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Lift Your Legacy: Cultivating wide eyed optimism with Curious Jane CEO Samantha Razook and Rabbi Jacob Rupp

My biggest challenge professionally is the mode in which I operate, which is to say “yes” first, take the leap, and then knit the net below me as I fall. I’m constantly in a state of wide-eyed optimism, excited about the next thing that has the potential to be. Nine times out of ten, those […]

My biggest challenge professionally is the mode in which I operate, which is to say “yes” first, take the leap, and then knit the net below me as I fall. I’m constantly in a state of wide-eyed optimism, excited about the next thing that has the potential to be. Nine times out of ten, those potentials don’t come to fruition, but my character (probably like many entrepreneurs) is to chase them.

Samantha Razook is the founder and CEO of Curious Jane, an educational content company for girls ages 6 to 11 with projects and curriculum around science, engineering, and design. Samantha started Curious Jane ten years ago as a summer camp for girls to be creative and inventive in a high-energy space. In 2014, Curious Jane was the recipient of the Chase’s Mission Small Business Grant — an unrestricted $250k awarded to 12 businesses from an applicant pool of over 35,000. Today, Curious Jane runs camps, classes, and workshops year-round; prints project books and a maker magazine for girls; and collaborates with like-minded organizations to share content with girls nationwide. Curious Jane has partnered with The Confidence Code for Girls, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and LiveGirl, Inc. Samantha earned her BA from Yale in Graphic Design and her Masters from Pratt Institute in Industrial Design. She grew up in Atlanta, GA and landed in Gowanus, Brooklyn, a thriving neighborhood of creative small businesses and industries.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

When most get a glimpse of my backstory, they ask “You studied Industrial Design, but your business has nothing to do with that — how did that happen?” I have always been passionate about design.

I earned my undergraduate degree from Yale in Graphic Design and, after working a bit, pursued my graduate degree in Industrial Design at Pratt. I entered my Master’s program at the age of 24, with one young daughter, and a second one soon to come. At that point, I was working, parenting and studying. After completing my Masters, I continued my work on various design projects, mostly on a freelance project-basis.

In 2008, the economy took a nose-dive. I was scrambling and needed something for my young daughters to do while I worked. I launched Curious Jane with zero funding and a complete absence of any type of business plan. It’s easy to take a big leap when you have a fire under you.

Curious Jane began very simply as a day camp. I rented some classroom spaces, pulled together a group of about ten girls, and hired a couple excellent instructors to lead them in all sorts of projects. We had classes like Toy Design, Why Buildings Stand Up, and Animal Nature. I drove the camp van and offered door-to-door service. Each afternoon, I picked up the supplies for the next day. That’s the origin story of Curious Jane — science + engineering + design for girls 6 to 11.

As it turns out, launching a business during an economic downturn can be an advantage. One, if it works in a recession, it will likely continue working. Two, the market is flooded with excellent talent at an affordable rate. Three, in the case of my business, it was born of necessity, and my necessity was akin to that of others as well.

As it also turns out, my education and work in Industrial Design completely informs how I grow a business. It’s the lens through which I learned best. It also meant that I spent eight years in an educational environment in which project critique and peer feedback were the primary mode of learning, with the goal of improving our work with each iteration. I need to underscore that — project critique and peer feedback were the primary mode of learning. This is invaluable no matter what you do. It has certainly been key to my ability to grow a business with confidence and excitement, even in the valleys (of which there are plenty).

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Ahhhh! Entrepreneurial chaos, messy-creative projects, all-female staff, working with children and families — never a dull moment. There are many alarming, hilarious, and tender things that happened. I’ll share a truly pivotal moment. It was about 4 or 5 years in and I was secretly struggling to keep the business running. Though Curious Jane is the company that continues today, I had started another program at the same time — a teen girls’ residential program, held on college campuses, called Blue Tree.

So I had Curious Jane for young girls, and Blue Tree for older girls. Blue Tree kept the company afloat at the start; it had a higher ticket-price and better margins, but it was flagging. Plus, my heart was in Curious Jane — it was unique and was building a following. At that time, Chase offered a small business grant competition where the winner received an unrestricted quarter of a million dollars to help your business grow (this was only held for a few years and doesn’t exist anymore).

In 2013, we applied, even though it was a long shot, and did not win. In 2014, we applied again along with 35,000 applicants across the country and Curious Jane was one of only twelve recipients to receive the grant! It changed everything — it allowed us to secure an office space, work with a business development group to chart our next steps, and most significantly to continue running and growing Curious Jane.

What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge professionally is the mode in which I operate, which is to say “yes” first, take the leap, and then knit the net below me as I fall. I’m constantly in a state of wide-eyed optimism, excited about the next thing that has the potential to be. Nine times out of ten, those potentials don’t come to fruition, but my character (probably like many entrepreneurs) is to chase them. That takes a lot of sustained energy and enthusiasm. It also ultimately requires some self-moderation and a really key support team, inside and outside the business.

The biggest challenge that I experienced personally was a protracted period of crises in my family; things that required an enormous amount of emotion and attention, outside of running a business. During my marriage, my husband was in and out of the hospital for various unrelated health emergencies. Through this, he developed addictions. We were no longer a support for each other. We divorced; I moved, and during that period of negotiation and separation, both of our daughters suffered broken legs — one was in a wheel chair. It was a dark time.

Coming through that period, and seeing that the sun continues to rise and the earth is still beneath my feet has led me to develop the confidence and trust to push hard and take challenges head-on. I do believe that everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?

Leadership means that every person who works with you, for you, or near you, feels comfortable reaching out to you as a resource, with an understanding that what they do for you, you will also do for them.

