Learn how to delegate, recognize strengths and weaknesses (“know thyself”) and never be afraid to ask for help.”
Kelle Wood Rich grew up in Dallas, Texas and attended the prestigious college preparatory school, The Greenhill School, from K-12. It was there that she received her first exposure to behavior analysis through a practicum experience working with cephalopods at the University of Texas, Galveston. She then worked with her first students with autism at the Autistic Treatment Center in Richardson, TX for her next practicum where she was again exposed to behavior analysis. She fell in love with the science and the students there. She changed her plans to be a marine biologist and focused her studies on psychology and special education. She attended Texas Christian University and graduated in 1992 with a B.S. in the Study of Exceptional Students. She obtained a lifetime Texas K-12 Teacher’s Certificate and began teaching special education in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District.
After 3 years of teaching and being nominated for Teacher of the Year from the Autism Society and Downs Syndrome Guild, she decided to go back to graduate school. She started her Master’s with Syracuse University’s study abroad program in Rome, Italy. This program was sponsored by UNESCO and Kelle had the chance to travel all over Italy working in schools, studying the Italian special education system and the Italian language. She returned to Texas to finish her M.Ed. at the University of North Texas in Behavioral Interventions. She graduated that program in 1996 with a 4.0 and returned to the same school district she had taught in. She worked for one year as a Crisis Interventionist where she worked with students with emotional disturbances, conduct disorder and other developmentally disabled students that engaged in severe challenging behaviors. The following year, that position was converted to the Behavior Resource Specialist and the job changed from a crisis model to a preventative model. The district hired Dr. Vince Carbone, a behavior analyst from Florida, to develop and train this new position. This began a mentorship relationship between Kelle and Dr. Carbone that continues to this day. In this re-vamped position, Kelle conducted Functional Behavior Assessments, developed behavior intervention plans, conducted teacher trainings and had offices on several campuses to support teachers and students. She directly taught students social skills and worked with their families to develop plans that would generalize into their community.
The district approached Kelle to become the Autism Specialist for the entire district at the young age of 28 due to her experience and training with that population. The district’s autism population was increasing as it was across the nation. It was determined that these learners required unique and specialized programming. Through the training and guidance of Dr. Carbone, the first ABA classrooms in a public school in Texas were developed. Kelle supervised these classrooms and all the students with Autism’s in-home and parent training in the district for the next several years. Under Dr. Carbone’s supervision, she was able to sit for Texas’ first Certified Behavior Analyst exam and received that credential in 1999. The next year, the first BACB exam was given and Kelle became one of the first Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) in Texas. In addition to her role as Autism Specialist, Kelle began to consult with other school districts to train them on how to set up similar classroom programs for children with Autism. She also began to take on private ABA in-home clients referred to her by Dr. Carbone. Kelle made the difficult decision to leave the school district and start her own company, ABA Consulting Group and work full-time as Dr. Carbone’s Associate. She supervised ABA home programs throughout Texas and California. She also developed Dr. Carbone’s Workshop #5: Teaching Verbal Behavior in the Classroom with Dr. Carbone and Gina Zecchin-Tirri, BCBA. Kelle and Gina toured the world conducting this workshop for over a decade. During that time, Gina also opened up the Carbone Clinic in Valley Cottage, New York as his Assistant Director and Kelle opened up Central Texas Autism Center (CTAC) in Austin, Texas. Kelle had been consulting with several central Texas schools and families and made the move to Austin in 2002.
She was accepted in the Ph.D. program for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the University of Texas, Austin at the same time she started CTAC. CTAC was the first ABA clinic in Central Texas and one of the few in all of Texas at the time. Families travel from around the world to have their children assessed at CTAC as well as students of behavior analysis from around the world apply to work here to receive hands on education in the field. After 2 years in the Ph.D. program, running CTAC full time and starting her own family became more than a 24/7 job so she took a leave from the University and did not complete the program. Kelle continues to run CTAC, going on 15 years as the Executive Director. She continues to consult with school districts and other agencies around the country, serving more than 100 organizations over the last 20 years.
Where did the idea for CTAC come from?
