Entrepreneurship

When my passion is in the driver’s seat, risk taking is an acceptable companion. 

My journey to self-sustained entrepreneurship was not planned, rather it developed out of frustration and grew into empowerment. 

 

After arriving in Canada, I was faced with having my credentials of my German Social Work degree assessed — the route most immigrants have to take. It was a complex process complete with 18-months of translation reports and concluded with my Early Childhood Education license allowing me to practice in British Columbia.  

Little Rascals Daycare mid-construction July 2003

Long before that, though, four months after arriving in Vancouver, I decided to take affirmative action and go back to school to become an elementary school teacher. I decided to take my training at the University of British Columbia. It was an action-packed four years. I was teaching practicums in Richmond, East Vancouver, and Merritt, the last of which was filled with amazing insight. My practicum teacher was a spirited and energetic woman with tremendous teaching ability and connection to the community. 

 

We had 22 students in a kindergarten to grade one and two split class in an open-concept school with no inside walls, just a few dividers. I thought it would be chaos and loud, instead it was peaceful and respectful. I was able to build great connection and friendships with many people there, as well as receive an A+ as my final mark. They asked me to come back a year later, after graduation in April of 1980,  and fill in the six months maternity slot for my sponsor teacher.

 

I was back in town by Christmas and faced the uphill battle of finding work as a substitute teacher. Finding a permanent position was a grim and gruelling process. The birth rate was dropping, so we were told, and there was a lack of students overall in 1981. In some communities schools were closing and students were being shifted around.

 

The work was scarce and, when I did find something, it was not exactly a joy. The phone call from the school district would come early in the morning, then the race was on to get to the school and face a completely unknown class of children. Most of the time I would get called in to teach grade seven students in East Vancouver. Some of these classes were brimming with behavioural issues - funding and awareness wasn't established in those days and some days were just continuous battles just to try and stand my ground. The morale of the teaching staff was pretty low and my “change the world attitude” not always welcomed, either. Many days I went home deflated and was relieved when June came around and summer holidays started.

During that summer, I began toying with the idea of building my own educational daycare business. At first, I thought one level of our big house in Burnaby could be converted. The neighbourhood didn't support the idea and child care licensing wasn't fond of the idea either. 

Plan B was to find a school willing to rent out an empty classroom. At the time, North Vancouver had lots of schools with low enrolment. Finding a school with space was easy,  persuading a school principal to trust me was the challenge. The day came when I had to attend my first actual meeting to plead my case. I presented my business plan of operating a childcare group for 25 children with strong academic focus but nonetheless play-based, a mixture of structure and fun.

Elementary class - Merritt, BC

I remember this man staring me in the face from behind his desk, I was trying to hide the fact that I was intimidated, and then he said: “Why should I trust you? Most likely, it will be glorified babysitting and children are going to be loud and out of control. It’s not what we need in a school setting.” There was nothing to lose, in my mind, and I was also a bit ticked off with his negative attitude at this point, so I replied: “There won’t be any chaos, I can assure you. I have great passion for learning and teaching, and I adore children. I have a well thought out plan. I will need to learn more but I will never give up, and…I have two degrees, one in social work and the other in elementary education…so, I’m not an idiot.”

 

There was silence, and I sat there trying to gauge his reaction to my use of the word “idiot”. I don’t know how long we sat there in silence, but it was a while, and I began to assume he was going to tell me to leave. Instead, he smiled and said: “Ok, I give you a chance. We will draw up a contract for the remaining school year and re-evaluate by the end of June.”

 

And, just like that, Little Rascals Daycare was born. We opened our doors on Dec 1, 1981.

