Invest in developing a strong on-boarding and training process. When you hire your first, second, tenth employee it’s easy to on-board and ensure they “get” your company. When you get to your 100th employee and someone else is handling the on-boarding, ensuring your culture and quality is carried through is critical.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen Denzer. Kristen is the Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Tierra Encantada. Tierra Encantada is the Leader in Spanish Immersion Early Education® and provides care for children ages six weeks through six years of age. The high-quality education program utilizes proprietary language-immersion curriculum focused on teaching a respect for diversity, and includes fresh-cooked, organic meals designed to expand children’s young palates.
Kristen started her first entrepreneurial endeavor in 2008 — an event rental company. She grew that company from 20 events to 500 events annually in just 6 years. While operating the successful event rental company, she started a second business in 2010 with a childhood friend called The Woof Room — a dog daycare and boarding facility. She managed to grow both into profitable companies serving thousands of clients annually. In 2013, while searching for quality early education for her young child, she founded Tierra Encantada’s first location in Eagan, Minnesota. She continued to operate all three businesses until 2016 when she sold her event rental company and dog daycare facility to focus solely on Tierra Encantada’s growth. In spring of 2019, she launched Tierra Encantada’s franchising expansion to provide access to language immersion education to families across the country. Today, Tierra Encantada is an Inc 5000 company with four corporate locations in Minnesota (a fifth opening in spring 2020), almost a dozen franchise centers in site development, and over 100 full-time employees.
Kristen has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Psychology, a Master’s in Advocacy and Leadership, and has completed doctoral coursework in Educational Policy and Administration. She also owns Denzer Holdings, which invests in commercial real estate and owns over 60,000 square feet of commercial space in Minnesota. Kristen is actively involved in the community and serves on the Board of Directors of Women Venture and the School Board of her children’s school. When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and exploring the world. Her exploits have included gorilla trekking in Rwanda, hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, and playing with seals in the Galapagos.
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?
In 2013, while struggling to find childcare that reflected my values, the idea for Tierra Encantada first came to life. I had already started several businesses that I was operating at that time. When you start and grow successful businesses as a 23/24/25-year-old — you start to feel a bit invincible by age 29. Like you can do anything. That was how I felt starting Tierra Encantada — and wow I was I wrong. I figured how hard could it be? Well, let me tell you, childcare is A LOT different than other types of businesses. It’s highly regulated and capital intensive. I made many, many mistakes with my first location — and I learned a lot.
Tierra Encantada was the first business that I needed outside capital and got my first Small Business Administration loan. I grossly underestimated how much money I needed for pretty much everything — particularly working capital. When we opened that first day in July of 2013, we had more full-time employees than we had children enrolled! It was my first brush with failure, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had two other successful businesses in addition to Tierra Encantada I may not be where I am today. Those first six months I poured money into the business. I exhausted all the working capital I had asked for within the first two months and put every penny I had into Tierra.
Fortunately, after much trial and error, I figured out what worked — and didn’t — and about a year after we first opened our doors, we finally broke even. Of course, like any serial entrepreneur, I immediately started thinking about what’s next. That was five years ago, and in that time, we have experienced exponential growth — which is what landed us on the Inc 5000 (774% growth in 3 years) this year. I went on to purchase a building and opened Tierra Encantada — Bryant (2016) — which had a waiting list within a few months of opening. In 2018 I purchased my largest building yet — a church — and redeveloped it into Tierra Encantada — Windom, which filled all 200+ spaces before we even opened our doors.
This year has been an exciting year for Tierra Encantada. I opened location #4 (Tierra Encantada — Seward) and launched franchising in late spring 2019. Less than a year in, we already have development deals in multiple states across the country. We also have corporate location #5 currently under construction (Tierra Encantada — Hiawatha), opening this spring! I’m very excited for the future, and I feel incredibly thankful to have a truly amazing team that helped make this possible.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
When I was looking for our third location, it was tough. I looked for months for a space without luck. Then my agent asked me about this old church. I actually had already toured the church a couple years earlier for a different company but couldn’t agree with the seller on the price. So, I figured why not look at it again. It was huge. More than twice as big as any center we had ever done before. But I decided to go for it. It was a pivotal point for Tierra — we had never opened a center that large, and I was worried about if I could get enough enrollments to break even when we opened. Fortunately, it was an amazing opportunity that we took full advantage of. We were able to really create brand standards to set ourselves apart from our competitors — and we had a waiting list before we opened the doors! It really showed me the true potential we have with Tierra and where it can — and will — go!
