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EPISODE 062 : 05/19/2022

Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is the founder of Wonderschool, a mission-driven online platform that empowers experienced educators and child care providers to run their own in-home business. Wonderschool was named one of the world’s 10 most innovative companies in education by Fast Company, and Chris’ TED Talk on accessible childcare has gained more than 1.6 million views to date.

Host: Ned Hayes and Ashley Coates
Guest: Chris Bennett

Listen to every episode

Topics discussed in this episode

  • Detailed small business insights from Olympia, Washington
  • Small business resiliency and adaptation during COVID
  • Doubling community outreach during the pandemic
  • Opportunities for small business loyalty programs

Watch this podcast on the 
Small Business Success 
Youtube Channel

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Audio Transcript

Ned Hayes [00:00:01] Welcome to Spark Plug, where we talk to smart people working at the intersection of business and technology. Brought to you by SnowShoe, your smarter loyalty leader. Spark Plug is very excited to welcome Chris Bennett to the podcast today. Chris is the founder of Wonderschool, a mission driven online platform that empowers experienced educators and childcare providers to run their own in-home business while providing services to other families in their communities. Wonderschool was named one of the world’s top ten most innovative companies in education by Fast Company and Chris’s TEDx Talk and accessible childcare has had more than 1.6 million views to date. So welcome, Chris, to the podcast.

Chris Bennett [00:00:43] Excited to be here. Thanks for having me Ned. 

Ashley Coates [00:00:45] We’re so excited to talk with you today. Chris, maybe you can start out giving us a little bit of background on yourself. Specifically, I know that you have described yourself as being very passionate about the power of the Internet and using the Internet for social good. So when did you first become passionate about this topic? 

Chris Bennett [00:01:03] I was an Internet user pretty early in my childhood, but I started using the Internet around seven or eight, I think, and it was at a time when none of my peers were using it. So it was just a fun thing to do. And what I liked about the Internet, it was a way to connect with the world. It was a way to make money. I sold things, I ran little businesses selling baseball cards and concert tickets on the Internet. I love that. But I don’t really think I ever thought about social good until I never really cared so much about social good. I was much more focused on my own personal wealth. It was until I was working for an investment firm, I was working for a private equity firm, and I realized it wasn’t really enjoyable. And I had a lot of friends who were working at Teach for America, and I was really envious of what they were doing because they were going in the communities that I’m most familiar with and doing really valuable work and it felt like I should be doing I wanted to do that. And so that’s when I started to think about social good. 

Ned Hayes [00:01:57] So a follow on that. Many companies today seem to be judged short term by their shareholders quarterly results even week to week, performance ratios, revenue, incoming traction. What kind of metrics do you think are the right metrics to judge companies in the future beyond just that short term, growing your own share of the market? 

Chris Bennett [00:02:17] Well, we live in a capitalist society, right? And our capitalist society doesn’t necessarily value social good. And I’m actually not one to say that that should change. I don’t know. I kind of think about my own personal values, and I’m not willing to ascribe my personal values onto others. So I don’t know if that should change. 

Ned Hayes [00:02:37] Yeah.

Chris Bennett [00:02:38] Capitalism seems to be, well, capitalism doesn’t seem to be working for many people, right? There’s all these people who live in the Bay Area who are homeless. Homeless situation only seems to be getting worse, but it’s usually solved by government, and government usually takes on more social measures to fix those things. Yeah, that’s the tricky question. I could go longer on this, actually, but I actually not one to say that we should change capitalism. I guess.

Ashley Coates [00:03:06] We would love to learn more about Wonderschool. How did you come to found Wonderschool? 

Chris Bennett [00:03:12] I started Wonderschool in 2017. I started it by going and finding someone who was running a child care program to understand their problems. And in the program, I realized that they weren’t marketing their business well. They really need help with the business component of their childcare program. So I helped them with that and I helped them get more enrollments. I helped them market their business, helped them change their prices. I helped the hire more staff, expand their business, and I did this in a couple of months and I realized we could potentially do that for more. And so then I started a childcare program myself to understand everything around starting childcare programs. And in doing that, helped the woman tripled her personal revenue or personal income running a child care program. And at that point I thought, okay, we’re onto something. I found three other people, help them start their programs and then built a business around that concept. And as a kid, I went to a home based childcare program, and in that program I had an incredible experience. I really enjoyed it. And the woman who ran it was a great businesswoman, and she was able to run a successful business, and she grew her business from a small family childcare program to a center based program. So I saw that and thought, Hey, why don’t I try that in the Bay Area? And that worked and started a business around it. 