 

There was a detailed plan and a stiff learning curve. Immediately, there was excitement and success. The idea that it wouldn’t work out never crossed my mind. Advertising in the local newspaper worked like a charm and, once I had parents visit the centre, sealing the deal was easy. I welcomed parents to come and observe circle time so they could get a feel for my interaction tone and guidance techniques with the children. I made sure to show them and the children how passionate I was about finding new approaches to teaching. Within four months all 25 spaces were filled. By the beginning of May, the principal came into the classroom with the rental contract for the coming school year and told me that I could operate through the summer months, as well. He was impressed and I was over the moon with happiness. As I signed the contract, with the children waiting patiently for me to return to the circle on the carpet, he said: “You can wear pants from here on, no problem.” Up until this point, he had made it very clear to me that he was a conservative, albeit kind and caring, man with traditional values. Women wore skirts or dresses in his professional space. Now, it may sound like an odd thing to say in such modern times, but allowing a woman to wear pants in this setting was surely his version of a peace offering. As if by giving me a bit of modernity and control in my own space, he was validating my efforts and apologizing for doubting me. From that point on, he became my biggest advocate. My connection with him would pave the way for expanding Little Rascals into its eventual independence.

Things were moving fast and I had to learn faster. At times, I proceeded without fully understanding the protocols, especially when dealing with child care licensing. 

 

I signed the contract with the North Vancouver School District in the fall of 1982 and started advertising for the additional groups which amounted to an additional 57 spaces.

Building the foundation for Little Rascals.- June 2003

I was juggling programming, staffing, enrolment, cash flow, a new physical set-up, educational equipment, advertising and licensing…and exactly in that order. I remember I accidentally offended the licensing bureau because I didn't go to them first - a big no-no in the business world, I would quickly learn.

I remember getting a very curt phone call from a woman in the licensing department demanding to know just who I thought I was, skirting the process. I never followed protocols very well and had made the colossal mistake of advertising in the newspaper before they gave me a green light. Needless to say, they were upset. I apologized and humbly heeded the warning she was serving me. In my mind, I had a detailed plan, I was taking all the risks, and I was going by the book. I couldn't have been doing anything wrong because I was providing educational and quality child care way above what most centres offered in those days. That day, I learned to be a bit more strategic and that following the rules should always be your first recourse. 

The second Little Rascals Daycare opened on April 1, 1983. It was the first centre on the North Shore, at that time, with an age range of care from 18 months to grade three. The concept of continuum of care was born, giving parents the opportunity to enrol all of their children in one centre. Furthermore, I introduced the in-house waitlist idea, giving existing families priority over new clients. Over the years, we had many children move from age group to age group with little adjustment required, already comfortable with the teachers and setting. The third idea was transportation to and from school as the centre opened at 7:30 a.m. and closed at 6:00 p.m. I got my Class 4 driver’s license and bought a 12-seater van. We did the morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up for parents.

 

All 57 spaces were filled by opening day. I had hired eight new teachers and I was five months pregnant, and trying to hide it from everyone. 

Looking back, I don’t really know how I did it. I remember my friend Janie asking me once: “Are you sure you are not going too fast? What if it does not work?” I answered: “It’s going to work. I will adjust and adapt. It will work. I know it.” And, it did.

It took me years to learn what seem like simple lessons. I learned that the key to success above all is trusting in your ideas and in yourself. Be open to criticism, but don't override your own beliefs just because someone has a differing opinion or concern. There will always be several solutions to one problem and there is always room for adjustments, so spend time analyzing your choices. There will be times when reality bites you, big time, because of unseen details or unexpected developments. That is the time to re-evaluate and, at times, let go of an idea. 

Little Rascals 3-4 class photo. April, 1989

It took me a long time to learn the entrepreneurial language. When I reflect back on those days, I had two personalities. In my professional life I was assertive, confident, and passionate, while at home I was still in the habit of being submissive and unimposing. It took years before the empowerment from my professional success would seep into other areas of my life, but inevitably that’s what began to build me up. 

 

There were lots of hurdles in terms of expanding the operation, especially in a business centred around managing people. I quickly learned humans can be highly emotional and, at times, irrational, opinionated, stubborn, and unpredictable. As my team grew, my role as a therapist began to develop. Everyone meant well, but often most would tip-toe around an issue, letting it brew and build until, one fine day, it would blow up in an unexpected and unavoidable fashion.

