You can’t be successful directing a small early child care program unless you’re an expert in early childhood development and the science of early brain development. But it also helps to understand accounting, marketing, human resources, facilities management, and bulk purchasing. Many owners of early care and education businesses pick up enough business skills to get by. But there’s a big difference between getting by and maximizing profits.
When Alicia Jno-Baptiste signed up for our Small Business Innovation Center program she relied on a bookkeeper to keep track of her business accounts. By her own admission, she “didn’t have a clue” about how to analyze the monthly reports. After going through the Small Business Innovation Center program with other entrepreneurs, Jno-Baptiste learned about cash flow and how to analyze the costs of care to ensure a profit along with other business needs like marketing, facilities management, and automating tasks.
Jno-Baptiste, who owns Wee Care JP, still employs a bookkeeper, but now when she gets the monthly reports, she can read the numbers. “I can see if we’ve reached our income goal, how much we’ve spent, where we’re down, and where we need to be,” Jno-Baptiste said. “I can head off financial trouble much sooner because I can see it coming and be proactive in dealing with it.”
In addition to instruction in business and technology, the Small Business Innovation Center program is anchored with the Leadership Institute’s 40-hour curriculum in entrepreneurial leadership. Jno-Baptiste says that the combination of instruction in business and leadership is a powerful one. “I feel more confident running my business and I think people look at me differently, too, because I have more expertise,” she says.
Jno-Baptiste put all of her skills to use during the early months of the pandemic when she kept Wee Care JP open as an emergency child care program. The state permitted approximately 500 programs, including Wee Care JP, to remain open on an emergency basis provided that they prioritized child care for health care workers, essential state and human service workers, grocery store employees, emergency response personnel, law enforcement, transportation and infrastructure workers, sanitation workers, DCF-involved families, and families living in shelters.
Based on her experience as an emergency provider, Jno-Baptiste has advice for others seeking to reopen (and remain open) under new operating guidance from the state that is designed to minimize transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19: be flexible.
“It’s so hard to keep them away from each other,” says Jno-Baptiste. “Because naturally that’s what kids do. They’re like magnets to each other.”
Jno-Baptiste says that educators need to be prepared to adapt the layout of their classrooms and centers to promote physical distance. They also need to communicate with parents about their daily COVID-19-related challenges and how they’re being handled.
“You’ve got to be very honest, you’ve got to let parents know what’s going on,” she says. “You might need to say, ‘Listen, we have four children in the classroom and two of them are really struggling with keeping their distance, so we aren’t able to enforce the physical distancing rules all the time. But we’re wiping down surfaces and having the children wash their hands more often.”
Jno-Baptiste also recommends keeping calm in the face of children’s hygiene missteps, to avoid scaring them. Kids are still going to absent-mindedly wipe their noses on your pants and inadvertently sneeze in your face, she says. In the early days of providing emergency child care, Jno-Baptiste recalls, teachers were on edge when they encountered some of the more unhygienic, but otherwise typical, behavior of the children.
“I told them, you still have to remember the kids are here, we still have to be able to accept them,” Jno-Baptiste says. “We can’t react as if they did something wrong when they’re just sneezing. That’s what they do!”
At the same time, Jno-Baptiste and her staff remained conscious of the toll that caring for children under pandemic conditions took on all of them. She fostered a culture in which staff members supported each other and checked in with each other more frequently.
“We checked in. I checked in,” she said. “I did special things for them because there were only three of us that did the emergency child care. I bought lunches and brought treats from home.”
While Jno-Baptiste has sharpened her business skills, and is handling the steep learning curve forced on all providers by the pandemic, she still finds that her role as a Black entrepreneur in a mostly-white neighborhood of Boston is not without its challenges.
“It still comes up in the weirdest ways, and I’m always shocked by it because I’m thinking, ‘Oh I thought we were past this,’” she says.
When Jno-Baptiste purchased the center and the building in which it’s housed, she says she didn’t feel as though she received the same reception and respect from the community given to the former owner, who was white.
“It was unsettling because I had already been here, running Wee Care JP, for 10 years,” Jno-Baptiste says. “So it’s still struggle, but I’ve learned to navigate the situation and I’m making something really positive. Nothing can take away from my dream and the way my kids make me feel.”
One of the reasons why Jno-Baptiste purchased her own center in Boston is because she had hit a career dead-end at a corporate child care center located in a Boston suburb. “I was the only Black person working there,” she says, recalling that she had never been promoted to a program coordinator position despite having as much education and experience as the white employees around here who advanced.
So Jno-Baptiste returned to school to earn another degree in early education and worked in multiple settings including a Montessori school and other programs focusing on different age ranges and educational approaches. She finally landed at Wee Care JP, which she eventually purchased from its founders.
Today, she’s created an open and inclusive learning culture at Wee Care JP with parents who are deeply involved in their child’s early care and education and supportive of the mission and vision Jno-Baptiste has set forth for her business.
“At the start of every day I put my energy into making sure my staff and children know and understand diversity, love, respect, and how important each and every person’s background is,” Jno-Baptiste says. “Wee Care JP is about promoting diversity, not only racially and culturally, but economically and of family configuration at all levels. We never stop learning.”