Editor’s Note: The Story Exchange will head to Washington, D.C., on March 27 to moderate a panel with El Brown and other entrepreneurs at the Center for Women in Business’s annual summit.
As a military spouse, El Brown spent 10 years using her master’s degree in early childhood education to teach at U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea. Once she returned to the U.S., Brown began teaching again — this time inspired by the needs of toddler son Ricky, who was later diagnosed with autism. Brown developed the KinderJam program in 2008, focusing on tactile learning for young children, and has used her connections within the military community to license her classes to teachers in 15 states and 10 countries. She now lives in Fairfax, Va., and credits KinderJam’s success to Ricky, now 7, and other military moms.
Edited interview excerpts below.
The Story Exchange: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
A teacher by trade turned stay-at-home mom, I noticed developmental delays in my then-toddler son. I tried to communicate what I was noticing to his pediatricians. After repeated visits to doctors, unsatisfied, I created a program to teach and evaluate my son at home. Actively becoming my child’s first teacher better prepared me to serve as my son’s advocate and articulate his needs and my observations. It became my mission to empower other parents to become their children’s first teachers and greatest advocates.
The Story Exchange: How did you win your first client/customer?
I was teaching KinderJam classes in Monterey, Calif. The program had developed a large following in the local stay-at-home mom community. Pinnacle, a privatized military housing community, was starting a wellness program as a resident amenity. They sent out survey cards asking their residents what type of classes the would like to have. A large number of their residents wrote in KinderJam and Pinnacle came and found me.
The Story Exchange: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made (in business) – and what did you learn from it?
Hiring people from outside of my company to lead the people who had believed in KinderJam and me since the very beginning. KinderJam is a company built largely for and by a particular culture of women. Each KinderJam business owner [licensee] is a mother or grandmother who wants to exercise her professional muscle, earn some additional income, but most importantly be completely available to her family while doing so. Corporate hires do bring a certain skill set, but hiring, training and developing leadership from within our company better maintains our mom-friendly culture.
The Story Exchange: Who is your role model?
The military spouses I have had the great fortune to encounter. These women are masters at using their skills and God-given talents to fill needs and create niches for themselves over and over again as they move with their service member from place to place. I pulled from their spirit when developing KinderJam. I had a problem. I solved it. Then I used my solution to help others and create a niche for myself in my new community.
The Story Exchange: What’s your best advice for other women who are starting or growing businesses?
Find something that you love to do. Then do it so well that people will pay you for it. KinderJam is a business but more importantly, it is the byproduct of my passion for early childhood education and my desire to help my son, the absolute love of my life, maximize his personal potential.