Ned Hayes [00:04:30] Got it. So it sounds like that was the inspiration for Wonderschool. And it also sounds like combining the business aspect and educational aspect are really the keys to Wonderschool being successful. I am curious if you could tell us more about your personal passion for early childhood. Do you have experiences that that have really shaped the decisions you make at Wonderschool?

Chris Bennett [00:04:51] I went to a STEM school as a kid and it was also play based and I didn’t really focus on academics until elementary school. And in elementary school I was always a top student, so that’s made me a lot more bought in to the idea of creating play based childcare programs. So we encourage all of our providers to create play based programs and to use a play based curriculum instead of an academic curriculum where three year olds are sitting down and learning how to count, learning how to read, wait for that. So that was a big thing for me from my personal experience, remembering what that experience was like and it working for me and then reading research that supported that. It was the best way to do it led me to build our philosophy around that. 

Ashley Coates [00:05:34] Yeah, that’s wonderful. So I know that today Wonderschool has helped thousands of parents find quality in-home care. Can you talk about the need that you saw and then why you built the solution this way? And I’m curious if that need for parents has evolved since the pandemic hit. 

Chris Bennett [00:05:52] What’s changed since the pandemic is child care centers have experienced a lot of pain. So if you run a child care center, you rent a location, you have to hire assistant teachers. For every assistant teacher you have, you can add more children. And a lot of those, when the pandemic hit, because of measures by cities and the federal government, people stop seeing each other in person. And so a lot of these schools had to close. A lot of the employees were considered essential employees. And so they were able to work and they were able to stay open. But parents decided not to put their kids into childcare because they didn’t want to get their family sick. That led to a lot of these schools having to lay teachers off. Our teachers decided not to go to work because they didn’t want to get sick themselves, and when those teachers left, they had to figure out how to make money in other ways. So they went and maybe took a job at Amazon. They took some other jobs, and in those other jobs, they may have been paid more. They may have been exposed to other things. And recruiting those teachers back to the field has been really, really tough, which has made it really hard for these centers to remain open and operate. Another thing that’s happening over the pandemic is people wanted smaller environments. They wanted places where they knew all the other parents and they could help control it and make sure that they weren’t getting sick. And that’s actually what Wonderschool was pre-pandemic, a small family childcare program. So it’s created a lot of demand for the types of programs to work with. At Wonderschool we work with both type centers and family childcare, but it’s created a lot more demand for family childcare or home based childcare programs, which has led to a lot of growth for our business. It’s also led governments and employers to be more interested in family childcare, which has led to a lot of growth for our business as well. 

Ned Hayes [00:07:35] Right. You’ve actually spoken about this publicly. You gave a fantastic TEDx talk last summer that gained over a million and a half views. So one of the things I really wanted to zero in on there was the idea of childcare deserts. And if you could speak a little bit more about what effect deserts and childcare have amazing communities. 

Chris Bennett [00:07:55] Yes, so childcare desert is a place where there’s not enough childcare for the children in the community. 

Ned Hayes [00:07:59] Mm hmm. 

Chris Bennett [00:08:00] And I was just sitting down with the state leader yesterday, and we were talking about this. Children are going to get cared for, period. Right. It’s illegal to leave a two year old at home by themselves. So someone’s going to watch the two year old. Tricky thing is how high quality of experience is that child experiencing? If they’re at home with a negligent adult, they’re getting wants, but the kid isn’t getting any sort of stimulation. It’s terrible, it’s sad. As we know, 90% of our brains develop before the age of five. And so we’re really stunting that child’s development. So what ends up happening in these child care deserts is you just have a lot more kids getting really bad care and it’s pitted. These are the types of things that we send people to jail for a week. It’s not a criminal offense, right? It’s just unfortunate and it’s really sad. And when I think about child care deserts, it’s how do we bring more high quality child care to these areas to help the people in that community, the parents, the students? And this is a problem that all governments are thinking about. And our belief is the best way to do that is a family shelter, helping people start these home based programs that are high quality to help the families and children in the community.  

