I got married when I was 20, and I had my first baby at 21. I was still in business school, and I had to write an exam. I remember asking a neighbour I’d only met once if she could watch him for a few hours. I went on to have a total of eight kids in 11 years, and I knew I wanted to be a working mom. So, I started opening child cares in the Toronto area.
In 2002, when my kids were a little older, Jennifer Nashmi and I started Kids & Company. Our first centre offered only backup care, which had never been done in Canada. Then we realized parents also needed flexible full-time care—meaning it didn’t have to be five days a week. We’d been paying attention to the U.S., where they have all kinds of corporate child care, whether it’s paid for by the company or located on a corporate campus. Our idea was to sign up companies that could then offer guaranteed child-care spaces to their employees. The nice thing about child care is that it’s recession-proof, so we were never worried that the idea would sell. But with the first few companies we spoke to—mostly banks, law firms and accounting firms—it was touch-and-go: “We don’t tell our employees where to go to the dentist. Why would we tell them where to go for child care?”
Now, we have hundreds of corporate partners. A couple of things helped us. One was this trend toward supporting working families—companies knew employees would have a space with us as part of their wellness benefits. And when we started, the philosophy for a lot of child care was, “You’re lucky you have a space with us.” We turned that on its head to say, “We’re lucky to have your family with us.” For example, parents didn’t have to sign up for child care five days a week, and we wouldn’t charge parents if they were late for pickup.
But the issue in Canada is that companies here tend to have people in all the big cities across the country, as opposed to the U.S., where you’d have one child-care provider on one big company’s campus. So, operationally it was a challenge. But we’ve continued to grow, and 10 years ago we took a big risk going into the U.S., starting with Chicago—and it worked out for us. The other thing we’re doing now is providing elder care.
We’ve also opted in to the new federal child-care funding program. Many private child cares haven’t, because there are concerns profits will be impacted. But for us, it was never a choice. Equity is really important to us, and we wouldn’t want it to be that only people with high salaries can afford to come to Kids & Company. And we’re not concerned about it affecting the bottom line because we have fees coming from our corporate clients. We’re very lucky that we came upon our business model. We changed so many times over the course of the business to try to get something that would work. And the advice I give most entrepreneurs is, Don’t get stuck in your first plan. Be ready to make changes as you go along.
We really changed up something that was very institutional. And even now, as we’re growing in the U.S., we’re not seeing others doing what we’ve done. The reason no one’s copying it is because it’s really hard to do. But the flexibility of the child care is very helpful for families, and it’s been the key to our success.