The idea for CTAC grew out of my frustration with the quality of the home programs I had been running for years around the country. At the time, there were very few Behavior Analysis programs or BCBA’s in the country so resources were limited. It was typical for families to hire teachers, undergraduate students or graduate students to be their ABA home therapists. All of these people were lovely to work with and genuinely cared for the client, but the nature of being a student meant that they didn’t stick around long term so we had constant staff turnover. Having so few BCBA’s around meant that we would travel to supervise programs spending 1-3 days a month or every few months depending on the needs of the client. This just wasn’t the best quality model. Dr. Carbone and I had been training an amazing staff of teachers and therapist at the Capitol School of Austin’s Horizon Program, an ABA classroom we helped them develop. Their waitlist for the program had grown and grown over the years and we wanted to find a way to help these families as they were waiting. Dr. Carbone proposed having me start a clinic where these families could get evaluated and some treatment started while they waited for a spot in the school program to open. Dr. Carbone was also thinking of the same for himself as he shared the same frustrations with quality programming and travelling. This became the Horizon Clinic for me and he opened the Carbone Clinic in New York soon after. After a year of running the Horizon Clinic at the Capitol School of Austin, a school that primarily employed speech and language pathologists to focus on children with speech and language delays, we mutually decided that the ABA Autism program was growing too big and that they were not fully equipped to support the clinic and school. They allowed me to take our clients and many staff members that wanted to focus on ABA and form my own company, Central Texas Autism Center. In 2003, I started my second company, CTAC, went to my Ph.D. classes a couple of nights a week and traveled somewhere in the world 1 week a month to conduct Workshop #5 as one of Dr. Carbone’s Associates.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
Fast forward 15 years later and I am a mom of 3 boys. I still lecture and consult for school districts around the state so my schedules differ. On my CTAC days, mornings typically start with a Spin Class at 5:45am then it’s home to make lunches, pack snacks, check backpacks and get our 2 sons that are in elementary school ready to be dropped off. Luckily, I have an amazing husband who participates greatly in this routine, making them breakfast and taking them to school. My days at CTAC consist of meetings with my incredible team of supervisors and office staff, my amazing business coach/CFO, training staff, meeting with parents and assessing or observing clients. Being a business owner means that you never stop working, but I’ve worked hard in the last few of years on setting times where I unplug, especially for family time. I live by my Outlook calendar and try to stick to a routine when possible. On consulting days, I may have to leave for out of town jobs the night before or early the morning of the consult. Many consulting jobs require several hours of presentation preparation or document review before I arrive so this has to be scheduled into my weekly calendar. The evening routine consists of homework and driving kids to all of their different activities. My husband and I both enjoy cooking and have held on to having family dinners together at least 4-5 nights a week. Then we have typical bed time routines for the younger kids. We are homeschooling our high school aged son this year, so the hour before bed is usually when I catch up on reviewing his work, giving his tests, etc. Somewhere after that, I crash and wake up and do it all over again!
How do you bring ideas to life?
I’ve been told that I am a visionary and even an idealist. In the early years of CTAC, my staff nicknamed me Ghandi. I think I am a good listener and problem solver and that is the source of my ideas. Then I write them out and talk them out to my husband and my team. They help me narrow down my focus and bring me different perspectives about the pros and cons of my ideas.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
The greatest change in my industry has been the switch from an educational model to a medical model over the last decade with the passing of insurance laws in most states now requiring health insurance companies to cover ABA therapy for children with Autism. It has allowed us to help so many more families and standardized procedures and protocols for our field. It has helped to legitimize our science in the eye of the consumer and increase the number of University program in Behavior Analysis. Unfortunately, this also means that Autism treatment has become a big business and I worry about the quality of care our children are receiving. The insurance laws have also tied our services to the autism diagnosis only and we have a difficult time getting approval for funding to serve children with other diagnosis that could also benefit from ABA.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Learning how to delegate, recognizing my own strengths and weaknesses (“know thyself”) and never being afraid to ask for help.
Learning to delegate and ask for help came from learning from my mistakes of trying to do everything myself. It is very hard to let go of perfectionistic tendencies when you are creating your business. It is very hard to be the master of everything. I will never completely understand accounting for instance, nor do I want to or need to. Trusting others and allowing them to complete tasks their way, as long as the outcome is the same, took some time. I think being a mom helped me learn to let go of the reigns a bit and that I couldn’t control everything. “Knowing thyself” has and will be a life long journey. This concept was first taught to me in high school when we studied the work for Aeschylus, Socrates and Plato. That theme continued as a behavior analyst as we are taught to always analyze ourselves as well as our clients.