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?
Ugh. Weenies and Chow. After starting two successful businesses, you start to feel a bit too invincible. Like you can start any business. Having started a successful event rental company and dog daycare (The Woof Room) with my high school best friend, Angie Decker, we thought why not do a food booth at the state fair. We read about people making a million dollars in two weeks, we thought we could do that! So, we created Weenies and Chow (bacon-wrapped cocktail wieners and puppy chow) and had a food stand at the country fair as a warm-up. What a mistake! We spent over 12 hour days every day for weeks staffing that booth in the hot sun and lost money. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t look at that appetizer for years afterward. We learned that just because you experience success doing something doesn’t mean you can translate that into anything else — and you still need to do proper due diligence for any new concept (which we skipped entirely!).
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 didn’t start a business because I wanted the title of CEO. I started a business because I wanted to feel valued for the time I spent on tasks — reaping what I sowed. Before starting a company, I worked in fundraising. I worked under the Development Director and really put everything I had into being awesome at the job. I was able to secure a large grant for the organization, and then a few days after finding out my application was successful, my supervisor publicly took all the credit — even though she hadn’t been involved at all. It was pretty disheartening to have been solely responsible for something positive and then having someone else tout your achievement as their own and be in a position where you can’t do anything about it. After that happened, I decided that I wanted my successes and my failures to be my own. If I worked long hours and gave something my all, I would reap the rewards of that hard work — not someone else.
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 is responsible for everything. There is no task too small and no job description could ever entail everything a CEO will encounter.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
I love being solely responsible for my own success. That the harder I work, the more I can achieve. I enjoy being the decision-maker. I’m a planner and mapping out our growth and where we are going to go makes me happy. Even on the worst days, I never regret starting a company or owning Tierra. I love what I do. Even when I’m going on hour 16 of work — I still love it.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
That’s easy. Work-life balance. I’m not sure what that means, but hopefully one day I’ll get to experience it! This past year has been a new level of busyness that I didn’t know was possible. On a good week, I work 80 hours. Usually more. I still love what I do though! The other downside is the sense of personal responsibility that comes with it. You have your vision and what your program and company are supposed to be, but sometimes an employee doesn’t carry that out how they are supposed to, and I end up feeling personally responsible for that. That client looks to me for that failure.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think when people think of CEOs they imagine some jet-setter flying around telling people what to do. They imagine someone laying on the beach while everyone else does all the work. While executives do make the decisions and can be required to travel a fair amount — they are also “in it” all the time. It’s not all fun and games, and there’s great sacrifice that comes with it.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Being underestimated. I like to call it “oh you little girl” syndrome. Before I was divorced, people always thought Tierra was my ex-husband’s company. Or that he was at least involved. They couldn’t fathom that my female 28-year-old brain could develop this company and handle it on its own. They were always so surprised to find he was an engineer and had absolutely nothing to do with it, ever. I still get that sometimes. It does help a little being a bit older now and having done this for seven years. I’ve also learned confidence goes a long way — so when I get those questions and comments now, I am quick to enlighten people.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I had no idea what I was getting into when I started a business. And I honestly never imagined what Tierra would be today, much less what it will be five years from now. I have already exceeded what I thought I would achieve so I have nothing to compare to at this point.
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?
A successful executive is not a clock puncher. They are invested in their job and their company. They take ownership of their area and do what it takes to be a success. They understand there is no job too small and are willing to pitch in and help with anything that is needed. People that want to punch a clock and work their 8 hours and be done should avoid aspiring to executive positions. They are the type that rarely take true ownership — and when a critical email comes in at 7pm on a Thursday, they are the ones that will ignore it because it’s not “work hours.”