 

Once, early on, I was managing a small team of three teachers in the toddler room, all very passionate and capable women, yet all very high strung and set in their ways. Individually, their tolerance for the ideas of others was limited and calm communication was touch-and-go at the best of times. Often, I’d catch them escalating into frustration as the three of them butted heads for alpha in the room. I began to introduce staff briefings and individual meetings to calm things down, and often I would end up mediating heated debates. It was becoming a daily occurrence and finally I told them all to grow up and be more respectful towards each other. It worked on the outside, but I knew it was a powder cake ready to explode anytime. And it did.

One morning, as I was doing payroll in the office, and one teacher came running into my office chased by another teacher who was wielding scissors in an attempt to cut the hair of the first teacher. 

 

I could not believe what I was witnessing. 

 

I told the armed teacher to stop, but she was not listening. Finally, after a bout of yelling and running around, I managed to grab her arm. She dropped the scissors and ran out of the building. I followed her for half a block and eventually she stoped and sank into the grass.

Mitch cutting the ribbon on opening day. - Sept 2003

I sat next to her. There was silence at first, but then she spoke. “I lost it, she drives me crazy, actually insane,” she said to me. We talked, we hugged, and I sent her home. I ended up letting her go, paid her for two weeks salary, and found her another job. She was a good person and an excellent teacher, but she had reached the end of her rope. I pleaded with the other teacher not to press charges and to keep the incident confidential from parents and the teaching community. She did and stayed on with my team. I hired a very calm replacement supervisor, understanding that I needed to have a grounding and senior leader in each group. 

 

The skill of building mini teams within a large team is complex and it took years to learn and fine-tune. The added challenge in the childcare field is the difficulty to find good, sane teachers. Sadly, there are many individuals who get into the industry thinking it will be an easy job, but there are few who are truly qualified applicants with positive work ethic. 

 

Now, I have developed a strong system to filter out those who can’t hack it. I start with their resume, then have a short informal interview, then plan a trial week with pay. I carefully observe their tone and interaction with the children, staff, and parents, and task a few staff to report back to me privately. I look for the fundamentals and take note of their efforts. Now, it usually only takes me a few hours to know if they’re the right fit and usually those teachers turn out to be the best choices.

 

I will never master my intuition to perfection, which is why I allow them a full week to settle in. I have a strong team, now, and I know exactly how to play on each of their strengths and kindly address areas they need to improve upon. It took years to master this language. I remember countless conversations when I said the wrong thing, took a hasty approach, or made a hiring choice I regretted. Each time, however, I fixed the problem, forgave myself, and learned from it. 

 

Sometimes, the people skills you need are less about managing your team and more about crisis control when those outside of your control decide to throw a wrench in things. In my case, parents can be an incredibly unpredictable factor in the day-to-day plans.

One year, during the daycare’s Christmas party I was struggling to find a Santa to hand out gifts to the children. We posted a note to parents and, luckily, one father stepped up to the plate. On the day of the party, he came in very nervous, profusely sweating, and told me he felt too anxious to play the role. I reassured him, saying the kids would be so disappointed and it would all be fine. The time for Santa’s performance neared and I helped him attach the beard. I could see he was visibly rattled and sweating more. I felt bad and tried calming him, and then hoped for the best as he walked into a classroom where 25 three and four year olds and their parents were waiting for Santa.

The first five minutes went off without a hitch, but then I began to see him becoming more and more agitated. All of a sudden, he stood up, ripped off the beard and hat, and stormed out of the room right past me. The kids started to cry and the parents looked utterly shocked. I took over the stage and explained that Santa had the stomach flu and was not feeling well and had to rush back to the North Pole, but he left us the bag with all the presents. So, we carried on and open presents, all of the adults in the room trying to play it cool.

It's all about having a strong team - summer 2016

Once the situation was under control, I went looking for Santa. The red suit and beard were on the floor in the storage room, and, oddly enough, so were his personal clothes and shoes. He was gone.

