Gail Johnson – Founder of Rainbow Station

From day one, I’ve been a big believer in regularly setting times for the company to stop the world, shut the door and talk to each other about what’s going on, evaluate where we are and set goals. This is something that we still do that today.

Gail Johnson is the founder and CEO of Rainbow Station, which offers early childhood education programs. There are six corporately owned Rainbow Station programs in Richmond. In 1999, Gail created PRISM, the franchising company for Rainbow Station, and currently has operating franchises in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas. All Rainbow Station schools are accredited by the National Academy of Early Childhood Programs and/or the National Afterschool Association. Some schools are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges & Schools and the National Afterschool Association’s Council on Accreditation. (NOTE: Franchised schools become accredited within the first 2 years of operation)

Gail has always focused on women and children’s issues throughout her career. She is a pediatric nurse and has 40 years of experience. As a nurse, Gail held many roles, including visiting public health and home healthcare nurse; maternity, pediatric and nursery staff nurse; Lamaze instructor; and faculty member of the Maternal Child Nursing Departments at MCV/VCU and J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College. She continues to hold an adjunct faculty position with MCV/VCU School of Nursing and serves as Vice President, Medical College of Virginia Foundation Board of Trustees. In 1993, Gail was awarded the Nurse Alumni Award for Outstanding Clinical Practice and in 1997 was the Medical College of Virginia Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.

As a provider of early childhood education, Gail is active in numerous industry associations where she holds board and committee positions. She served as the Chairman of the Virginia Child Daycare Council from 2000 to 2009 and as President of the National Association for Sick Child Daycare from 1994 to 1999, where she planned and implemented four national conferences, conducted and published three nationwide surveys, spoke at many national and regional events, and more than doubled the membership. For these efforts, Gail received the Gail Gonzales Award in 1999 for outstanding leadership and service to NASCD. Gail has earned numerous business awards including Rising 25-A Top 25 Fastest-Growing Company, Greater Richmond Small Business Person of the Year, Virginia Small Business Person of the Year, YMCA Outstanding Woman in Business, the Innsbrook Rotary’s Business Leadership Award and Smart Beginning’s Early Child Development Coalition Lifetime Achievement Award.

Gail serves on many local business and civic boards and committees. She was chairman of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce in 2003/2004 and the Virginia Council of CEOs from 2007 to 2008. Gail is a 1999 graduate of Leadership Metro Richmond. In 2010, her business, Rainbow Station, Inc., was named to the INC 5000, achieving 22% growth from 2006 to 2009.

Where did the idea for Rainbow Station come from?

I began my career as a pediatric nurse and during that time identified a shift in society. More women joined the workforce in the 1980s and were left to find suitable care for their children. The idea started out specifically to create a resource for parents with children who had chronic illnesses, but still had a desire to have a career. For example, finding the proper care for a child with diabetes can be very difficult, because you need to have someone with the proper training who is willing to take on that responsibility long-term. We quickly learned that from a developmental perspective, it didn’t make sense to isolate children who were not well, so we opened our doors to everyone. This gave parents a resource that was not currently available in the marketplace: a blend education and care with a nurse on staff. As a mother, I knew what I wanted for my own children and had a desire to make a genuine difference in people’s lives. Although early education wasn’t a new field, I noticed a lack of businesses that provided comprehensive care, education and a focus on developmentally appropriate practice and that was the nexus for the Rainbow Station concept. Launched in 1989, Rainbow Station not only provides the world-class, proprietary PLAYWORKS® curriculum-based learning for children from birth through kindergarten, but we also offer the industry’s most unique and differentiated wellness element: the Get Well Place, a haven for mildly ill children whose care needs otherwise would necessitate a missed day of work for mom or dad. The Get Well Place is staffed by a pediatric nurse and accepts mildly ill children with colds, flu, gastrointestinal illnesses, etc.,– all conditions that are regularly excluded from school or other out-of-home arrangements. In the 90’s I also was intrigued by a magnet school that successfully integrated educator, author and entrepreneur Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” into its curriculum. I felt very strongly that the principles in Covey’s “The Leader in Me” module could be taught to students of any age, and integrated them into the Rainbow Station curriculum. In doing so, Rainbow Station became the first preschool system in the country to teach these concepts to preschoolers, thus establishing our reputation as a school that not only focuses on getting children to kindergarten but also preparing them for success in the 21st century. Through franchising, we’ve been able to continue to grow our presence and share this curriculum with parents and children in communities across the U.S and around the world.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

For me, there’s no such thing as a typical day, which is what is exciting to me about my job; if I had a typical day, I would be bored. I view my job as the orchestra conductor, leading the overture that brings our teams’ ideas to life. I could be offsite at meetings or visiting our schools. A lot of my time is spent out in the community and interacting to stay in touch with our marketplace. What makes my days, and my team’s days, productive are what we call our accountability sessions. There’s internal accountability for everyone here through our “Who, What, When” structure. Every Monday morning we meet, determine what needs to be done that week, and identify WHO will do it, WHAT exactly needs to happen to get it done, and WHEN it will be done by and we make a verbal commitment to one another on those items. I think that has made me and our entire company more productive.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Whether I read something, heard something or saw something through networking, at a conference or workshop and think it’s a good idea, I usually will take some time to think about it and what application it could have for us. Once I think I’ve figured it out, I’ll bring it back to my team. Sometimes if I’m really enthusiastic about it, it’s easy to get the team to jump on board and we’ll just say “Okay, let’s do this.” And sometimes it takes some time to collect feedback and build up some buy-in for an idea; either way, you constantly need to be bringing new ideas to the table and see where they go, otherwise your company will die.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

