoë Gower-Jones.