These habits have evolved over the last 20 years.
My employees love their job and take ownership in their work, I have better work life balance and we are more organized and profitable as a company by bringing in people with skill sets in areas that I do not possess.
What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?
One summer in college, I worked for a day care center as the 2-year-old teacher. I was only 19 years old. After a 1-hour orientation, I was made the lead teacher. I had no training. The facility was located in a low socio-economic area. I had anywhere from 6-10 two-year olds in my class at a time, well over the approved state ratio. When I presented my concern to management, I was told they were working to hire another staff person to assist me. This never happened. In addition, I had some children that were coming to the center daily, hungry, in the same diaper they slept in with evidence of no bath for days. I again brought this concern to the management and was told I could give them a bath in the sink and to write up a report and they would talk to the parents. I did this and nothing ever improved. I was only there for a couple of months and I felt helpless to help these kids.
Management was just not involved. There were no systems in place, no training available and worst of all, no love and caring for the children.
Looking back, I think this experience helped instill in me that you need to lead with love, the value of staff training and having systems in place to support your staff.
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
I’m very proud of how we started and built the business slowly. Also, how we have stayed true to our values of quality therapy. I think I would have brought in outside business consultants earlier to advise me on how to manage and grow the business strategically. I started CTAC based on my love of the children and the science and a vision of quality treatment. I come from an entrepreneurial family so I knew the challenges of running a business but I did not know all the how to’s of running a business.
I knew very little about running a business when I started CTAC. Now I manage over 30 employees and we see 60+ clients per week.
We really were trailblazers in our field and I think we did a great job of seeing a need and jumping into a brand-new market. I think because there was such a need, we responded quickly without strategic planning for future growth. I would have taken more time to plan how we wanted to expand.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Stay open, never stop listening, learning and dreaming big.
I have loyal, well-trained staff that show up every day and do their best for the children and families we serve. Without them, we would definitely fall apart.
Staying open to new ideas, listening to staff and our clients helps us continue to meet their needs. This keeps staff and clients loyal and satisfied. It also allows us to stay current with the community’s needs.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
I am proud to have started and continued operating CTAC as a single owner and debt free. Our quality work and the success of our clients have been the best marketing we have. Since Texas passed the insurance laws requiring polices cover ABA Therapy, we have become in-network providers with all the major insurance companies. This has helped us to secure funding sources and serve more families.
Prior to being able to accept insurance, the clinic saw an average of 20-25 kids per week. The other half of our business was school district consulting. Since accepting insurance, we have tripled the amount of kids we are able to see and decreased school district work.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
When we hired staff too quickly out of a feeling of desperation, when a staff member unexpectedly had to move out of state due to a family emergency and we did not have enough depth to cover the therapy schedule. We learned from that experience to promote more supervisors to be able to cover shifts so that we can take our time to find the right fit for our company if a situation arose like this again. We also refined our interview process to include a group interview and an observation time within sessions.
We used our performance based management system to provide the support to implement behavior change and document when it did or didn’t work.
We analyzed our decision-making matrix and updated our interview questions. We realized we made these errors when we were in a place of desperation (needing to fill a therapist spot due to an unexpected leave, etc.) We also built capacity at the supervisor level so that we have subs in place if something like that happened again.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A company that developed a software system to scan, sort and organize my email based on key words and/or known addresses. It would filter these into files or into a spam folder. It would save me so much time and help me work more efficiently.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently donated $100 to one of our client’s non-profits that they co-founded called Spoon. They do amazing work educating staff about nutrition and providing nutritious food to orphanages around the world.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
We use Code Metro and Kareo for our practice management and billing software. It helps us with scheduling, booking appointments and billing insurance companies.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Verbal Behavior by B.F. Skinner, 1957. Skinner considered this to be his most important work and time has shown it to be true. In this book, he provides a functional analysis of language that has provided the framework for the work of our practice. It has contributed to the improvement of our therapeutic practices therefore helping countless lives of people with disabilities.
Mario Schulzke is the Founder of ideamensch, which he started a decade ago to learn from entrepreneurs and give them a platform for their ideas.