bSmart Guide

Female Entrepreneur Susan Leger Ferraro Gives Business Lessons for Female Leaders (VIDEO)

Susan Leger Ferraro is a female entrepreneur who, at age 17, created Little Sprouts Inc. - an $18 million dollar, award winning, nationally recognized network of early education centers offering a literacy-based, individualized, developmentally appropriate education for children.  Susan is now the Founder, President, and Chief Curiosity Officer of Imajine That, a children's interactive museum in partnership with WGBH that focuses on family engagement, partnering with public school systems, community centers, and institutions to bring innovative family engagement practices and exceptional extended learning time to ensure well being outcomes in communities.

Little Sprouts was designated a 'Preschool Center of Excellence' by the U.S. Department of Education for 9 consecutive years and is a 3-time recipient of the $10 Million Innovation Funding 'Early Reading First' grant.  Susan grew Little Sprouts 225% in 4 years and has been recognized on multiple occasions, most recently with the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Massachusetts Woman in Business Champion award named to the top 100 women led businesses by The Commonwealth Institute.  Little Sprouts was also ranked #25 on Boston Business Journal's Pacesetters list of Top 100 Fastest Growing Companies 4 years in a row.  Susan has taken her award winning principals and applied them to her current companies Imajine That and Inspirational Ones.

Susan is also the Founder, CEO, and Chief Inspirational Officer of Inspirational Ones and Chief Innovation Officer of Lupoli Companies and has employed over 500 people.  Inspirational Ones has raised $24 Million in grant funds designed to invest in for-profit organizations who invest in their workforce through conscious leadership practices.  Speaking internationally and nationwide, she helps other organizations and female leaders achieve the same success.  For Susan, the power of investing in people, in business, and in transformational growth is a vocation that can change the world by starting with the best humans on the plant - our children.

The science of business revolves around managing, and managing well means you have a plan.  

The art of business is leadership.  You don’t want to lose one for the other.

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Business & Innovation  

A lot of women babysit, but not everyone creates an $18 million dollar early-education business.  What gave you the vision and motivation to create Little Sprouts?

At the time, when I was 17, it was more about me being rebellious than knowing I was going to create a leading early education business.  I had a desire to do things my way as opposed to doing it the way I thought was a broken model. I had interned at a kindergarten and then worked in another early-childhood daycare center.  I was surprised at how adults didn't understand how to work with children.  I decided to do it my way.  I rented an apartment and started it from there. 

Watch Susan Share About her background in business + innovation

I was surprised at how adults didn't understand how to work with children.  

I decided to do it my way.  I rented an apartment and started it from there.

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Your story sounds almost unattainable with how successful you’ve been.  Was it ever challenging to build your business?

Every entrepreneur knows that challenge is the fundamental word you breathe through on a regular basis.  If you weren't enthralled by challenge, you wouldn’t be an entrepreneur.  For me, every day was a challenge.  There were times when I wondered if I was going to make payroll or if I was going to be able to pay the mortgage or bills.  However, I knew we were offering something unique compared with other early-education business models.  I kept looking for resources in a very scrappy, entrepreneurial way.

My advice for female entrepreneurs who need support through challenges is to pay attention and be plugged into the Divine (or whatever your personal wisdom is for you) and you’ll find signs all over the place for your next steps.  Opportunities will show up.  For me it was someone telling me about a grant, a funding source, or an opportunity for a partnership.  The people who helped me were signs of encouragement from the Divine confirming I needed to keep going.  The opportunities they suggested rang a bell in my head that I should follow those leads.  I listened to that bell with every decision from funding possibilities, to banking, and even with the awards.  Every step of the way there was someone sharing their gift with me and leading me to opportunities to leverage for the children in our program.

What was the point you went from start-up to the successful business Little Sprouts is today?

Little Sprouts was a mom-and-pop small business for the first 15 years.  There were two times when the business hit quantum leaps of growth. The first leap occurred when we opened our first corporate childcare center in 1994.  A dear friend of mine, Bill Felides, was a real estate developer.  It took me two years to convince him to let me open up the first corporate childcare center in the area.  I would literally call Bill every day because I wanted to be in this property (an experience he refers to as me being 'relentless').  When Bill was able to see what we created, he began to refer us to other real estate developers.  That made a huge difference; having someone with a great reputation, who believed in our mission, start telling other people in the market about us.  We grew four other locations in two years, two of them on college campuses all because people were sharing the impact of our business.  

