Make everything a learning experience. As an entrepreneur, you have to solve problems and learn on the go. Even failure can be a good thing if it helps you grow.
Love what you do. Starting your own business is a very difficult thing to do, but it’s a lot easier when you’re passionate about your purpose; that’s the best way to stay motivated.
As a part of our series about powerful women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dori Roberts.
Engineering For Kids was started by Dori Roberts in 2009. Dori has been teaching engineering for over eleven years. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Math and Science Elementary/Middle School Education in 1997 and a Master of Science degree in Technology Education in 2000.
While teaching at a local high school in Virginia, Dori earned quite a reputation for herself and her students, as they won many awards as the school’s Technology Student Association, with Dori as their advisor.
Every year, Dori and her students would compete in events in technology and engineering at the local, state, and national levels. In 2007, she brought her five-year-old son, Matthew, and her seven-year-old daughter Kaley, along with a few of the competitions. Matthew and Kaley were mesmerized by all the engineering projects created by Dori’s high school students and wanted to compete with them. It was the experience that inspired her to start an engineering education program for kids.
When Dori asked Matthew if he knew what an engineer was, his response was one many children have — “someone who drives a train!”, he chimed. Once Dori explained to Matthew what engineers do, his response was a delighted, “Cool, I want to be an engineer!”
Matthew and Kaley soon became the test subjects for Dori’s curriculum, and they loved the projects and wanted more. This inspired her to teach an after-school engineering class at their elementary school. She was surprised to find out how quickly her class filled up. The initial class Dori offered was in a civil engineering class in which the student-built model bridges. The feedback from parents was overwhelmingly positive.
Dori soon launched Engineering For Kids and began offering summer camps, birthday parties, after-school programs, and evening classes at local community centers and schools. She has now franchised her concept and has more than 100 locations worldwide.
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?
I received both my Bachelor of Science degree in Math and Science Elementary/Middle School Education and a Master of Science degree in Technology Education from Old Dominion University. Prior to starting Engineering For Kids (EFK), I taught engineering at the high school level for 11 years in a traditional classroom setting. I was also an advisor through the Technology Student Association, which allowed me to travel to engineering competitions all over the United States with my students as they competed in different engineering categories. I started EFK after noticing a lack of math, science, and engineering programs to enroll my own kids. Based on EFK’s early success and positive responses from parents and administrators, I made the decision to dedicate 100 percent of my time to EFK. What started as an afterschool club has since turned into a multinational franchise.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When Engineering For Kids sold its first international location to a couple in India, my team and I couldn’t wait to pack our bags and visit our newest partners. It was definitely a “pinch me” moment getting to see our programs in action at the local schools. Witnessing the children at an elementary school in India experience the curriculum that my team and I created in Virginia was an experience I will never forget. Right on cue, the children had the same “aha moments” that the children in my hometown when testing their engineering designs.
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?
When I started Engineering For Kids I was wearing a lot of hats. I was the owner, the accountant, the curriculum developer, the HR manager, etc. One of the hats that I was not very good at was the role of Marketing Manager. I look back now at the first website and the first flyers and advertisements that I created and I cringe. I bring them out from time to time to show my staff so we can all get a good laugh.
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?
Freedom. Being a business owner, especially as a mother of two young children when I started, comes with some valuable and intangible rewards. I enjoyed having the freedom to create my own schedule. I no longer had to ask for a day off if there was an awards program at my kids’ school or if I wanted to chaperone a field trip.
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?