 

I did not know what to think or what to make of all of these pieces of information. I stood there for a moment in disbelief and confusion. The party continued in all classrooms. The clowns and balloon artists were engaging the children and the parents were socializing over a spread of Christmas treats. My assistant and I calmly stood watching as we tried to figure out what to make of this man’s sudden outburst and subsequent disappearance.

 

Then, like a movie, two policemen showed up at the door asking to speak to the person in charge. They began by warning me about an apparent naked man running through the school playground and down the street, and asked if we had observed anyone like that. I pleaded complete ignorance. How was I supposed to explain this to the parents? I thought it was best to leave this to the officers to find him and at least give him the decency of the incident going away quietly. Once the officers left, I gathered his clothes, added a bottle of Scotch, and gave it to him the next day. He was mortified. I told him: “Not to worry, this never happened”.  

Again, I learned a lesson, and this time it was that sometimes one needs gentle reminders to accept limitations of others and forgive them for their human moments. 

 

A few years went by and as I navigated the daily issues with running a business, my skills with accounting, planning, plumbing, carpentry, and overall maintenance increased. The only thing I hired out for was electrical trouble shooting, but everything else I demanded to do on my own. Then the economy slowed down as interest rates went through the roof in 1986 and many parents lost their jobs. Daycare enrolment plummeted. Some centres closed and declared bankruptcy. Our enrolment went down to 58 percent. I will forever remember the many nights I sat at my desk trying to figure out a backup plan. I developed a plan of part-time enrolment to increase overall numbers, but it meant reducing staff hours and cutting a few positions to rotating layoffs. I cut my salary in half for the year and everyone knew that we would have to make sacrifices to ride out the storm. 

  

It worked. We all survived that year, everybody kept their job, and enrolment went back to 80 percent and then 95 percent the year after.

As I became more seasoned with the routines and workload. I invited more challenges and began entertaining the idea of setting up new centres. In the fall of 1990, Chemex Labs was looking for a childcare operator wanting to design and operate an employee/public based facility within a local industrial area. There were a number of applicants and I was the one who managed to secure the contract. Designing a safe playground was the biggest obstacle as the area near the river could not be fenced. Instead, we worked around the intricacies and difficulties of designing a rooftop playground. In 1991, the third Little Rascals opened its doors. It housed enough space for 12 toddlers and 23 three-to-five spaces with a state-of-the-art roof top playground. For years, the children would enjoy the various play structures and my son Mitch who attended that centre for three years roared around in his favourite blue plastic car with the fast wheels. 

 

I continued to open two more daycares into the 90s. One was an informal after school care program at a Monteray School and the second was located in Penticton, which I continued to operate for many years until selling it to one of the teachers.

In June of 1999, we received a one year notice alerting us to the lease termination of our main location. This was potentially devastating knowing the lack of suitable spaces available to licensed child care. The school had been sold to the Francophone Education Authority and they were now our new landlord. Restructuring at the top of their agenda and Little Rascals was not welcome to stay. It turned into the French vs. English issue…“the Two Solitudes” I had read so much about in my political science class in 4th year at UBC. 

Breaking ground. June 2003

Independence was important to me. I was sick of dealing with landlords who dictated terms while I was left with little input or control. The five year lease at my second Vancouver location was coming up for renewal, as well. I knew it was secure, as I had a good relationship with Chemex Labs, but deep inside I was feeling frustrated and stagnant. I began to toy with the idea of selling my centre and using the money to buy a space at a local plaza, Delbrook. I approached my staff to test the waters and see how many would support me opening my own independent preschool and after school child care centre. 

 

With the support of my staff, I sold the Chemex location to one of my teachers working there and took the $90,000 to pay the downpayment for a unit in Delbrook Plaza - I still own and operate the location as an after school care facility to this day. 

 

Not giving up on the first location, I tried to reason and negotiate, to no avail. Eventually, I was left with no choice but to inform parents the centre would be closing within six months. Families were furious and devastated. We had countless meetings to come up with a solution, and in one of those discussions a parent proposed the idea of approaching the District for help. At first, this went nowhere and we were given the cold shoulder. I refused to give up. I consulted with many people, including the local MLA, Jeremy Dalton. It took tremendous effort and stamina, even going so far as to organize a march with our children through the neighbourhood to district hall. It was picked up by a local station and aired on the 6:00 p.m. news. The attention, coupled with a 5000-signature petition, finally made a difference.