RELATED: Resources For Business For Women Entrepreneurs

The second time we grew was in 2006.  I knew I didn’t know everything, and I needed someone to help refine our business model, so we brought in a consultant from Harvard Business School to help us grow our business.  Ultimately, it changed our entire business model and positioned us to grow in the market in a way that was very traditional and formal.  Up until that point,  I was extremely non-traditional and informal.  To this day my sister (who is our CFO) and I laugh about the financial terms we used.  Fundamentally we understood what we were saying, but if anybody from the world of finance came and looked at our financials, and eventually they did, they would ask, 'What does any of this even mean?'  I could explain it, but not in a traditional way.  So the transition in 2006 to a traditional business model really helped position us for success in the marketplace. 

Female Entrepreneur Susan Leger Ferraro Gives Business Lessons for Female Leaders (VIDEO)

How do you take something that was a daycare back in 1982 and turn it into excellence in early-childhood education?

It was about the development that we put into our teachers and our people.  

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Where does your passion for children's education come from?

I’ll give you my real answer; I came into this world knowing I was going to do this.  When I was in kindergarten, I can remember watching the teachers at nap-time yell at the boys.  I didn't have brothers,  I only had sisters, and it fascinated me that these creatures (boys) were bouncing off the walls in the way that only boys do.  Boys have a different kind of energy than girls, and they were getting into trouble all of the time.  The teachers, who were all female, didn’t know how to handle them.  I knew then that it wasn’t fair.  I thought, 'When I grow up, I’m going to be teacher, and I’m going to make sure that the boys are taken care of in a fair way.'  My first grade teacher remembers on the first day of school, I looked up at her and said, 'When I grow up, I’m going to be a teacher!'  My passion grew from there. 

RELATED: Inspiring Story: Find Your Passion + Change the World (VIDEO)

I love children because I believe children are the closest thing to the Divine, to our true nature, than any being in this world.  We spend the first five years of their lives, as adults, trying to impose our culture on them instead of looking at the wisdom they bring of authenticity, genuineness, and speaking the truth.  They haven't been clouded by the world and all of the fear-based anxiety and ego-based behaviors that adults deal with.  They are still very real and true.  You ask a child a question, and they tell you the answer.  Not until they are four-years-old do they develop the self-consciousness to be aware that 'I shouldn’t say that.'  They tell you their truth.  Most of us, as adults, don’t even know what our truth is sometimes.  We spend a significant amount of time trying to tap back to into 'Who am I?' and 'What do I really want?'  Kids know it.  At a very young age I had that high regard for the essence that they bring to this universe.

Building a Culture of Success

What has made Imajine That stand out in the pre-school and education sector?

A lot of people run businesses.  Whether or not they’re effective is a totally a different story.  How do you change an average business model to one of exemplary effectiveness like we did at Sprouts?  It really is all about investing in people.  My advice for female leaders is that the key is developing people at the very basic level of humanity. At Imajine That we make sure to talk to our employees about their personal lives and the struggles they are experiencing. 

Twenty-five years ago we created something called 'Connection Time.'  We paid all of our employees for an hour a month to sit with their supervisor and to talk about both life and work.  We asked, 'How are things going for you professionally?  What’s the feedback that we’re getting as a company?  What kind of feedback can you give me?  How’s your life personally?  How’s your family?  How can we help you balance?'  Sometimes, changing somebody’s schedule by half an hour can change their entire life.  My goal then and now at Imajine That is to invest in our people so they in turn invest in our children.

Watch Susan share how she created a culture of success

Inspiring your team comes from acknowledging people’s work.  

At the end of the day, people want to know they’re doing a good job.  

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Our society is not built in a way that people feel comfortable going to their boss and talking about struggles and personal challenges.  I have had thousands of women work with me.  I have sat down and had conversations with each of them.  The thing they struggle with the most is balance.  The truth is we all struggle with this.  We ask, 'How do I take care of myself and take care of my family?  How do I maintain a loving relationship with my husband, get my nails done, get my hair done, look great, go to the gym, and get dinner on the table?'  We have very high standards at Imajine That, and we are committed to help people and support them in accomplishing those standards.

My advice for female entrepreneurs is whether your occupation centers on food, product sales, children or any other form of business, the people that are making the work happen are human beings and need your attention.  Some business owners spend more time on streamlining logistics than recognizing that the humans who are working in the model need support.  That doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you spend your time doing, but you have to give it as much reverence as you do everything else in your business model.  When I realized that, I remember at 24-years of age thinking, 'This isn’t going to be about the right curriculum for the kids.  It’s not going to be just about making sure that the environment is right.'  Those things are important, but just as important is developing teachers and relationships with parents.  

