Your actions and attitude at work are a reflection of your character as a person. I’ve always been focused on my own personal growth. The healthier, more self-aware, I am, the healthier and stronger my company is.
As part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bette Fetter, founder and CEO of Young Rembrandts. For Bette Fetter, it all came together in 1988 when she began teaching her children and their friends how to draw around the kitchen table. She quickly grew a passion for teaching drawing and applied her fine arts education and background in childhood development to create an original, step-by-step method to teach children the fundamental skill of all visual arts — drawing. After years of success in the drawing classroom and conducting research on the impact of the arts on developing minds, in 2012 Bette wrote her first book, Being Visual, in which she shares insights on learning styles and best practices for helping children learn more effectively. Plus, she discussed the role the arts play in developing young minds.Today, Young Rembrandts teaches 40,000 students between the ages of 3 ½ to 12 years old each week across 31 states and four provinces, giving children everywhere a creative outlet for their developing minds.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
As an artist, educator, and mom, I wasn’t exactly looking to climb the corporate ladder. I began teaching my children and their friends how to draw because it was a fun way to keep them learning and engaged. But at a certain point, there’s only so many children you can fit around the kitchen table. Instead of getting discouraged, the entrepreneur in me thought, how can I make this work on a larger scale? Thus, Young Rembrandts was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Truly, the most interesting story is the one that is still being written. I am continuously blown away by the amount of growth we’ve seen in the last 30+ years — Young Rembrandts started from my kitchen table and has now grown into an international franchise company. So many people have contributed to the Young Rembrandts’ success, and I’m honored by the caliber of people that have joined us as franchisees. Young Rembrandts isn’t just a company; it’s a mission that resonates with people.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Unlike most businesses, we do not have brick and mortar locations. Instead, our Young Rembrandts franchise owners present the program to local schools, community centers, park districts, etc. and establish partnerships to teach at those facilities. When I was still teaching classes, I would do the same. There is one presentation in particular that helped me clarify and define my philosophy.
I was pitching the program to a private preschool. When I finished, the Director handed me a poem describing different ways a person could harm children with inappropriate instruction and essentially told me that that’s what I was doing with Young Rembrandts. She actually said, “What you’re doing is ruining children.” I thanked her for her time, held it together until I got to my car, and had a good cry.
On the drive home, I really started to question myself. Was my approach to teaching art wrong? Was it hurtful? Then I thought about how happy my students were. How empowered they felt, and decided new ideas and approaches can take time to be accepted. In time I was thankful that the meeting happened the way it did because it was a turning point for me in clarifying and defining my educational philosophy, as it relates to teaching art.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
I went from being an entrepreneur and sole proprietor to being a CEO, as my business grew. But I was also the mother of four young kids and that was one of the driving forces of what kind of CEO I wanted to be. I loved being able to simultaneously raise a business and a family. Because I built Young Rembrandts from the ground up, I was able to establish an office culture that encourages employees to balance family and their careers. I didn’t want to have to choose, so why should my employees? The CEO position was attractive because I was able to change the rhetoric around what it means to be a working mom.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Most leaders have to tackle a long to-do list and go home at the end of the day. While some leaders might take that approach, it doesn’t work as well for a CEO. I’m more of an entrepreneurial CEO, and I take that mindset into everything I do. For me, I think one of the main responsibilities of a CEO is to question the status quo. A CEO needs to keep one eye on the future, and the other attentive to the present.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I get to be involved in every aspect of the business — from identifying new opportunities to outlining strategic plans and finally seeing the project through. I take a very hands-on approach to leadership.
Also, I thoroughly enjoy building teams and working collaboratively with people. Hearing the opinions and perspectives of others is essential to the growth of a business — as I touched on above, it is important to be open and available to see new ideas and new ways of doing things. I appreciate being able to work in an environment that encourages every one of our team members to participate in the conversation.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
While you have the freedom to be innovative, at the end of the day, you are still running a business. I realized quickly that if I spent every minute questioning or looking for improvements, the day-to-day work would slip through the cracks. And, because it’s not my favorite piece of the work, I’ve always had a strong Operations Director alongside me to ensure systems, procedures, and KPIs are in place.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There’s this weird myth that CEOs don’t do anything, or that they have staff asking them simple yes or no questions all day — which isn’t true. Or, at least it isn’t at Young Rembrandts.
As I mentioned above, I like to take a very hands-on approach to run the business, because I believe a CEO has to stay in the thick of it. There always needs to be a balance of the actual day-to-day work and ideas for where we’re going next as a company. If you don’t do both, it can lead to problems down the line.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Unfortunately, there’s still a double standard when it comes to working parents. As a woman, you are expected to flawlessly balance the responsibilities of work and family without letting one interfere with the other. If you can’t, you are expected to give one up. I wasn’t willing to choose between them.