  

It was an obstacle marathon against time and a joint effort by many hardworking parents, teachers, and kids. Eventually, Little Rascals received the go-ahead by the district council to form as a non-profit society composed of parents. The society was given a longterm lease on the Delbrook neighbourhood and we became the child care provider for the society. There was no cost to the public, as Little Rascals was solely responsible to fund the cost of building and maintenance thereafter, and at the end of the lease would hand over the building to the district for no cost. My first independent child care centre opened in 2003.

As I write this today, 15 years later, I have no regrets, but many things that happened during that process came out of left field. While I was attempting to establish this new care centre, we had an arson attack in the first daycare. Five gallons of gasoline was used to drench the ground around the building. It was 3:00 a.m. when I received the phone call at my home in Sechelt: “Your daycare is on fire.” The shock immediately set in but I knew I had to keep to my wits. It was the day I was supposed to sign the paperwork accepting the terms of the new community care lease with the District of NV.

The finished product - Summer 2017

I could not help but think that somehow the whole deal was going to fall through now as the original daycare was vulnerable, literally operating out of ashes, and the new daycare was just three months away from opening. Retaining the families and keeping cashflow was on my mind foremost, as well as predicting the thought pattern of the decision makers at the district. We had fought an incredible battle against all odds and with no support from the NDP government in power at the time. In my gut I knew I had to sign those papers immediately and deliver them to the district prior to the news of the fire making headlines. 

 

I phoned our lawyer at 5:00 a.m. and had them signed in two hours. I made my way to the ferry terminal to catch the 8:20 a.m. ferry to Horseshoe Bay. My staff meanwhile had set up shop in the parking lot of the daycare and used their cellphones to call all parents, breaking the bad news of no daycare until further notice. 

 

Good fortune was on my side. I connected with the reverend of Highlands Church in Edgemont Village, his secretary being the mother-in-law of one of my staff. A small beautiful world, our North Shore, and often very caring and kind. I cried in his office as he gave me the news: “You can move in this Saturday if you wish”. They were the sweetest words I heard that day. And just like that, we had a plan.

It all came together. My staff worked endless hours that weekend as we set up makeshift quarters in the church, scrounging whatever equipment and furniture was not damaged by the smoke, and a few items from the church. The two childcare licensing officers dealing with our original centre and the new one were both very kind and helpful professionals and we received our operating license that Monday morning. 

 

That Sunday, after everybody had left, I sat alone in that large church hall with dividers and toys all set up for the children, ready for Monday morning. I smiled as the tears were running down my face. I was overwhelmed by the kindness I had received. I had withstood so many obstacles, including a fire, and come out the other side…with two centres ready to move forward. 

 

The damage from the fire - June 6, 2003

Now, it was time to pay off the bills. The actual costs were much higher than the ongoing estimates, as adjustments kept pushing the price higher and higher. There were many unforeseen disasters to deal with, like contaminated soil under the building. We also found pieces of an old road and live wires, which meant we had to scramble to find a new location to dump our soil. That alone added $18,000 over night. The building cost increased by $230,000 to keep up with compliance and regulations. The increase in legal fees was the hardest to swallow as we watched the three lawyers rack up the hours repeating themselves and arguing in circles. 

Many lessons needed to be learned and we faced them one-by-one, left only with the choice to adjust, adapt and troubleshoot as we encountered them.

 

If you ask me: Would you do it again? Without a doubt, yes. 

 

It took three years out of our lives as a family. We were consumed with this endeavour of saving one daycare and building another, but we all united under a common cause. The three years gave my second husband and I purpose as a couple and we worked well together in this organized chaos. 

Ironically, as soon as the daycare was built and married life could have proceeded in a more relaxed way, the rift started to widen and I was back on my own. 