The global appetite for preschool education is really exciting to me right now and it has allowed our international franchising arm to take root and start to take off.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have a unique advantage in that I have skills learned through my nursing practice that they don’t teach you in business school. In nursing, documenting and charting is crucial; if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. And I implement that principle in my business as well. Everything that we do and every procedure we have is thoroughly documented and everything is in writing. This has really helped us roll out this franchise, because we have all the details and all the facts in writing that we can reference. It helps us keep all the facts straight, maintain consistency and keep everyone on the same page, even when we’re spread out in multiple company and franchise locations.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My dad was an entrepreneur too, and the worst job I ever had was probably during the summers doing what my dad referred to as “going out and drumming up some business.” I would do cold calls and go door-to-door to see if people were interested in buying fuel oil from my dad – and I hated it. But what I learned was that you can sell snowballs to snowmen with enough enthusiasm and a positive attitude. If you really believe in what you’re saying, you can sell it to people. I couldn’t say “Oh I’m doing this for my Dad,” I needed to make people believe in the product.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would start over with working capital. When I started this business, I was drastically underfunded. I still made it happen but things would have gone more smoothly with working capital.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

From day one, I’ve been a big believer in regularly setting times for the company to stop the world, shut the door and talk to each other about what’s going on, evaluate where we are and set goals. This is something that we still do that today. A continual improvement process is really important; otherwise you don’t grow.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We were really fortunate in the beginning because we grew by invitation. For example, an office park gave us land because they wanted our school there. Since we started the franchise arm of Rainbow Station though, we’ve always fought the challenge of being a high-investment opportunity, finding the big-ticket buyers and helping them overcome the real estate challenges that come along with a build-out like ours. In the beginning, we had a real estate trust and we bought property to then sell to prospective franchisees and it worked really well until the recession hit. Now that the economy is rebounding, we’re planning to set up another trust and use that same tactic. It has worked before and I’m confident it will work again and that will really help us to continue to expand and grow the brand. Another strategy that has worked for me is willingness to accept an opportunity. It’s always better to listen and say no, than to overlook something and then miss out. The reason we were able to expand into China is that when opportunity called, we answered.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Failure is not an option for me, but I would say one thing that blindsided us in business was in our company-owned schools in Richmond, VA when the recession hit. We had been accustomed for years to fully-enrolled schools with waiting lists. At the height of the recession, there were three huge companies in Richmond though, that all went out of business pretty much at the same time, resulting in a major chunk of the population being out of work. People were unemployed and they were forced to take their kids out of schools mid-year in terms of enrollment. It took hard work and a lot of effort to get the management team and teachers to wake up a bit and realize we needed to be more aggressive when people showed interest in our school. Once we finally had everyone on board and thinking in a different way, there was a lot of hard work remaining to fill the schools back up. This experience led to what we refer to today as our 9-1-1 calls. We started them on September 11, 2009 and held the call at 9:11 a.m. It’s a conference call where all our managers get on the line to discuss the status of enrollment, marketing initiatives and leads. We do this every Thursday now and it has resulted in a great deal of valuable data on seasonal changes and allowed us to closely monitor our schools to make sure we’re keeping them on track.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

There’s been more talk in recent years about concierge services. Someone needs to create an app or a tool for parents to legitimately make their lives easier. Parents today have incredible responsibility and an overwhelming schedule and to-do list. They need somewhere they can create the grocery list, have the groceries delivered, schedule a dry cleaning pick up and schedule doctors’ appointments all in one place. Instead of a travel portfolio, it would be a “manage my life” portfolio.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I would say that I’m very shy and I think that would surprise people, though many entrepreneurs like to work alone and in the background. When I started this business though, I had two kids in college, one in high school and my husband’s business took a major hit with the real estate crash, and here I was with a young business. I had to do whatever it took to make this successful, whether it meant talking to people in town or doing television appearances. It’s amazing what having your life on the line can do to cure shyness. Working a room can still be difficult for me and sometimes I find myself in situation where I think “I would rather be at home,” but failure is not an option and so I do it.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I think if I were at a different place in my career, I would require more web services or software in my day-to-day work, but I don’t really now. I love Maps and use it all the time when I’m on the road to navigate traffic and get to my meetings on time and I love Google. Information at your fingertips in an instant is amazing.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I actually enjoy all of his work. His books are short and to the point and he writes in a relatable way that’s easy to understand and implement – a sort of acknowledgment of things I already knew. I also love his book Outliers – the notion that you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. Thinking about how that plays into your ability to make something happen is really fascinating and puts into perspective where you should focus your attention.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Certainly Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is probably obvious as it is where our Leader In Me curriculum came from. The day I was first exposed to it, I knew we needed to implement it in our schools. Also, when I first started this business, I was entering a fragmented industry with no real standard of quality and I was struggling to figure out what the secret was going to be to making sure we created something special that would resonate and truly help people. A good friend and mentor of mine, who is the music and fine arts minister at our church, said to me “excellence breeds excellence.” If you focus on being excellent at what you do and do it really well, other people who are excellent will want to be a part of it. And he was right. We have always focused on one person at a time on ensure excellence and it has led to a world-class team and together we move the brand forward.


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