The CEO of a company is the visionary. They set the tone for the organization and provide guidance on the brand and the culture.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I enjoy watching my team grow. I have employees that have been with me for a very long time and who joined me without much experience. Watching them grow as the business grows has been very rewarding. It really is like watching a child grow up.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The stress and the workload can sometimes if not often, become overwhelming. Since all the responsibility, in the end, falls on the CEO, it can make for some stressful days and long work hours.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the biggest myth is that the CEO lives a luxurious life and works while laying out on a beach. The reality is, even if I can squeeze in a vacation, I am getting up a 4:00 a.m. to try to squeeze in a few hours of work before the family wakes up.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think that unfortunately women often must work harder to be taken seriously and to prove that they can handle the role of CEO. I think that women also have it harder when it comes to their family life. Women often take on most of the daily parenting tasks, and that can be a challenge to juggle all those responsibilities. Personally, I enjoy all the daily tasks that I do as a mom. I wouldn’t change it for the world as I don’t want to miss out on anything in my kids’ lives, but it does make being a CEO a challenge.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am a teacher turned entrepreneur, which happened organically, so I really didn’t have a preconceived notion of what being a CEO was supposed to be like. When I started Engineering For Kids, I was still doing a lot of teaching. Now in my role, I don’t get to be in the classroom as much. I love that I can pop back into the classroom when I like, and I’ll teach workshops from time to time. It helps me remember why I do what I do.
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 think you must have a thick skin to be an executive. That is something that I have had to grow into over my career. I used to take everything very personally and now I am much better at examining issues critically to best find a solution. Being a good problem solver is key to being a successful executive.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be approachable. I think that it is important for your team to know that they can come to you whether it is good or bad. You don’t want to miss out on a great idea by a staff member because they are nervous to approach you. Some of the best initiatives we have adopted have come from an idea from a team member.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful for helping you to get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My children. They keep me motivated. They are the reason why I started Engineering For Kids and they have been involved in the business every step of the way. They were young when the company began and would help me stuff envelopes, distribute signs, and test curriculum. Today they are teenagers and are now Engineering For Kids teachers.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My hope is that we can introduce children to S.T.E.M.-related fields at a young age and encourage them that an integrated, cooperative approach to learning from our failures is vitally important to their education and the future success of our nation. It has always been my goal to inspire the next generation of engineers. Children are our future, and by giving them the tools and the passion for S.T.E.M., we equip them to not only develop fulfilling and successful careers but set them up to find solutions for both the problems we struggle with today and the ones we will encounter down the road.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Work smarter. Everyone has heard the adage, “work smarter not harder,” but it’s especially true for entrepreneurs. I learned early on that I wouldn’t be able to thrive if I tried to do everything myself. Instead, I surrounded myself with the right people and took advantage of every available resource I could.
- Make everything a learning experience. As an entrepreneur, you have to solve problems and learn on the go. Even failure can be a good thing if it helps you grow.
- Love what you do. Starting your own business is a very difficult thing to do, but it’s a lot easier when you’re passionate about your purpose; that’s the best way to stay motivated.
- Develop your leadership strength. Remember that it is important to wear many different leadership hats. Being an entrepreneur has taught me to be a leader for myself and others; someone who continually reaches my goals and sets new ones.
- Encourage and recognize others often. Surround yourself with good people and treat them well. Some of our best initiatives have come from the ideas of our staff.
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.
Begin teaching children STEM at the preschool level. If we can reach kids at a young age, we can inspire them to continue their journeys in learning more about math and science.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The reason people grow and become better and better over the course of time is because they persist gently in the direction of their goals and dreams. They don’t expect overnight transformations. When they don’t see results immediately, they don’t get discouraged. They just keep on. And you must do the same.” ~Brian Tracy
It is easy to get impatient. I try to remember that success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. You must build a solid foundation in which to grow. Remembering this quote helps me through the tough times and makes me feel accomplished through the good times.
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Sara Blakely! She is an inspiration and I love her story. She was fearless in her journey to success. She is someone who was able to think outside the box in order to get the attention she needed from decision-makers early on. She keeps a positive attitude and doesn’t take herself too seriously. I think that many of us let fear get in our way, she didn’t do that. I think that she is a great role model for all female entrepreneurs showing women that you don’t have to follow the path that you are “supposed to follow”. Create your own path!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!