NAWIC Chicago thrives as national association celebrates 60th anniversary

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The National Association of Women in Construction (NAWIC)’s Chicago Metro chapter has discovered new life – and a resurgent relevance – as it consolidates and amalgamates to provide networking opportunities and education for women in the industry throughout Chicagoland.

Chapter president Nora Degnan, a project estimator with Thorne Associates, Inc., a family-owned interior contractor, says when she joined about seven years ago there were about 25 members in her chapter, and a serious shortage of volunteers/contributors. Today, NAWIC Chicago has close to 50 members.

NAWIC Chicago has seen brighter days since the organization’s birth in 1955. (The national organization traces its roots to a group of Fort Worth TX women in 1953, with the national group established two years later.)

Degnan says in the 1980s, local interest expanded to the point where there were as many as seven Chicagoland chapters. As time passed, membership and voluntary support has declined, reflecting changing values and priorities. These “time and money” issues challenge many voluntary organizations.

These trends, however, didn’t faze Degnan at all, after one of her uncles at Thorne Associates showed her in 2008 or 2009 a published article about NAWIC and encouraged her to participate.

She immediately joined the chapter’s board of directors, and began recruiting members.

She also started reaping the rewards for her voluntary leadership.

“I’ve learned from the speakers and presenters, and developed my skills,” she said. “It’s been great for my personal and professional growth.”

However, she says (at least for her) NAWIC hasn’t been an association to build direct business for her company, which serves a diversity of markets, with an emphasis in health care. Rather, the relationships and experiences have given her more confidence in her leadership abilities.

Degnan grew up in a family with six sisters. As the eldest child, her father often took her to construction work sites. “I always wanted to do construction.” (Her siblings aren’t interested in construction.) She joined the business (established in 1886) in 2003, at age 21, and has grown in her responsibilities since then – certainly achieving success in an industry where the majority of workers and managers are male.

Most of Thorne Associates’s work is for private sector, invited projects, but there’s still plenty of competition.

Hence, Degnan has two pieces of advice, which he has taken to heart in her business practices.

“Loose lips sink ships,” she said, citing the wartime message calling for discretion about what you say and discouraging over-talking and gossip. “You don’t want to talk about a job in the elevator” she said, because you never know who may be listening – it could be your competitor or someone who will share the news harmfully.

As well, when you meet with potential clients, it is far better to learn from them by listening to what they really want and need, rather than spew out your standard presentation. “It is better to say less sometimes,” she said. “Be thoughtful about what you say.”

The second advice: “This business is fun” – relates to not taking everything too seriously and generally enjoying things as they are; there will be ups-and-downs.

This leads to the future of NAWIC’s Chicago chapter. Later this year, she’ll pass the leadership reigns to current chapter vice-president Lauren Sustek.

“I feel so lucky to work in such an exciting industry with such dynamic people,” Degnan wrote in the chapter’s newsletter. “Most of all, I am thankful to spend time getting to know and learn from each one of you.”

The chapter, like many organizations, takes a break from organized activities during the summer, but will resume regular meetings and events in September.

“In relationship to other organizations, NAWIC’s fees are moderate, and every single level of construction is represented – architects, engineers, construction field people, owners – there’s every single type of contact involved in the organization, and a great opportunity to talk to people and learn from everybody,” Degnan said.

You can learn more (and receive an invitation to the next meeting) by visiting or by emailing her at or Lauren Sustek at


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