Today, everyone talks about work-life balance. I often prefer the term work-life blend because the two have never been separate entities in my mind or for my family. Many of my business ideas have grown out of the needs of my family. If I couldn’t find what I needed in the marketplace, I created it.
As a teenager, I worked for a day camp and at the end of the summer, I found myself thinking, “I can do that.” The following summer I opened Sunshine Day Camp. I always knew that I wanted to be a mother and I was fortunate to have met my husband early in life. I was young, ambitious and full of energy so four years later, I founded Sunshine Child Care Centres while starting my family.
Over the next twelve years, my family and my business grew side by side. Having a child care company when having eight (yes, eight!) small children comes in very handy. Many of the core features of Kids & Company grew from our early child care needs.
The idea to offer back-up care certainly resonated with me. I had my first child when I was finishing my education and starting a business without having any organized child care (there was almost no infant care in the City of Toronto 30 years ago). I took my first born to almost every meeting but I had real challenges with certain meetings or when writing exams. My husband/family had to be at work/school and I ended up trading child care with another new mom that I had just met. This was a creative and useful solution, but it’s unrealistic to expect all working parents to do this. What if you are new to the city and don't know any other moms? What if you aren’t comfortable leaving your child in someone else’s home or caring for someone else’s child in addition to your own? We have managed to solve this problem for parents in a very professional, easy way.
While it may have seemed that there was very little balance in our lives in those years, the fact that my family was very integrated in our business made it not only manageable, but natural. I knew that I wasn’t interested in a career with a typical 9 to 5, Monday through Friday environment. The vast majority of men and women I knew were working on other people’s schedules and I realized that flexibility was essential for me to raise a family and have a successful career. So, rather than waiting for the world to accept my definition of work-life balance, I took the reins and created my own solution.
Throughout my years at Sunshine, I listened to families (honestly, mainly women) who felt torn between work and family life. Mothers who returned to careers spent a lot of time juggling babysitters and traveling to child care centres far from home or work and faced huge challenges when their regular care-giver inevitably took ill or went on vacation.
I believe entrepreneurship is a mindset. I saw my own needs reflected in the needs of working parents across Canada and was determined enough to pursue that vision even if others thought it wasn’t feasible.
When I considered my needs and the needs of other mothers – flexibility in number of days when care was needed and drop off/pick up times, a guaranteed spot for my children without years of wait-lists, curriculum that I felt great about – I began thinking of creative solutions that could be offered to families. I saw a need in the marketplace to provide flexible and unique care solutions for working parents. I also talked to a number of corporations who saw the value of family care benefits to attract, recruit and retain talented employees.
So early in 2002, my business partner and co-founder, Jennifer Nashmi, and I started Kids & Company – a unique alternative to traditional child care. We partnered with companies to deliver highly creative and flexible family benefits with a special emphasis on emergency back-up child care.
We opened our first child care centre in Toronto that year, with one corporate client and four employees. The first began as an emergency back-up only child care centre. This meant parents (or employers of these parents) would "pay for use" on an as needed emergency child care basis. However, it quickly became apparent to us that the demand for emergency child care services was lower than originally anticipated. Our revenues were not covering our costs – which were fixed and substantial – and our original model wasn't viable.
We decided we needed to change course and began offering full-time and part-time child care in addition to back-up care to the parents of our corporate clients. Our differentiator was that child care spots were guaranteed within a six month period to all corporate clients, along with the option for parents who had other child care in place to use Kids & Company back-up care when emergencies (such as a nanny’s illness) or school closures arose.
I also wanted to offer the ability to take your child to different child care locations when needed. Again, this was something my own family needed and we assumed that others would too. I lived southeast of the city and sometimes I had meetings north of Toronto (which happened to be en route to our family cottage). If I wanted to attend these meetings and avoid the long round trip to pick up my kids and then head back up north, I would leave a babysitter with my children at the McDonald‘s restaurant near my meeting. A workable solution, but we could offer better. We decided that parents could simply switch locations in order to accommodate realistic working family lifestyles.
This type of service offering had never been done in Canada before we started Kids & Company. We were told a business-to-business model for child care wouldn’t work. However, we believed otherwise. We knew how to run a successful and high-quality not-for-profit child care company in Toronto, so we thought we could follow the same successful and high quality model for corporate customers and their direct users – their employees who are parents.
We continued to have some initial challenges. The only way large, national clients were going to buy into this model was to expand nationally. The value proposition had to also warrant the risk and cost that the corporate customer assumed when signing on with our company. The concept was simple, at least in theory. Corporate customers would endorse Kids & Company as the child care provider of choice, pay an annual membership fee, and would also bear part of the cost of emergency child care for its employees. In return, corporate customers would receive a return on their investment in the form of increased productivity and decreased absenteeism. Several key corporations were early champions of our idea, deciding that the flexibility I saw necessary for my family was something that would benefit all of their employees.
Today, our corporate partners can offer their employees a variety of dependent care services including guaranteed full and part-time child care, emergency and occasional back-up care, in-home nanny and/or after hours babysitting options, as well as elder care assistance. Kids & Company is not only national with over 60 centres coast-to-coast but has expanded into the United States with currently 2 centres in Chicago and more to open in other states. We have over 200 corporate clients now, and almost 1400 employees.
I am a serial entrepreneur and it’s worked for me in being able to define my own schedule and build the company in the industry that I’m most passionate about. I believe entrepreneurship is a mindset. I saw my own needs reflected in the needs of working parents across Canada and was determined enough to pursue that vision even if others thought it wasn’t feasible. "Having it all" is really defined by what is important to each person. I wanted to create something that would really make a difference to families and allow me to personally connect with them. I also wanted a flexible career that would allow me to juggle all the chaos and moments that you don’t want to miss that come with having a big family.