On Wednesdays, we feature women working in construction and trade
This week, we interviewed Christina Valentine, multi-talented tradeswoman extraordinaire, the first woman to have ever been in Screwfix Britain’s Top Tradesperson Competition finals twice and founder of the Tools for Life: Trade Skills Academy for Women project.
Hi Christina, thank you for taking the time to chat to us. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?
I’m a multi skilled tradeswoman with over 30 years experience refurbishing residential and commercial properties all over London from the most prestigious homes to doing free charitable work.
Over the years I’ve refurbished numerous properties completely by myself apart from doing gas and major electrical works for clients as well as doing auction properties with investors.
I left London in 2013 and came back in late 2018, so I’m rebuilding my business and client base. I’m building a select team of tradeswomen to bring in on my jobs, as clients love having women do their jobs.
You have an impressive range of skills that you’ve developed over the years. Did you always see yourself becoming a tradeswoman?
I ended up being a tradeswomen more by chance than anything else.
My dad was a builder so I grew up always doing work on our house and other houses with him.
At age 12 Dad and I replaced the roof of the house. We were pretty poor and lived a terraced house and we couldn’t afford proper scaffolding, just a small scaffold tower at the front of the house.
I happily scampered up on to the roof via the scaffold tower or up the back of the house over the kitchen roof and up a ladder and helped lay the tiles. Had I have fallen off the roof, if I wasn’t lucky enough to land on the scaffold tower I would have fallen to the ground!
So, I pretty much grew up with little fear or limiting beliefs about what girls can do.
How did you get in to your trade?
I formally trained as a carpenter/joiner at 21 and then City & Guilds Painting and Decorating at 23 and excelled in both.
I moved to London at 27 with my daughter Daisy who was just 15 months old. I’ve always been a single parent as I’m a lesbian and just wanted a child.
Again, me being me and not having limiting beliefs about what I can achieve, knowing I wanted a baby I just had to work out a way to achieve it. Simple, find a suitable willing man and sleep with him…thankfully just 3 times and I was pregnant with Daisy.
So off Daisy and I went to London and we moved into a lesbian shared household in North London. I put decorating adverts in the then Pink Paper (gay and lesbian news paper) advertising my services and the phone never stopped ringing.
Housemates took the calls and I’d go off in the evenings with Daisy to do my quotes. Not one single customer ever had an issue with me being a female tradesperson and turning up with my baby to do the quotes!
So you’ve trained in carpentry and decorating! Have you got any other skills under your belt?
Over the years I have learnt several other trades out of both interest and necessity.
Often I’d be on a job and other tradespeople weren’t available when needed so I learnt that trade in order to complete the job. Other times it was when I would be asked by customers if I could put right shoddy workmanship done by other people.
One of my specialities is snagging other peoples poor quality work to help solve major problems for clients. It’s like doing invisible mending and is highly skilled work.
I’m able to do it in a manner whereby I do it in the quickest time possible without ripping out and replacing anything whenever possible. This saves the client huge amounts of time and money and reduces their stress levels as much as is possible in the given situation.
Would you ever want to change career paths, from tradeswoman, to something else?
At 38 I went to Ravensbourne Uni and did a degree in Interior Design and Environmental Architecture, thinking I’d come off the tools and get a job in a design office afterwards.
However, I realised I love being on the tools and hated being behind a computer. I couldn’t understand why I excelled in the workshop at Uni and struggled learning computer programs, so I was tested for dyslexia and found out that I am in fact dyslexic!
This is a great gift. I believe it’s what makes me an incredible tradeswoman, as I think in pictures (3D) not words (2D).
I won several awards while at Uni, including national student lighting designer of the year. The previous year I won 3rd place with a different lighting design, but me being me, that wasn’t good enough so I entered again the following year and that’s when I won 1st place.
I also won 2 Emerald Fund Awards from the London Development Agency for two products that I designed.
One of the products is a safety ladder that can be used on staircases to enable greater reach height with greater safety to reduce the risk of falls from height. This product has been patented and has since won an Innovation Award from Screwfix.