The best way to inspire leadership in others is to give them a great deal of responsibility, more than they think they are even capable of, and to keep your eye out for the mistakes they may make and be ready to support them when they do. You have to let them fall of the bicycle every now and then. Of course you don’t want a project or person to fail to the point that there is destruction, but there are always opportunities in which you can afford a hiccup or a mistake, with the goal of allowing the navigator to learn and grow.

One evening, I took some of my long-time site directors out to dinner. They didn’t know each other well, and one young woman had the idea to go around the table and share the story of how each person came to Curious Jane. Three stories in, we noticed a pattern. Each of the directors had not only over-sold themselves on their resumes (as you do), but I had also taken it up a notch by hiring them for a key position. I had said, “Oh, I see you have done ABC (when it was really just A or AB), so you can surely do XYZ, and that’s what you’ll be in charge of at Curious Jane.” Other than what their resume listed, they had a quality that was apparent to me: the potential to excel in a position of responsibility. Not only did they excel, they soared.

Give people responsibility, big goals, and expect a lot of them. Then arm them with enough of the tools to achieve it. By and large, they will surpass it.

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?

Yes! This is the part where I say “I’d like to thank my parents and my children and my friends and my co-workers, and my teachers and my teachers’ teachers, and my children’s teachers…” all of which is very true.

But I’ll be specific. I’ve particularly felt support from Chase, not only in receiving the grant I mentioned earlier, but in their continued years of support afterwards.

I’m certainly grateful for my daughters, and their ability to see complicated situations with clarity. In the first summer before Curious Jane opened, I was in the position of calling one of the host schools where I had a financial obligation to run camp, and telling them “I don’t have any campers, and I don’t have any money. Is there any way you can forgive the contract?” I was driving, and my daughter (then 7) was with me. I was frantic and distracted, and I tried to explain this to her. She summed up the situation and said “Well, call them now, and tell them what you told me. After that, it’s up to them, and you have no idea what they will say.” A truth I live by to this day!

And the last group I want to point out, as truly the king-pins of Curious Jane, is our summer staff of about 140 young women who are the face of my company. I’m behind the scenes, and way too ancient to dazzle an eight-year-old. So, “What is my favorite thing about Curious Jane?” That it draws an amazing community of women who are excited about working together, and in an environment for girls.

Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?

I started my Master’s program with one young child, and a second one soon to follow. So, my life and my business were always mushed up together. At Pratt, I was in a studio program and the hours were long, potentially endless. However, I had a child to pick-up from day care and a household to run, so I learned to get a project 90% of the way there, splash a little color on it, learn to tell the story, and call it a day. This experience was tough at the time but translated beautifully to navigating a personal life and a business.

There is also something I learned in Industrial Design about visual composition that can be extrapolated to so many parts of life. In grad school, we sanded plaster until our biceps ached to achieve the perfect balanced curves, and we sliced and diced foam core with bandages around our fingers, to assemble the perfect combination of shapes. We were always defining a composition of three elements: the dominant, the subdominant and the subordinate. This is the way I balance my life, my business, myself. I identify the dominant, the subdominant and the subordinate parts. Some are fixed; some are fluid. And paying attention to those really helps keep all supported and in check.

PS — We are never achieving it perfectly. Scratching that expectation is a key relief. Bring imperfection into the balance.

Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?

No, I actually felt the reverse. However, there was so much turbulence in my life in the earlier years of my business that I grew adept at seeing my way through it (you have to, right?) As I started re-orienting myself, and the turbulence died down, I *chose* to bring about a balance of time in the different areas of my life. There is too much at stake not to.

Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?

When you have a hundred plates to spin, it’s best to focus on one item at a time. I have frantically tried to juggle everything at once but found better balance in dis-integrating my personal and business lives. When I’ve been over-integrated, the whole ride goes haywire as I’m overwhelmed trying to handle everything at once.

I’ve grown my business from $0 to over $1M in sales, while raising children, supporting family through health crises, navigating a divorce, and creating new relationships. I’m proud of my family, friendships and my company but I’ve felt trapped in chaos so I set my mind on making a shift. It was difficult to change my patterns, but by following these five steps, I learned to re-orient how I approach responsibilities which has allowed me to be happier and more productive:

  1. Identify your optimal level of “busy” and your most productive time of day. Stack up key tasks at that time and spread out the others on your calendar.
  2. Mind the transitions in your day and take breaks in between intensive tasks to recharge.
  3. If you’re drowning, write down the top 5 things you need to complete, and tackle one by one.
  4. Rely on others in your family or at work. Pass off tasks that can afford a hiccup.
  5. Eat well. Sleep well. Dedicate 15 minutes/day for fitness.

What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride.

My relationships. Remember the dominant, subdominant and subordinate? I try to make sure that my dominant relationships are in the dominant circle, and so forth. Nurturing my rich relationships gives me a sense of autonomy, contentedness and pride with life and are my greatest accomplishment. I am still working on these, of course, and I expect to be working on them all the way through to the end!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am already inspired by the rise and success of micro-lending and small business support, especially for female-run initiatives in areas of few resources. And I would like to inspire continued growth in this area of business development and mentorship. The positive ripple effect is significant — it is good for the individual, the family and the community.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

Please follow me on Twitter @poweredbygirls, follow Curious Jane on Instagram @curiousjane_fun or like us on Facebook @curiousjanecamp

About the author: Jacob Rupp is a coach, author, speaker, podcaster, and rabbi. He is the founder of Lift Your Legacy, a community that helps people live a more authentic life. He has a regular, syndicated column that appears in ThriveGlobal and Medium magazine. To learn more about him or to listen to the Lift Your Legacy podcast, search iTunes or visit his site: liftyourlegacy.live

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