RELATED: Inspiring Resources for Women Leaders + Women In Politics

To answer your question, how do you take something that was a daycare back in 1982 and turn it into excellence in early-childhood education?  It was about the development that we put into our teachers and our people.  We took our children’s test and reading proficiency scores and we brought them from 60% to the top 5% in the country.  When you talk about outcomes, there’s nothing better than that.  It wasn’t because of our curriculum or the environments, which is where our industry and field would tell us to focus, it's because we did anywhere between 60 and 200 hours a year of professional development and we paid our employees for that time.   And these are the same values we are now applying to Imajine That.

Susan's bSmart Business Tips:

What is your essential business advice for bSmart members with respect to:

  • Funding & Investors

In my experience getting the resources so that I could be the main influencer was a better situation for me.  I had traditional bank debt and financing, and I also went the venture capital route.  The venture capital route was great.  I had some very attentive partners, but you lose a lot of control and creative influence.  For me, as I build my next business I plan to get financing so that I can keep the most control over the model so that we can continue growing in excellence.

  • Hiring the right team

It is the answer. My advice for female entrepreneurs is to take the long route when you are hiring.  Hire slow and fire fast.  Make sure that enough people on your team meet the new person and connect with them.  For anybody on your potential management team, there should be a 6-week hiring process from the phone screen to the meeting and having a working interview.  Bring people in to watch how they fit on the team.  It takes so long to develop someone and to work talent into your culture, that if you bring someone in who doesn’t fit, it takes energy away from your team members and actually distracts you from the model.  It’s almost better not to have someone doing the job than to have the wrong person there. 

  • Setting goals and creating strategies

The science of business revolves around managing, and managing well means you have a plan.  The art of business is leadership.  You don’t want to lose one for the other.  You can make all the best-laid plans of mice and men, but you want to have the creativity and the flexibility to be able to change.  Too often people get stuck on their strategic plan and when something great comes along, they don’t have the dexterity or the flexibility on the team to be able to go after it.  It’s not in their plan, so they say no.

My style is 'Ready. Go. Set.' Most people are 'Ready. Set. Go.,' but that doesn’t always work.  Growing a business is messy.  People try to do it in this organized and clean way, and it never works.  For me, I went against what most business classes and MBA-teachers think could actually work, but when you talk to most 'mad scientist entrepreneurs,' they will all tell you the same thing - they did everything they shouldn’t have, but were able to get their business to a stable place. As we grew, yes, we needed a strategic plan.  We needed the team aligned around it.  My advice for female entrepreneurs is to build the goals, you build the accountability, and then you create the dexterity and the flexibility that if something wonderful comes along, you can shift gears. 

  • Inspiring & empowering your team

Inspiring your team comes from acknowledging people’s work.  It’s one of the most important things I try to do.  At the end of the day, people want to know they’re doing a good job.  A lot of leaders say to people 'Nice work, good job, thanks so much, terrific job.'  However, some leaders don’t take the time to tell their team why, so people don’t know what behavior or action to replicate.  What I suggest to female leaders so that employees can repeat excellent work is to compliment specifically.  Sit down with an employee for five minutes, write them an email, or send them a card that outlines the exact specifics of how they are excelling.  Being very specific with feedback and acknowledgement is really important. Acknowledgement inspires people. It helps them feel heard and seen.

  • Steps to growth

Our motto was about partnerships.  Some of the greatest opportunities we had to grow were born out of advancing someone else’s mission.  When I think about the integrated model of conscious business, I think about partnerships.  WGBH was one of our greatest partners.  Currently, we have a partnership with Whole Foods because their mission and our mission come together and thus more people are exposed to our businesses.  People get stuck because they’re in a silo mindset, and they’re not sure where to go. When you have partners, they help you think through those things and help your business grow and expand.

  • Adhering to your mission

Your mission should be your heart’s path. It’s the pulse of who you are and what you’re becoming.  You create your mission through your signature language.  We question everything we’re doing against our mission.  We ask ourselves, 'Are we making sure that we’re living our mission?  Does the decision to hire or fire this person support the mission of the business?'  Everything gets questioned against it, and that’s how your mission flows through the entire culture so that people are living it.  Your mission is a living being, and your mission statement is a representation of that living being.  The more you live it, the more you talk about it, and you bring life to it and reflect it in your decision-making, the more it will live through all of the people you touch. 