It sounds like you did some amazing things at uni. What did you do when you left?
I left Uni and went straight back on the tools and did auction property buying and flipping with investors for a while until the market crashed in 2008.
Daisy and I left London in 2013 because Daisy was very ill after being chronically ill for many years and we moved to a very quiet village in the countryside. By this point at age 21 she was completely housebound and I became her full time carer for the next few years. I lost everything – my home, my business and my friends. I don’t have any family other than Daisy, so there was literally no one to help me.
As Daisy recovered I was able to build my business up in the small village we lived in West Berkshire. By 2017 I was working full time again and we were both getting our lives back on track.
I’m not one for letting adversities get in my way, so onwards and upwards. In 2018 I entered Screwfix Britain’s Top Tradesperson Competition competing against neatly 4000 tradespeople. 10 of us made it to the finals and this particular year Screwfix announced that the judges could not unanimously decide between themselves who should be the winner, so they pretty much tossed a coin. Sadly, I was not the winner, but by default me and another guy technically came second. Usually there is just one out right winner, so it is a step in the right direction that at least a female tradesperson almost won…I’m the first woman to have made it that far.
Again, this is not good enough for me though, so I entered again in 2019 as I’d upped my game from the previous year. This time I made it to the finals again. And sadly this year again, I also did not win 1st place, but was awarded a special award for Innovation for my Patented Safety Ladder, so technically 2nd again!
Somewhat disappointing as I have received very little publicity unlike the winners. If I had won, it would have been great, as the publicity about me would help inspire other women and girls into the industry by seeing that I have been doing it for decades and pretty successful at it and whilst being a single parent throughout.
Still, so many achievements! Is the 2019 special award for Innovation your most recent one?
My latest achievement is the Best Pitch at the Developer Pitch Event for my project that I want to set up: Tools for Life Trade Skills Academy for Women.
During your career progression, what was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome?
I’ve faced many obstacles over many years.
It’s been very difficult that on one hand I’ve spent endless years dealing with keeping Daisy safe and well and myself sane, yet on the other hand I’ve spent endless years constantly learning and improving myself to be the best in my field and to always be competing against men, where you have to be at least twice as good to get even half the recognition.
I would say though, that having to fight so hard for so long to give Daisy the life she deserves in spite of the odds thrown at her and me, has given an unshakable belief in myself and what I can do and must do to achieve the outcome I want.
How do you think everything you’ve had to deal with has affected how you work now?
I now want to inspire other women to use their own adversities as their source power and strength to achieve whatever they want to achieve in life. The one thing I can teach them once they start believing in themselves is to become incredible tradeswomen. This tangible result of mastering a trade will be the making of them having great prospects to create safe and beautiful homes for themselves, create self employment businesses for themselves, inspire future generations of women and girls and address the gender imbalance and the skills shortage within the construction industry.
Are there any women who work in construction within your own personal network that inspire you?
I admire Jean Duprez MBE for services to women in the trades. She is the director of Women into Construction. Check out her Linked In page here.
Do you have any advice for women who might be deciding whether they want to start a career in the industry?
My advice would be: give me a call and if I get enough women together I would aim to run a taster course so they can try out various trades before deciding which one to train in.
What do you hope that any women reading your story today will be able to take away from it?
My dream is for the journey of my life and that of Daisy’s to be a source of inspiration for other women to dare to dream too and to strive to achieve those dreams where one day each of those women will be a source of inspiration and so many more dreams will be realised.
For any woman who has faced adversity, to become powerful and successful in a male dominated industry and be part of a community of powerful women all on the same mission will transform her life far beyond her once limiting beliefs.
Three tracks, a book and a luxury: what would you take to a desert island?
I would take a bunch of tradeswomen so we could build a fabulous island. We’d build shelter, boats, barbeques and yurts so more women can come to the island to enjoy the fun.
Sounds good to me! Thank you for taking the time to tell your story, it’s been a pleasure.
This was Christina Valentine, interviewed for our #WiCW series – a compilation of articles from inspirational women in the Construction and Trades industries.