“Treat your staff as you would like to be treated”, With Douglas Brown and Laura Hart

Treat your staff as you would like to be treated. My Dad, also a small business owner, once mentioned that it must be difficult to be the owner of a restaurant, as if your customer has one bad meal, they’ll never return. This story resonates with my business because if a child leaves a class frustrated […]

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Treat your staff as you would like to be treated.

My Dad, also a small business owner, once mentioned that it must be difficult to be the owner of a restaurant, as if your customer has one bad meal, they’ll never return. This story resonates with my business because if a child leaves a class frustrated and unhappy, they may not want to return. Our ability to care for each child emotionally is of the utmost importance.

My staff has a tremendous influence on the success of our company. For them to manage that responsibility well, they must feel valued, understood, and respected. I regularly ask myself the following question when creating a new policy or when addressing a staff request: “How would I want to be treated by the CEO in this situation?” If a policy is a win for a staff member, it is usually also a win for the company long term.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Hart, founder and CEO of Robofun , A Vision Education & Media Company, which has been providing children and teachers with creative and educational technology programs for 22 years. Laura began her career as a painter and her love of children and computer science led her to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and numerous collaborations with the MIT Media Lab. Laura is the recipient of two National Science Foundation Grants and a MacArthur Grant.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’m a bit of a child whisperer. I love the energy, enthusiasm, and natural curiosity of children. When I started out learning what was then called computer programming in 1981, I felt kids would love the idea of a quest: the puzzle of how to make something happen with their computer or with programming a little robot. My passion is children, but I am also an artist. I studied art before learning about coding and believe that being an active artist helps me be a better teacher and business owner.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

While satisfying an urgent need for a chocolate chip cookie when vacationing in a remote area of Maine, I ran into the creator of the computer language I taught, Dr. Seymour Papert, an MIT superstar. I recognized him from a lecture I had seen him give and summoned the courage to introduce myself. This evolved into a 30-year friendship and mentorship that changed my life.

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?

Get someone else to proofread what you write. About 25 years ago, I made a brochure and managed to put the wrong phone number on it. I only discovered the error after 4,000 copies had been made by the printer. That was educational!

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

We had a very challenging year when the NYC Department of Education, our largest client, underwent a major restructuring and stopped working with outside vendors. This included my company, which had viable grants and contracts. We had just recovered from this when the recession of 2008 hit. At least I had some experience knowing how to address adversity! You develop the ability to jump into the problem less emotionally and to find solutions more easily.

I never really considered giving up. As a single mom, I knew I had to make it work. I also believed in my product. In my gut, I felt the world needed places of learning for children that were child-driven and creative. I knew our clients loved us and that our offerings were relevant and exciting.

It was my challenge to learn how to run the company step by step. I needed to learn a new set of skills that would allow the company to be vital and sustainable. This included: finding the best tech applications for children, finding the best people to work with me, organizing the company, and understanding that I couldn’t do it all. I had to find people to support me and with strengths complementary to mine.

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?

I am extremely grateful to my mentor, the late Dr. Seymour Papert of the MIT Media Lab. His understanding of the importance of child-centered learning and what he called constructivism has become my life’s work. As I mentioned, we met by coincidence in a bakery in rural Maine.

For thirteen years, we developed and ran a coding and robotics summer retreat on an island in Maine for educators from around the world. One summer day we were supposed to be teaching a group of teachers and he just didn’t show up! I called him and he said that he had been thinking so hard about one of the projects that the teachers were making that he drove into a ditch and his car had to be towed. I explained this to the class, everyone laughed, and I jumped in my car and got him.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”

— Seymour Papert

Schools may not provide kids with the experience of learning through exploring and making. That is what we work on creating at Robofun.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company provides children and teachers with hands-on learning experiences in STEAM; our students make and program robots, code their own video games, create animations, and learn about circuitry through Minecraft. We are addressing the lack of opportunities for kids to be in charge and determine what they would like to learn.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Though a large state grant called My Brother’s Keeper, we are working with underserved boys and families of color. Since Covid-19, we’ve moved the entire program online. In this particular program, a backpack of supplies including motors, circuits, electrical tape, wires, and resistors, goes home to each family. We then teach our electrical engineering curriculum to students and parents who want to join in. We have trained a team of parents, who have become our teaching assistants (and are paid through the grant for their work.). There are so many benefits to providing families with an engaging and empowering curriculum that they can work through together.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I think we have a great deal of work to do to achieve gender parity in Tech. The issues go beyond diversity hiring initiatives. Companies must create an environment conducive to the success of women and women of color in particular.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Tech can often have a masculine sensibility that may not be accepting of a variety of approaches to challenges. By not having enough representation in tech, we are losing out on products and services that meet the needs of all. We need diversity in leadership. To address this, we need better childcare options, pay equity, and flexible work schedules for all.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Make sure you don’t forget about recharging your own engine. Running a company is hard work and very taxing. It is crucial that you value your own wellbeing and have methods to prevent burn out. I love talking to other business owners and sharing my challenges and successes. I find this very energizing and it helps boost my motivation and growth.

I like to get lots of ideas from a wide variety of sources but then make sure I am making my own decisions. The advice can be helpful but it can also be distracting. No one knows your business as you do. Don’t lose your internal voice.

In terms of boosting growth or sales, listen to both your clients and your staff. Often staff have great ideas but don’t share them unless encouraged to do so. It takes time to nurture your staff to “think like a CEO.” It is not something everyone does naturally!