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Invest as much time as you can in training and being present to support your team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely. Karina Zumba, Tierra’s Chief Operations Officer. I started Tierra Encantada in 2013 and it was a beast to get going. When I posted that I was hiring a Director to run the center, I was hoping I would find someone with experience. When Karina applied for the position, I still remember where I was. I was at my sister’s wedding; it was right after I gave my maid of honor speech. I got the email on my phone — and was ecstatic. I actually had met Karina before (she didn’t know it was me that owned Tierra when she applied) — and I knew what an awesome person she was. So, it was a done deal. I emailed her back, and she started a few weeks later and helped get that first center open. She has been with me ever since. The road to get Tierra to where it is today has not been easy, but it would have been a million times harder without her. It is not easy to find an intelligent, competent, reliable, amazing human being you can trust completely with your company. Most people still don’t have that. I do. And that’s Karina. She is the one person I can trust with literally anything and whose judgment I rely on. She’s like a sister to me now, and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do for her. She has been instrumental to getting Tierra to where it is, and that’s why I try to always acknowledge her in these sorts of interviews!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I think one of the things that means the most to me with my success, is what I am able to do to help others. I am able to make other people’s lives easier. Whether it means donating thousands to Women Venture each year to help other women start their own small business or providing thousands in matching grants to my children’s school — I can make a difference. I also truly love being able to help my friends and family with things they may not be able to do otherwise. For example, my sister and brother-in-law have not ever been able to go on a trip together in the 7+ years they have been together. Cost has always been an issue. So, for Christmas I planned a trip to Germany for them, arranging childcare and bought their tickets and hotel — so now they get to explore a bucket list destination!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- There is no such thing as too much working capital. My first location, I asked for 20,000 dollars in working capital. Biggest mistake I made starting Tierra. That barely covered the first month’s payroll — and set me up for a hard first year. Banks will give you the money when you get the first loan — but once you open and realize you didn’t ask for enough, it’s too late. They are rarely there when you discover that and won’t give you more unless you are cash flowing. I learned that the hard way!
- Location, location, location. If I had picked a location with a higher population density for my first location, I would have been profitable much faster. Knowing your location needs and demographics is critical. It’s the difference between breaking even and losing money. Between opening a second and third location and declaring bankruptcy.
- Invest in developing a strong on-boarding and training process. When you hire your first, second, tenth employee it’s easy to on-board and ensure they “get” your company. When you get to your 100th employee and someone else is handling the on-boarding, ensuring your culture and quality is carried through is critical.
- Don’t keep bad apples! I kicked the can down the road far too many times with mediocre employees that were not a good fit. When you know someone isn’t going to work, don’t waste time with chances — just do what’s best for your business. I kept a manager that was toxic and created a hostile work environment for our teachers and resulted in many leaving the program. It cost us awesome teachers — and clients.
- Don’t make special exceptions! When I started and just had a few clients, I made special exceptions left and right to our policies because I was worried about losing clients or making people mad. It did not help things — particularly as we grew because people expected it to continue. Create policies — and stick to them! Even when it’s tough.
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.
Fix immigration! There are so many amazing, wonderful people that just want good jobs and to provide for their family, but our immigration laws are so broken. We need to provide a “sensical” path for citizenship.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Just do it! Life is short! Any variation of those is my favorite life lesson quote. I’ve met so many people over the past decade that have asked about how I got started with my first business and have been contemplating doing something of their own. What it comes down to is just doing it. Take action. Quit making excuses, and make it happen. Each time I started a new company, my mindset has been that this will be a success because it HAS to succeed — and I’ve been willing to do whatever it took to achieve that. Look at my first Tierra location. Most people would have closed, cut their losses, and called it a failure. But I refused to do that. I poured every cent I had for almost a year to make payroll; it was depressing. I honestly had moments I thought “this is it.” I failed. But I kept going because I was willing to do whatever I had to make it a success. And thank goodness I did!
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
That’s tough. There are some very inspiring business leaders doing amazing things, but I would have to say Ellen Latham. I love her story and how she got Orange Theory off the ground. She has accomplished so much in such a short time, and I think having the opportunity to hear her insight on scaling a brand through franchising would be invaluable. Her story, and everything she has accomplished so far, is truly inspiring. So, if she does end up reading this — let’s have lunch! I’ll fly to you! 😊
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.