Ned Hayes [00:09:10] Well, I’ll ask an obvious and leading question. Why does it matter that we provide child care for children under five? And this is an obvious question because I have kids. I know some of the answers, but I think you’re really an expert in this field at brain development. So could you speak about why it matters to really provide quality care to people under five years old? 

Chris Bennett [00:09:29] For many reasons. First, for parents, it allows parents to do other things, typically work and be able to earn enough money to provide for the child, to provide for their families, but also is good for society. More people working means a better economy, local or federal economy. For the child, 90% of their brain develops before the age of five. So they’re just experiencing rapid growth. Literally every moment counts, every single second counts with that child and when they’re able to get access to a loving adult who can provide care for them and peers that they can learn from. It accelerates their ability to learn, it accelerates their ability to be prepared for kindergarten needs to be more of a loving adult. There’s also a number of studies that say kids who get access to high quality early childhood education, mind you, this doesn’t have to be childcare. This could be from a nanny, a parent, a grandparent, a friend and neighbor. Kids who get access to high quality early childhood education before the age of five are more likely to graduate from college. Their children, and they’re earning more than the children of those who don’t get access to it.  

Ned Hayes [00:10:40] Isn’t that amazing? I mean, it has a generational effect, right? I mean, it’s based on fact. 

Chris Bennett [00:10:44] Exactly. It’s the best investment ever. It lowers the incarceration rate for a community. So it just has this mushroom ballooning effect. So it’s such a, to me, an obvious thing to invest in. 

Ashley Coates [00:10:58] Absolutely. Chris, I’d love to focus again on your passion for technology and the power of the Internet and then and the pandemic. And I am curious to hear your thoughts on how the pandemic affected how we use the Internet. And did it change your perception of the potential of the Internet, how we use it today? 

Chris Bennett [00:11:15] I don’t know if anyone is debating whether the Internet’s valuable anymore. I think the new debate is blockchain because everyone has to use it. And the pandemic really forced us together because we could all not adopt remote culture or work from home culture and not use Zoom and all of a sudden with these zoom places who require you to have a wet signature or taking electronic signatures now. All of the things we couldn’t get done are getting solved, are forcing us to use more technology so that we could continue to operate our economy and our personal lives and all of that is built on the Internet. Right. And so it’s just an obvious thing now. But before that, everyone was using mobile phones and that was stopped built on the Internet as well, or at least opponents of it. But I think the pandemic rapidly accelerated in desktop use, web app use. And I think now we’re really looking at what’s next. And it’s pretty clear blockchain is the next big innovation that is going to eventually get us all. 

Ned Hayes [00:12:11] Yeah. Speaking of blockchain, I’m thinking of your comment about play being essential to early childhood education. And I know that when developers work, they enter the state of play or state of flow. So I’m curious if you could speak to technical skills that come out of playfulness? 

Chris Bennett [00:12:28] Yeah, I would say that if I weren’t running a tech company, I would just be a software engineer because being a software engineer is so fun, you essentially just get to solve problems all day. You can create things with a couple of lines of code that millions of people can use this game Wordle. I don’t know if you guys have played that.

Ned Hayes [00:12:48] All the time, every day!

Chris Bennett [00:12:49] Exactly! 

Ashley Coates [00:12:50] We have a Slack channel at our company for Wordle. 

Chris Bennett [00:12:53] Yeah, there’s a whole one Person thing that affects the whole world. It’s just so beautiful. I love software. So yeah, I did coding when I started my first company in college and I just remember thinking it was the most glorious thing ever. My girlfriend has a three year old and I started to Google how to teach a three year old the basics of coding. You can do a lot of it through play like blocks showing cause & effects all of these little things that we think is just like playing around. Exposing kids to those things at an early age makes it a lot easier for them to understand if that statements understand loops later on. And I have friends who are teaching their kids to code with coding apps for kids of that age around six or seven know and that exposure at six or seven. Oh my god you could be a fully software engineer by 13 and that’s just crazy. That’s so cool. So, yeah, that’s how I think about it. 