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

Make sure your salespeople “own” the process. They should have a hand in developing materials, opportunities to learn from teammates who are successful, and the chance to be closely mentored. Teams that work collaboratively work very well. My sales team doesn’t compete internally, they support one another.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

We find many of our best customers through what I call “Word of Mom.” Our happiest clients LOVE our classes and share their experiences with other families. One little boy didn’t want to leave us at the end of camp. He said “Wait, this is better than Disney World!”

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

1. Check in with customers often. “How did your child like the class? Do you have feedback for our teacher?”

2. Have excellent communication with each client. If a student is not engaging, work closely with the parents to find a solution. Is it the topic? is it the teacher? Is there an issue with the other students? How can we solve this problem for you?

3. Ask clients for ideas for growth. Are there classes you believe your child would like that we are not offering?

4. Give back to clients who help us grow. For those clients who bring us referrals, we try to provide them with discounts or opportunities to participate in special programs that may not be open to all of our customers.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

– We stay in very close contact with your customers. They want to share. We want to hear what worked for them and more importantly what didn’t work.

– We are constantly expanding and customizing our offerings so that our customers have more options and choices. This prevents them from going to our competitors.

– We train our teachers to understand the importance of working individually with each child and to communicate with parents about their child’s strengths and challenges. During the final class of the semester we invite our parents to meet their child’s teacher and to see what their child has created. This opportunity for parents to meet me, the Camp Director, and their child’s teacher are important “glue” for keeping them connected to us.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

I believe the examples I am providing may not be particularly tech driven, but underscore creating a successful organization. The theme to my answers are: how do you find and create resources for yourself and your team.

1. Trust your gut, value your ideas, and be careful about letting others overly influence you.

One of my strengths is seeing the intersection of technology and creativity. When Minecraft became a popular game for kids, I could see the potential for creating a class around something children love. Initially my staff were quite reluctant. They weren’t sure how to approach it and how to make it truly educational as opposed to just something fun. My gut told me that if kids already love it, they’ll be eager, and ready to go deeper. We tweaked, we experimented, we ran trial classes and eventually we came up with a series of lessons blending Minecraft and electrical engineering. Children and parents loved it! When you run a company, there are a million issues and ideas coming at you at all times. It is important to find ways to hear other people’s opinions, but not let that overwhelm you. This was an important learning experience for me to be open to my colleagues’ ideas, but to also trust my instincts.

2. Treat your staff as you would like to be treated.

My Dad, also a small business owner, once mentioned that it must be difficult to be the owner of a restaurant, as if your customer has one bad meal, they’ll never return. This story resonates with my business because if a child leaves a class frustrated and unhappy, they may not want to return. Our ability to care for each child emotionally is of the utmost importance.

My staff has a tremendous influence on the success of our company. For them to manage that responsibility well, they must feel valued, understood, and respected. I regularly ask myself the following question when creating a new policy or when addressing a staff request: “How would I want to be treated by the CEO in this situation?” If a policy is a win for a staff member, it is usually also a win for the company long term.

3. Find a way to work where you are not interrupted and can allow yourself to think deeply about the challenges you are confronting.

I understand the importance of making the best decisions for the company that I can. However, doing that at a busy office with kids, parents, and staff present can be a distraction. I tried a co-working space, I tried working in coffee shops in NYC, I tried working at the office at times when I could be there alone. Eventually, I discovered that organizing my house so that I had a dedicated work area was the best solution. It has changed my concentration and my ability to not jump around from project to project. It has helped me listen to my staff and think more deeply. Ironically this has been one of the silver linings of Covid-19. I’ve had a lot of solitude in which to think, and execute.

4. Join or develop a group of other business owners so that you may share ideas and have a sounding board for your thoughts; there are many things you can’t discuss with your staff and other business owners can be extremely helpful.

Over the years I’ve been a member of a variety of business support groups including the Goldman Sach’s 10,000 Small Business Program, The Women Presidents’ Organization, Vistage, and the Columbia Community Business Program. Each program worked for a while and then it was time to move on.

Since Covid 19, I realized it was a very important time to check in and have a support group of business owners experiencing similar challenges to mine. I decided to form my own group and it has worked very well. We meet on Zoom for one hour a month, and check in weekly. This has helped me find and provide support, discover new ideas, and weather a very challenging moment.

5. Make sure you have ways to stay engaged, energized, and focused.

One day a few years ago my staff had to call an ambulance because I passed out in the office. If I needed a clear signal that I was working too hard, this was it! I landed in the hospital for a night. Luckily nothing was seriously wrong, but I knew this was something I couldn’t ignore. I now work fewer hours, and work hard to manage my sleep, my exercise, and my vacation time. Ironically I often get my best ideas for the company away from the office while biking or swimming. It is often more difficult to get myself to stop working than to keep working. It has taken getting outside support to help me reorganize my priorities so that I stay engaged, energized, and focused.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

The pandemic could wake us up to understand that there are many different ways to “do learning.” We should be more child-centered, and engage children and teachers in more relevant and exciting learning experiences. Schools are vastly unequal with underserved children often getting substandard education that reduces their subsequent earning potential. To solve major issues such as global warming and inequity across the globe, we need to re-examine schools and either reform them or change the concept of a school completely. The current school model is not meeting the needs of many children despite the enormous effort of many great educators.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 🙂

I am continually impressed by Michael Lewis’s podcasts and books. Meeting him would be very exciting.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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