Licensed to Jam

El Brown: This founder of a music-based movement class has changed lives—including her own

By Katie Morell

22.CEOWomanIt was late in 2008 when El Brown, a former teacher, came up with a business idea that would soon help thousands of children, land her on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and create jobs for dozens of women. The idea was an education-based music and movement class for preschool-age children designed to reinforce lessons learned in school and help with cognitive development.

Brown’s “aha” moment came in her living room when she was living at a military base in California and raising Ricky II, her 18-month-old son. When Ricky II was experiencing developmental delays and a doctor hesitated testing him, Brown took matters into her own hands and developed a curriculum to help him learn to speak and move relative to his age level.

He quickly showed signs of improvement, and other mothers on the base requested that Brown help them work with their kids, too. Soon word spread to families beyond the military, and KinderJam, Brown’s company, was born.

Since 2008, Brown has been featured on Oprah and worked with thousands of children through a licensing model in which teachers can purchase tools to create KinderJam classes of their own. Classes are now available in 16 states and 11 countries. Brown is currently getting her PhD in early childhood education, and Ricky II is a thriving nine-year-old.

This year, Brown will move away from a licensing model in favor of a franchising one. Her concept will be less “KinderJam in a box” and will focus on ongoing training for teachers from a centralized hub in Fairfax, Virginia, where she now lives. Diversity Woman sat down with Brown to hear more about her journey as a CEO.

Diversity Woman: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

El Brown: I think so. I remember making a list of goals when I was 17 years old that included getting married, being a mother, and owning my own business. I’ve always wanted to be the captain of my own ship.

DW: Tell me about a problem in your business and how you overcame it.

EB: I founded KinderJam as an education-based program, not a recreation-based one, and I lost sight of that a few years ago. With the licensing model, I thought I could just give people permission to use my curriculum and they would perform exactly the way I wanted them to. It didn’t happen that way, and the more licensees I got, the more they diluted the brand, because I wasn’t able to teach every single person. To maintain the integrity of the program, I’ve decided to make it a franchise model instead.

DW: What does it mean to have a franchise model versus a licensing one?

EB: We are working on that right now and plan to roll out our franchising model in 2017. With a licensing model, someone pays a fee for the use of my material and the relationship is limited. Franchisees, on the other hand, will get much more support and training. And all locations will answer to us at headquarters.

I’m also getting my PhD to make this an evidence-based program and hopefully bring it into schools. Right now, the only children that have access are the ones whose parents pay. I want to get the program funded and directly into schools. I’m hoping to do that later this year.

DW: What are you the most proud of in your business career? 

EB: I’m proud that something I created on my living room floor is now being taught to thousands of children. I built it for my baby, and it is now blessing families. The responses I get from parents make my day. They love it. Teachers get children for only 180 days per year. When God blesses you with the influence of being a parent, you need to be responsible with what you do with that. And I think KinderJam helps parents relate to and teach their children effectively. I’m really proud of that.

DW: What are some of the biggest leadership lessons you’ve learned?

EB: When I was in college, I remember the president of our student government association telling me that not everything I thought was meant to be said. This really hit me. Over time, I’ve realized that once words leave your mouth, they belong to the interpretation of the listener. I speak with women from a lot of different backgrounds and am cognizant of my language. Everything comes down to language and word choice. When talking to my staff, I make sure my words are motivating ones.

I’ve also learned to trust in my people. If you’re a leader and you’ve built a system and trained your people, you have to allow them to execute on their own. It is in my nature to insert myself into situations, but I’ve learned to be a humble leader, to step outside a situation and believe they will get the job done.

DW: What entrepreneurial lesson have you learned the hard way?

EB: The hardest lesson I’ve learned in KinderJam is not letting go soon enough. Sometimes you outgrow people in your organization and, because of your personal loyalty, you keep them around longer than you should. I’ve lost money doing that—ruling with my heart rather than my best judgment. I’m still working on that; it’s an internal battle.

DW: How have your hiring strategies changed because of this?

EB: I am much more careful when I hire. Before, I would lead with my heart. All I required was passion and a desire to love children and positively impact families. Now I know that there is a certain level of subject matter expertise needed to be of service. Today I rely heavily on universities and hire a lot of graduate students who are getting degrees in social work and early childhood development. This strategy has worked beautifully. They are available for weekend classes, are young and eager to learn, and have high levels of enthusiasm.

By treating them well and communicating often, I’m hoping referrals will come. I want to build the type of culture where people want to come to work. And since I’m employing students, hopefully they will tell other students.

DW: What is your strategy on firing?

EB: We don’t really fire people. Instead, we choose “not to continue a relationship.” Each of our instructors is hired for one season at a time. After a season, either they are invited back or they aren’t.

DW: What career advice can you offer new college graduates?

EB: Don’t limit your options. There are so many ways to monetize your passion. If you have a strong work ethic, a solution to a problem, and confidence in yourself, go out and explore your passion. Entrepreneurialism is the way of the future.

DW: What book are you reading right now?

EB: I’m reading The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael E. Gerber. If you have a desire to be an entrepreneur, you must read this book. It talks about the myth of entrepreneurship—that many people end up just owning a job, not running a business. It teaches you how to get your craft out into the world and build systems to train people so those people can help you go out and scale your business. DW

Katie Morell is a San Francisco–based journalist who specializes in business, travel, and human interest–related topics.

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