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Business Rx: Preschool program seeks knowledge to grow by

By Special to Capital Business
Monday, June 21, 2010; 22

THE ENTREPRENEUR

Llacey Simmons knew she wanted a career that would help people. Her sister had started several day-care centers in Germantown, where Simmons worked in high school and throughout college. She helped create curricula and worked for a few summers as an assistant teacher for 2-year-olds, which she really enjoyed -- especially experiencing how fast the children could learn.

"They can understand a lot more than we think they can," Simmons said. "It was fun having that as a learning experience, seeing how much I could get them to absorb and basically seeing the light bulb go off for them."

After graduating from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the Gaithersburg resident took an office job and spent her evenings tutoring high school students. Soon she was tutoring full time. She worked primarily with high school students in math and science from some of the top-ranked high schools in Montgomery County. In working with several students, Simmons became concerned by what she saw as a recurring problem -- a lack of critical-thinking skills required to really excel as leaders.

"I pretty much dedicated my whole life to this educational field and found out that this was a passion that I really liked and I wanted to pursue that further," Simmons said.

Simmons decided to pursue an MBA to pick up the skills she could use to apply to building a business. She entered the University of Maryland's full-time MBA program in fall 2009 and started working on her business plan. She also took classes to earn her teaching certificate in early childhood education.

THE BUSINESS

Simmons teamed up with Alexander Madrid, a former classmate from UMBC, to develop Leading Start Kids. The preschool program aims to help young children develop the skills Simmons saw lacking in the high schoolers she tutored. The Leading Start Kids program is a unique blend of science, team-based leadership, social entrepreneurship and daily Mandarin Chinese instruction.

Simmons

"If we can expose children at a young age to the 21st century skills they'll need, they'll be better suited to lead. Leading Start Kids believes that a strong early childhood educational foundation can lead to higher academic success and confidence. All children are active learners and have an innate curiosity for knowledge.

"Group activities will be used to enhance the learning opportunities, share information and collaborate. Education is dynamic, and it should be developed at school, at home and within the community. Leading Start Kids will partner with community events to not only allow our staff the opportunity to give back, but also to teach our young students the importance of social entrepreneurship. Additionally, Leading Start Kids will donate a percentage of annual profits to other early childhood educational programs that share the same passion of educating and preparing young children for success in the 21st century.

"The target market is parents with 2- to 5-year-old children, household income of $100,000 or more, living in high-growth suburban areas that value high-quality education."

After incorporating the company in February and going through the necessary state and county approval process, Simmons plans to open her first location in Gaithersburg in January 2011. She'll offer the full-day program at a monthly fee competitive with other child-care options in the county. She has already developed the curriculum and lined up degreed teachers. And Simmons has her sights on a 2014 goal to create a franchise so the model can be replicated in markets nationwide.

Now her challenges are figuring out the most effective marketing and thinking about the best strategy for growth.

THE FEEDBACK

Asher Epstein, managing director, Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

"Location is really critical for this type of business. You need a place parents can easily access on their way to and from work. Try to partner with some large local employers and see if you can do some marketing through the workplace. This will make sure that you are reaching people in a focused way where your offering is convenient.

"Also, the challenge with your concept is that most people already have a day-care solution. So you either need to find people that aren't happy with their current solution or find new entrants into the market. Try to identify new mother groups that will be looking for a preschool solution in the near future. This will help you get a steady flow of incoming children to help you continue to grow."

REACTION

Simmons

"We are seeking partnerships with day cares that do not currently have a preschool program or do not have capacity to have one so that through referrals we can capture that underserved audience. We will also be implementing Teaching Strategies' new online assessment system, Gold, which will allow parents and teachers to track a child's progress through our program. As the State of Maryland moves toward making preschool mandatory for kindergarten enrollment, it may be less of an issue to recruit and more of an issue of when and how to scale appropriately. As the business evolves and we market through community events, we will hopefully build our client base through both our programs offerings but also by word-of-mouth."

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need held fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland's Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us as capbiznews@washpost.com.

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