While there’s no single “best path” to becoming a child care entrepreneur, there are proven “best practices” that all but guarantee success. That’s what Brenda Soto came to realize over her journey from the medical billing field to running a thriving child care center.
Long before she became the owner of Making a Difference Step by Step in Virginia Beach, Brenda did billing for a psychiatry practice in Massachusetts. The practice served children and their families, which inspired her to start a daycare in her home. She was able to keep the business open even after moving to Virginia Beach nine years later to help her ill mother.
Brenda found some extra work at an office in Virginia Beach, where she met a woman who was operating a child care center in the area. They chatted about owning this type of business, and Brenda set out to learn more about the woman’s center. Unfortunately, she was dismayed at how it was being run. Two months later, the woman called Brenda and asked if she would be interested in buying the business.
Though Brenda had just completed training through social services to learn how Virginia’s standards differed from Massachusetts, she had not yet determined what kind of program she wanted. Brenda visited the center and fell in love with the location and building. She gathered all the money she could spare and talked to her nephew about a loan. He, too, saw the possibilities of this venture. In September 2018, Brenda reopened the center as Making a Difference Step by Step, which was licensed for 35 children.
But she faced immediate challenges. Of the former center’s roster of 40 children, only 12 reenrolled. Though all three employees stayed, Brenda found herself clueless how to run a staff. Some of the remaining families used vouchers, and Brenda didn’t understand how that arrangement worked. Undeterred, she learned what she could as quickly as possible. She signed up for EEBC’s Early Education Business Program, which is funded by nonprofit Virginia Beach GrowSmart.
Over the course of “mini MBA” series, she learned strategic business planning, best marketing techniques for early education, financial management, leadership skills, human resource management and the importance of automation. She got to work with early education business coaches and mentors who visited her center, as well as a marketing professional who created a powerful website for her business, all funded by the grant:
When the pandemic hit, there was no question that Making a Difference Step by Step would stay open. But it wouldn’t be easy. Staffing fluctuated for the 20 students she still served, and Brenda had to pony up for additional cleaning machinery and daily sanitation. But as other child care centers closed, Making a Difference grew.
Brenda began looking for additional ways to make her center high-quality and sustainable, including:
Applying for the U.S. Department of Education’s Preschool Development Grant (PDGVQ5).
One important takeaway from working with HRSSA (which is also led by Early Education Business Consultants) was how automation is an investment that saves time and money—both of which can be directed back into program quality. HRSSA coaches helped Brenda implement childcare management software that greatly reduces paperwork and labor time. For example, the software has a time clock for her staff, which has saved her about 3.5 hours per payroll period—90 hours per year!—on that function alone. Now she can review the simplified report for payroll processing, click to approve, and use the saved time to focus on staff and children.
With guidance from Virginia Marsh, EEBC’s director of operations, Brenda has also started using automation for childcare payments. She’s even added an online enrollment packet. Once she can get parents registered with an online account, it will save time for the families AND the staff, by eliminating manual payment and data entry. Coming soon: Virgina is setting up a kiosk for families to check their children in and out, and an app that will allow the center to communicate directly with families about their child’s day. Brenda has found it easier to make these transitions thanks to Virginia’s onsite consulting and coaching.
“Virginia is awesome,” she exclaimed. “She is right there if I have questions about a spreadsheet. Forecasting staff compensation is just one example. I now can plan and administer effective pay increases based on data.”
Another lesson Brenda has taken to heart from EEBC’s training: how to improve staff retention and job satisfaction. Brenda works hard to keep her staff engaged in the business’s success and to create a positive work atmosphere. Finding and fostering talent has been particularly rewarding, she said. She smiles as she describes Ana Kohlway, who worked part-time when Brenda bought the center. Ana is now the assistant director. Making a Difference offers paid holidays after 90 days of employment, and pays staff any days the center is closed. Employees also receive a week of paid vacation after the first year, and two weeks after two years or more.
Brenda invests in her staff with 16-25 hours of professional development each year, through organizations like Child Savers and Virginia Beach GrowSmart. She takes care to schedule training during the week instead of on weekends, which the staff appreciates. She shows them HER appreciation in many ways, including parties. This year’ Christmas party was held at a Chili’s, complete with thank-you gifts from Brenda and a Secret Santa exchange. She kicked off the center’s fourthyear anniversary with an outing for the staff on the American Rover.
Community support is also a priority for this program, as another shining example of its success. Brenda involves students from her after-school program in educational projects that bring a sense of community pride:
“During a recent group discussion with these children—ages 5 to 10—one student said he felt bad when he saw a homeless person on the side of the road asking for money,” said Brenda. “The discussion continued, and we decided we would do a bag project for them to keep in their family car for the next time they saw a homeless person. The children shared ideas of what the people needed, so we purchased blankets, snacks and other items for the children to make bags and to ask their parents to help them give out.”
What’s next for this growing center? A place to grow into. Brenda said he biggest wish list item is a bigger building, as she currently has 85 children on the waitlist. For now, she’s considering a portable classroom to house her after-school program, which would free up space for the smaller children inside.
Without a doubt, this center is making a difference, step by step…