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Inside a Minneapolis library, Nawal Noor is overseeing a renovation that's giving the century-old building a second life — and ex-offenders a second chance.

The East African developer and general contractor is a trailblazer in a field with few women and people of color. But she also has broader ambitious goals to diversify Minnesota's construction sector by training and hiring more immigrants and ex-offenders.

"I'm an immigrant. This is my second chance," said Noor, 34, of Minneapolis, who owns Noor Companies. "I look at probationers and ex-offenders the same way. I really feel giving people an opportunity is a really critical thing."

Noor's work to address workforce and economic disparities comes at a crucial time for Minnesota's fast-growing construction industry, which is increasingly struggling to fill job openings as a wave of baby boomers retires. State officials say diversifying the sector could help fill the workforce shortage. People of color make up about 5% of the construction workforce while women represent 12% of the workforce, according to census and state data.

As a result, more agencies — from St. Paul schools to the city of Minneapolis to the state of Minnesota — are dedicating new efforts to hire more women- and minority-owned firms. And last year, Hennepin County shifted its "small business enterprise" program, begun in 1996 to reduce disparities in contracting, to focus more on race and gender.

"It's time to step up our game and we're seeing the results," County Administrator David Hough said. "It's changing the face of the workforce. We need to be representative of where we serve."

Noor's company won two Hennepin County construction contracts and hired ex-offenders for Hosmer Library in the Central neighborhood on Minneapolis and Estes Funeral Chapel in north Minneapolis. Noor Companies was also the developer on one of the last Green Homes North projects to revitalize north Minneapolis.

Then, this spring, Noor was named one of 24 Bush Foundation fellows, a competitive program nearly 700 Midwesterners vied for this year.

"She has a lot of heart in this and is in this for the right reasons," Hough said. "She's helping people and lifting people up who have had extremely challenging lives."

He said Noor is a savvy business owner whose county projects are on time, on budget and helping ex-offenders and immigrants segue from receiving county services to making a living wage, which saves taxpayers in the long-run.

Last year, the county, state and seven other entities released the results of a $1.4 million disparity study concluding that, despite programs in place meant to help, a level playing field is lacking for minority- and women-owned businesses when it comes to receiving contracts for construction projects and other services. (Noor also served on an advisory committee for the study.) For instance, less than 1% of state construction contracts used minority-owned businesses.

Of the about 20,000 businesses surveyed, 9% were minority-owned and 18% were owned by white women; of construction companies specifically, 2% were owned by African-Americans.

"Being a woman in this business is still rare," said Colleen Carey, president of Minneapolis real estate company, The Cornerstone Group.

"She's a rising star in our community," added Carey, whom Noor considers a mentor. "We need more leaders like her that can see the big picture and help chip away at community problems."

Making a difference

Sporting stylish dangly earrings and a navy head scarf under her white hard hat, Noor recently reviewed the punch list of work left to be done before Hosmer Library, a historic Carnegie library, reopens Aug. 15. She said she's learned a lot in construction and real estate — a career she didn't plan to pursue.

Born in Somalia, Noor moved to the U.S. on her own in 1996 at age 12 and lived with an aunt. Her parents and siblings joined her in 2000. She graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 2005. During college, she got her first experience in the sector while working for what's now Aeon, a Minneapolis nonprofit affordable housing developer. After college, she worked nine years in finance at Ecolab, the St. Paul-based cleaning and sanitizing firm, and was on the path to becoming a corporate leader.

But, inspired by her mother, who was an entrepreneur and real estate developer, Noor took a career leap and a pay cut, deferring her plans to get an MBA. "I wanted to make a difference," she said.

In 2015, she launched the real estate company and was the real estate developer for her mosque's $4 million project. Soon after, she started the construction company.

"I wanted to start a business that had a mission, a social mission," Noor said of her for-profit "social enterprise," also called a public benefit corporation. "I love what I do and the people I impact each day."

Second chances

When she started the project to build the new Estes Funeral Chapel in north Minneapolis, five ex-offenders showed up ready to learn.

"None of them held a tape measure [before]," Noor said.

After training, the men and women gained new skills and confidence, Noor said, and some went on to become electricians and carpenters. Mowlid Salan, 25, of Minneapolis also plans to continue in construction after working on Hosmer through the county's Productive Day program while on probation, gaining a new career and a stable paycheck from the $17 an hour Noor pays.

"She really cares about people who have made mistakes. She really gives second chances," he said, adding that he's inspired by his boss' success. "It makes me want to try harder."

As a small-business owner, Noor said she hopes to continue to team up with other agencies. She's using her Bush fellowship, which awards up to $100,000, to expand her company, study social impact investing and pursue national leadership opportunities.

She's also partnering with the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to explore how to develop a culturally sensitive loan that would help more Muslim Minnesotans buy a home since some Muslims view the payment of interest on loans to be forbidden in their faith.

It's the kind of lasting change that Noor is eager to make as she leads the way.

"It's a very difficult business to break in. I didn't see anyone who did that in our community," she said. "I wanted to be the pioneer to inspire others to follow."

Correction: Earlier versions misidentified the Minneapolis location of Hosmer Library.