At Young Rembrandts, I made an effort to build the business differently. From our home office team to our franchisees and teachers, we strongly encourage a true work/life balance. Now, one of my daughters is the Director of Operations at Young Rembrandts and gets to have a fulfilling career as she’s beginning her life with young children. I’m so thankful that she has the same opportunities — and more — than I had.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
As I mentioned, I never thought about taking on an executive role. But I really like it. I’m good at it in a way that I never expected. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be an executive and still teach in the classroom. But the more time I spend in this executive role, the more I can learn from and grow the business so we can put more teachers in classrooms across the country and the world!
Given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19, we did make a change to our business model and moved from in-person classes to virtual on-demand lessons, where I’m the teacher! So, as we create more on-demand videos, it allows me to draw with children again — it’s like I’m in the classroom. But this time, I get to teach thousands of kids at a time!
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?
I’m a big advocate for right-brain thinkers. I, and other right-brainers, tend to be more innovative, thoughtful, and subjective, whereas left-brainers are logical, analytical, and objective. While you might think an executive should possess those left-brain traits, I would argue that a right-brainer’s ability to color outside the lines brings freshness and innovation to the role and the business.
Aside from that, it is important as an executive to learn how to delegate. It’s impossible to do everything on your own, and you don’t have the skill sets to do everything. Building a solid team, with a balance of skill sets, is essential to the success of your business.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
There is a false perception that one woman’s success is another’s a failure. I’m lucky enough to work with a group of women who celebrate and learn from each other’s achievements. This encouraging environment has opened our team up to limitless opportunities and has helped Young Rembrandts become the success that it is today. So, my advice is to encourage your team to find opportunities for each member’s success, facilitate a collaborative environment, and make it clear that there is room for everyone to succeed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m extremely grateful for my husband. He was working in corporate America when I commandeered our kitchen table for Young Rembrandts. In the early years, as I was developing and refining the program, he would always encourage and build-up my ideas. Then, one day he said, “I want to work with Young Rembrandts.”
It took me by surprise, but before I could even start to question it, he said, “This is your company, it’s your baby and I’d be happy to take the passenger seat.”
Leveraging his experience working with corporate franchises, we worked together to build the business. As I’ve mentioned, entrepreneurship was never the end goal for me — I truly enjoy working with children and providing a creative outlet for those who might not receive it at school. My husband kept that at the forefront of his mind and was great about opening my eyes to see how far the business could go.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I believe that art, innovation, and creativity make the world a better place, and I’m extremely fortunate to have a network of franchisees that feel the same. This program allows our owners to immerse themselves in a successful career and offer a service that, at its core, is about bettering their community. Truthfully, the dedication of our franchisees is amazing. They have such a commitment to bring Young Rembrandts to as many children and families in their communities.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You are going to make mistakes. No — you have to make mistakes because those small failures will lead you to your most creative moments.
- Business isn’t personal. People are going to come and go from your business. Some will bless you. Some may wrong you. Don’t take it personally. Your company is just one part of their personal journey.
- On the other hand — business is personal. A career is a tremendous part of a person’s life. By creating and encouraging an ethical, healthy, and positive culture, you have the ability to impact the overall wellbeing of your employees and their families in deeply profound ways.
- God is not just for Sunday — there is a place for faith at work. To me, my faith is a reflection of my values: faith in people, integrity in work, and treating everyone with dignity. You have to make space for those values to have a healthy workplace.
- Your actions and attitude at work are a reflection of your character as a person. I’ve always been focused on my own personal growth. The healthier, more self-aware, I am, the healthier and stronger my company is.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I hope that Young Rembrandts will inspire an integrated approach to education where the arts play a vital role in a child’s development. Participation in the arts has shown to improve a child’s academic achievements, aid in social and emotional development, and increase their self-esteem, among other benefits. The way Young Rembrandts teaches art engages both the right and left sides of the brain, a critical component of classroom and life success. At Young Rembrandts, our mission is to raise generations that value the power, passion, and significance of art, and we’re enjoying seeing that happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Honor people for who they are instead of who they’re not.”
When interacting with others — especially in a professional setting — it’s easy to get stuck on mistakes or what’s not working. People deserve to belong to a team or organization that sees who they are and is invested in their successes. Whether it’s honest communication and the opportunity to improve, additional training and support, or finding a role more suited to their gifts, take the time to know who people are. A strong leader needs to see others’ strengths and work towards that.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Bill Gates. He is a left-brain thinker, and as I mentioned before, I’m a big proponent of right-brain thinking. With such a huge influence on education, I would ask him to consider putting a greater focus on visual learning and the arts, so our schools develop the whole minds we desperately need in this world.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.