 

Then came the break up. The thought of selling the business was unfathomable. The daycare was now 30 years old. I jokingly called it my first and oldest baby. It had taken four years to pay off the bills to get both locations up and running, and now I was facing the same again. Little did I know at the time that this second battle was going to be worse.

It's all about fun in the sun! - Summer 2017

I rode out the financial storm and held on for dear life. It took all I had and I worked 70 hours a week for five years to deal with the debt incurred. I bounced between working on the floor during the day and completing my office tasks in the evening, and jammed in maintenance work on the weekend. I did it. I paid everything off and kept two care centres afloat. Now I own one of the top child care businesses in Vancouver, with a long waitlist of families eager to enrol. I have a reliable staff of wonderful teachers and assistants, and classes brimming with happy students. I put a strong emphasis on providing an education-based activities to keep them inspired and challenged. I am proud of the thriving businesses I fought so hard to build. 

Last January (2017), after returning from a volunteer trip to Africa, I was bursting with inspiration to build an online learning and empowerment company. I began to struggle with how to balance that dream about with the demands of operating two facilities full time. Changes needed to happen.

 

Letting go of our normal way of living and surviving does not come overnight. It is a step-by-step procedure, and sometimes there is no movement at all, or so it seems.

 

I began having conversations with my most senior and very loyal head teacher Jennifer, which gave me hope that these new entrepreneurial dreams of mine may be realized. Together, we made a plan of dividing up the office administration to carve out a chunk of free time. Within a few months, I appointed her centre supervisor as her dedication to Little Rascals was evident every day.

 

As I began to frame out what it would take to start a new business, the news of my best friend Janie’s diagnosis of terminal cancer hit hard. Watching her struggle, deteriorate, and pass away in November 2017 set off an avalanche of emotions. I had dealt with the death of my ex-husband and my parents, but this loss was the hardest. We had a deep and trusting friendship for over 40 years, she had been my most constant and closest adult friend.

 

Once the anguish settled slightly, it forced me to reflect on quality of life and my purpose. I started writing in my journal every day before bed. I asked myself what I wanted out of life and began to explore my heart’s desires.

The answers came slowly and began to take shape. The journey of listening to one’s deepest desires filled my journal pages under the headline: “If you were given one more year to live, what would you choose to do?” 

Last January (2017), after returning from a volunteer trip to Africa, I was bursting with inspiration to build an online learning and empowerment company. I began to struggle with how to balance that dream about with the demands of operating two facilities full time. Changes needed to happen.

 

Letting go of our normal way of living and surviving does not come overnight. It is a step-by-step procedure, and sometimes there is no movement at all, or so it seems.

Cooking classes at the daycare - 2016

I sat with myself for many days and nights and ended up deciding not to sell. Even I was shocked by my decision. 

 

Instead, like always, I developed a Plan B. 

 

I promoted Jennifer to manager of care, giving her more responsibilities and an increased workload. Together, we implemented many systems to streamline operations and conserve time. As her comfort zone increased, I stepped back gradually. As I gained more free time, I dove headfirst into starting a career in healthy living and empowerment. Launching this website has set a fire inside me again. My next entrepreneurial goal in life is to build this company into a thriving platform to inspire men and women to live their best lives. It will come with its challenges and I am sure I will face adversity, but the lessons I have learned over the past 30 years and more will guide me through the process. I have a dream and the skills to make this happen and help others discover the beauty and opportunity this world has to offer.

As I look into my past, I am humbled by the lessons I have learned, the struggles I have endured, and the advice I have absorbed. As I look into my future, I am inspired by all the opportunities to help people navigating their own journey.

My dream of empowering others to Live their Best Life is finally coming to fruition. My passion for learning the new craft fuels me every day, and I wake up thinking about new ways to inspire others.

I am filled with gratitude to have the financial ability, stamina, and desire to build another entrepreneurial dream. I know with my fighting spirit, business savy, and perseverance I can develop this into a thriving business, as well. 

The LYBL Team. June 2018. Photography: Nomad by NK.

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