Entrepreneurs have told me hundreds of times that they are in it to pursue their passion.
Julia Ross started her tutoring business out of desperation.
She had three surgeries in her late 20s, derailing a career that had just begun to blossom. She had been punching above her weight as an employee with the General Services Administration, where she briefed the treasury secretary’s staff and exchanged Post-it Notes with then-Office of Management and Budget Director Leon E. Panetta.
She had left government for a better job at US Airways but was forced to quit because of a bout with a disabling disease.
The surgeries spurred the then-29-year-old mother of two to become a resourceful businesswoman.
“I had to make an income,” said Ross, 52. “My husband and I were making $50,000 apiece when I went into my first surgery. So I cut our income in half. It was rough.”
This isn’t a column about a brilliant entrepreneur who made a ton, stands at the head of an industry and commands a Gulfstream IV. It’s about a tough mother who got her back up and preserved her family and everything that goes with that.
She graduated from the University of Virginia, where she also earned a master’s degree in urban planning. She was eventually struck by Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that can be debilitating and can end in a wheelchair.
The surgeries began in early 1994, and by summer she had an operation on her skull.
To add to the family income, she became a counselor to foreign au pairs who were just a few years younger. “I got to use my languages and hang out with international students, mostly from Europe and South America,” she said.
“I did it for four years. I needed the money. We had two kids, a single-family home in Springfield,” she said. “I remember the first time the checks made a difference: I got to go clothes shopping for my 2- and 3-year old at the same time.”
The tutoring started gradually around the same time as a way to add a few dollars.
A neighbor who was a reading teacher was working with a fifth-grader. She recommended that the boy use Ross for math help.
Ross hopped in her GM Saturn and drove over to the family’s home for the $25 session.
Other kids heard and started to contact her. She made file cards and posted them on bulletin boards at the local Giant and Safeway. She advertised in neighborhood newspapers. Within months, she was getting phone calls and registrations.
The checks started trickling in, starting with $100 a month, and moved quickly up to $700.
“This was survival,” Ross said. “I tried everything that I could think of to attract business. I advertised in large communities’ homeowners association newsletters. At that time, before the Web, people consistently read these 10-page newsletters.”
Four years later, she was earning $51,000 annually, topping her former salary.
By 1998, they had avoided the abyss.
“In a sense, I went through my own family Great Depression,” she said. “For three years, we were climbing out. By 1998, we were back to where we had been before. It was several tough years.”
By 2001, she was pulling down $100,000. By 2010, her Professional Tutoring had grown to $220,000, thanks to a handbook titled “Getting Into College” that sold 5,000 copies. It made a little money, but more importantly it generated leads — and revenue.
“That was the turning point,” she said.
Ross grossed nearly $1.4 million over the past three years, which comes to more than $400,000 a year. The 10 part-time employees and four paid interns are the biggest expense, running about $130,000 annually.
Surprisingly, most of the staffers are former students or parents of former students.
Most of the tutoring and coaching is done in a small, detached cottage that adjoins their home in Fairfax Station, Va., where they moved in 2002. The company has a website and a bustling little business that nets her $150,000 a year. She also is smart about saving, maximizing the contributions to her 401(k) plan and individual retirement account.
“We live beneath our means and have a $200,000 rainy day fund to cover a year of my income and payroll,” she said.
Professional Tutoring is a family affair. Her two grown daughters work there part-time, and her husband helps edit the college essays.
“I am now the breadwinner in the family,” said Ross, who works 60 hours a week.
Professional Tutoring is a one-stop shop. It has tutors for every subject, as well as languages including Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish and Portuguese.
As she puts it: “Whether your kid wants to go to UVA or become a petroleum engineer, we tell you, ‘This is what you need to do.’ ”
Ross even calls up admissions offices to lobby for her students, once phoning a colonel at West Point. “My New York came over me,” she said, “and I told the colonel that not accepting my client would be a bigger loss for the U.S. Military Academy than it would be for my client.” He got in and graduated with a nuclear engineering degree — with honors.
About 40 percent of revenue comes from SAT preparation. About 35 percent is tutoring, and the rest is coaching on college résumés and applications — including essays and interviews — as well as strategies on the schools to which one should apply.
It ain’t cheap. Ross charges $3,200 for a nine-month, two-hour-per-week SAT/ACT preparation course. A two-hour initial consultation for college coaching can run $750. It sounds a little like hiring your own guidance counselor — something I could have used during high school.
Professional Tutoring works with students in groups of four to six during the afternoon on Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. SAT prep sessions are on Sunday and Thursday evenings, with up to 35 students.
Ross grew up in an upper-middle-class family in New Jersey, where she showed a certain scrappiness early on. During college summers, she began work at 3 a.m. at the local bagel shop, then went home to nap before working as a hostess during evenings.
She was a good student and, yes, scored high on the SAT. Her nimbleness with foreign languages took her to the University of Paris during her junior year, where she studied completely in French.
As we talked about her life, I learned that Ross has an underlying grit that has served her well. Grit is one of those qualities that successful people have in spades.
When she left her doctor’s office following surgery, Ross wrote down the things he told her she would never do:
She scratched them off, one by one. She rides horses regularly. She runs a 12-minute mile. Hikes. Bikes. The scuba diving, though, isn’t in the cards because her ears cannot take the water pressure.
“It was pure stubbornness,” she said of the slog. “And the need to be healthy enough to take care of my family and to work.”