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A leader in business, community: Harrell Remodeling CEO Iris Harrell awarded with MV Chamber'

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and craftsmanship, was, in essence, the prototype for the contemporary career woman.

So it's fitting that Iris Harrell, CEO, president and co-owner of Harrell Remodeling Inc. in Mountain View, was named the recipient of the 16th annual Athena Award presented by Mountain View Women in Business and the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce. She was honored in March at a luncheon at Michaels at Shoreline.

"Iris is a pioneer in bringing women up in leadership roles," said Allison Nelson, president and CEO of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce. "She is not only a respected member of the community but excels at doing things outside of her job description."

Harrell is committed to supporting the goals of professional women and has promoted women in her company through mentoring and continuing education. And, she is working to interest more women in the construction field.

Perhaps this is one reason she helps area Girl Scouts earn their Ms. Fix-It Badges. On a recent Saturday, Junior Girl Scouts, ages 9 to 12, from Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Woodside and San Mateo attended a workshop at her Mountain View headquarters, where they learned how to strip wire, caulk, spackle and the like. Los Altos Girl Scouts also gottheir turn last month.

Harrell is involved with Habitat for Humanity and received its Construction Partner Award in 2003. In addition, she donates design services to charity auctions, offers monthly remodeling workshops to the public and is a volunteer member of the design committee at Portola Ranch, where she lives with Ann Benson, her life partner of 27 years.

"The Athena Award was a total surprise to me. I didn't even know I'd been nominated," Harrell said.

This makes the 14th award she has received this year - and it's only May.

Since its inception in 1985, Harrell Remodeling has won recognition at the local, regional and national levels, including the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) awards, the Chrysallis awards and the Designer and Contractor of the Year (COTY) awards. In December, Harrell Remodeling won 12 local NARI awards.

Harrell is a licensed general contractor, certified kitchen and bath designer, certified green builder and member of Build It Green, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting green building products and practices. She is very passionate about green building and universal design, which she calls "the next big wave."

She also believes homes should be built in a manner that accommodates people as they age or as physical abilities change.

Surprisingly, Harrell did not begin her career in the building trade. Raised in North Carolina and Virginia, she worked in the tobacco fields as a child. After graduating from college and earning a master's degree in education administration and supervision, she taught school and spent five years playing guitar and bass in a five-piece band - experience that provided her with the planning, people and logistical skills she needed to run a multimillion-dollar business, she said.

Benson introduced Harrell to her career by handing her an electric drill to hang pots and pans in their Dallas home. From there she went on to larger projects, taking courses in home design and construction. When she first ventured out to find employment in the remodeling field, she was routinely turned away because of her gender and her age (34 at the time). So she started her own company.

In 1985, she and Benson moved to Menlo Park, and the company grew from home-based to a 5,300-square-foot design center in Mountain View, which they dedicated in 2001. About one-third of their 50 employees are licensed contractors.

The company is ranked in the top 500 remodeling companies nationwide and twice has been recognized as the 12th largest woman-owned company in Silicon Valley. Last year alone the company did close to $9 million in business, according to Harrell, and 80 percent of that was from referrals and past clients.

The average job runs about $190,000, but she said the company does "service work people don't know about, such as installing a dog door. Service is an important part of building long-term relationships."

Her philosophy is paying off. She has a portfolio of 500-plus clients, all within 30 minutes of company headquarters.

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