Ashley Coates [00:13:48] I was going to ask, if you build in any early technology education into the training that you provide and the resources that you provide to your child care providers, is that an important part of your curriculum and your training? 

Chris Bennett [00:14:01] A lot of our curriculum actually comes through partners that we have, we work with, and a lot of city partner state partners that help train the teachers so that they can be experienced. And we often work with a lot of experience providers who were working in the field prior. To join one Wonderschool every program gets licensed through their state, they get background checks to make sure that they are individuals that are trustworthy with children. And one of the things we do is we spend a lot of time we take feedback from the parents who are enrolled in the program and share that with the providers to help them understand areas where they can improve so that they can become better teachers over time. 

Ashley Coates [00:14:38] That’s great. 

Ned Hayes [00:14:39] You’re a technology driven company, but you’re about people. So are there other areas that we could leverage the power of technology to make things better beyond early childhood education? Where could we be making the world a better place? 

Chris Bennett [00:14:52] I think about a couple of things. I’m really into this movement around climate change. My family’s from Honduras, and I was Honduras recently I was at a beach that I’ve been going to since I was a kid, and there’s all this trash everywhere, disgusting. And it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth and there was a trash and the ocean was like, what is going on? And then I learned that there’s no dump on the island. There’s no place to take the trash. So, of course, it’s ending up in the ocean and who’s gonna fix that? Someone’s got to fix that. And the government isn’t really equipped to fix it. There’s this company, I don’t know the name of it but I think it’s called like The Interceptor, I don’t know if you guys seen this. It’s this machine that goes into rivers and pulls out trash from rivers and can really turn around the river so that it’s less polluted and takes out all the trash. I keep thinking about ways to do that. How do we manage trash? That’s what I end up spent. I think about that a lot and I think that there’s a lot of opportunity in that. I’ve seen this new company, saw it on Twitter. They actually replace your trash pickup, they’ll pick up your trash, but they’ll recycle it in a way, better way than the city does. And they’ll just sell some of the stuff, resell it. I think those kind of ideas are brilliant. And living in San Francisco, we have all of this trash management and it seems like it’s solved for here. But for the majority of the world it’s not. And the problems that are happening in Honduras or in places where there is a really good systems to prevent climate change affect us here still right. So I think there’s a lot of opportunities for us to look into solving problems outside of our shores or outside of our cities because it affects us all. 

Ned Hayes [00:16:34] That’s a great vision that we can make the world a better place and Wonderschool is part of that vision. So let’s imagine that the world does become better. Where are we at in 5 to 10 years in terms of early childhood education or any other way that you see the world improving? 

Chris Bennett [00:16:50] Yeah. So the vision of Wonderschool is to ensure every child has access. Well, the mission is to ensure every child has access to high quality early childhood education. And the vision is for every child has access within 5 minutes of home. And the idea is we solve this childcare desert problem and it’s actually totally so we just need to partner with governments, employers and technology companies like us to fix it, get to a point where we have enough child care for every child under the age of five and the families just wait because those kids are gonna then go on to elementary school and do better. They’re going to go to high school or do better. They’re going to go to college and money and they’re going to reinvest in their communities and it essentially start to take care of itself. But it will take time, generations. 

Ashley Coates [00:17:34] It’s incredible vision. Chris, thank you for being here today. This is just been a wonderful discussion. We do have one last question for you, which is what do you want your legacy to be? What would you like to be remembered for? 

Chris Bennett [00:17:45] I think the big thing is, Chris helped people who need it help. 

Ned Hayes [00:17:49] That’s a great legacy. Yeah. Thank you. 

Ashley Coates [00:17:52] Yeah, I think you’re doing that right now. 

Chris Bennett [00:17:54] Thank you. 

Ned Hayes [00:17:58] Spark Plug is a wholly owned property of SnowShoe. All content and copyright 2021 Spark Plug Media.