I got married when I was 20 and had my first child when I was 21. I was still in business school and had to take an exam. I remember asking a neighbor I’d only met once if she could watch him for a few hours. I had a total of eight children in 11 years and knew I wanted to be a working mom. So I started opening child care facilities in the Toronto area.
In 2002, when my children were a little older, Jennifer Nashmi and I founded Kids & Company. Our first center offered only replacement care, which had never been done in Canada. Then we realized that parents also needed flexible, full-time care – meaning it didn’t have to be five days a week. We looked at the US, where all types of corporate childcare exist, whether paid for by the company or located on a corporate campus. Our idea was to recruit companies that can then offer their employees guaranteed childcare places. The beauty of childcare is that it’s recession proof, so we were never afraid the idea would sell. But with the first companies we spoke to – mostly banks, law firms and accounting firms – it was a no-brainer: “We don’t tell our employees where to go to the dentist. Why should we tell them where to go for childcare?”
Now we have hundreds of corporate partners. A few things helped us. One was this trend to support working families – companies knew employees would have a place with us as part of their wellness services. And when we started, the philosophy for many daycares was, ‘You’re lucky to have a place with us.’ We flipped that on its head to say, ‘We’re lucky to have your family with us. For example, parents didn’t have to register for childcare five days a week, and we wouldn’t charge parents if they were late for pickup.
But the problem in Canada is that companies here tend to have employees in all major cities across the country, unlike in the US where there is a childcare worker on the campus of a large company. So operationally it was a challenge. But we kept growing, and 10 years ago we took a big risk going to the US, starting with Chicago – and it worked out for us. The other thing we do now is care for the elderly.
We also opted for the new federal funding program for childcare. Many private daycares have not done so because of concerns that profits will be hurt. But for us it was never a choice. Fairness is very important to us and we don’t want only people with high salaries to be able to afford a job at Kids & Company. And we don’t worry about it affecting the bottom line as we receive fees from our corporate clients. We are very lucky that we came across our business model. We’ve switched so many times throughout the business to try and get something that works. And the advice I give to most entrepreneurs is don’t get stuck in your first plan. Be prepared to make changes over time.
We really changed something that was very institutional. And even now, as we grow in the US, we don’t see others doing what we’ve been doing. The reason nobody copies it is because it’s really hard to make. But the flexibility of childcare is very helpful for families and has been key to our success.