  • Creating innovation in business

Think about the word innovation and it’s synonym to recreate.  Recreating is something we want to do again and again and again, so nothing ever stays the same. The only constant in life is change.  Innovation is about creating the environment so that everybody feels empowered to instigate change and create movement in the organization - not just in the product, but in the way you relate to each other.  This includes innovating the standard operating procedures or the financial model.  If you look at research, and Gallup talks about this, the reason people are discouraged at work is because they don’t feel like their gifts are being utilized.  Innovation allows those gifts to be brought to the table.  It’s expected.  If you’re an innovative business model, you’re expecting people to bring their best to the table.

Watch Susan share her essential business lessons

Innovation is about creating an environment where everyone feels empowered

to instigate change and create movement in the organization.

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Highly Effective Women

Susan is a Master Facilitator certified in Franklin Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and has studied with Stephen Covey.  She is also a Vedic Master with the Chopra Center University, certified to teach Primordial Sound Meditation, Perfect Health Ayurvedic Lifestyle, and the Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga

How specifically have the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People influenced you?

 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is Stephen Covey’s first book and the quintessential business book.  I’ve read it at least a dozen times and it’s still true and relevant for me as a female entrepreneur and female leader.  What I love about the book is that it helped inform the language of our business model.  One of the greatest lessons I learned from Stephen Covey was during one of his many trainings around the world. During lunchtime he would take the people who were facilitators (like myself) and have a little luncheon with them.  He talked about the principles of running a healthy business, and how the same principles can be applied to running a healthy family (he had 9 children).  Once a year he would take a trip with each one of his kids, so he had unobstructed, uninterrupted time with them. He would advise us to do the same thing with our business teams.  It really helped me understand being an integrated leader at what I consider to be a highly developed level.

The other essential lesson I learned from Stephen that I recommend for female leaders is 'production versus production capability.'  What that really means is balance.  How do you make sure that you are working towards effectiveness of producing, but also continuing to develop your own personal capability at the same time?  He talks about how to get a result and create the capacity to get it again and again.  If you are working 90 hours a week, you may get the result that you want in your business model that week, but can you continue putting in those 90 hours week after week? It’s all about sustainability. You would hear that word a lot in our environment.  We think about sustainability of ourselves in a business model and a life model. 

Watch Susan share how she was influenced by Stephen Covey and Deepak Chopra

A lot of people run businesses.  Whether they’re effective is a different story.  

How do you change an average business model to one of exemplary effectiveness?  It really is about investing in people.

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As for my work with the Chopra Center and Deepak Chopra, I’ve been studying there for about 10 years.  What I loved about Deepak and the Chopra Center is that they understood spirituality and they understood business and how to integrate both of those two things into your life.  Stephen Covey was the one who introduced me to Deepak Chopra.  Deepak’s book, The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success, is one of the quintessential books for entrepreneurs that has taught me about living as an integrated being in all areas of my life. 

Deepak has written 65 or 70 books at this point, and his newest book, Super Brain, is also incredible.  The book explores the biology of how we are created and wired and how neurology works, for us to have the highest brain capacity.  When you think about bSmart and how to stay smart, Super Brain talks about the neurology of what activities we can do from a relationship standpoint and how our brain actually grows so that we can be more effective.  All of these books have taught me lessons I will take with me for the rest of my life.

About Susan

What are your greatest lessons learned in building your businesses?

'I’m still learning,' as Michelangelo would say.  For me, everything I do has to be guided by one of my 3 life principals - 1) I grow humans, 2) I share love, and 3) I remember to play.  If what I’m doing doesn’t fall under that, then I know I’m not on my life’s path.  The concept of always remembering to play is probably the biggest lesson I've learned in my time as a female entrepreneur, a female leader, a partner, and a mother.  The moments I look back and say, 'I probably could have done that better,' are when I lost my authentic playfulness.  As adults we forget we’re here to have a good time. We get caught up in life and growing businesses and wanting to fulfill and advance, that we forget that we’re supposed to be having fun along the way! Always remember to play.  Everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle, Einstein told us. Everything, to me, is a miracle.

What Susan share her own lessons learned and how you can bSmart too!

We think about sustainability of ourselves in a business model and a life model.

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What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t take it all so seriously. When I think about the time that I allowed my joy to be stolen, it was when I didn’t remember to play, and I took everything too seriously. We are all just walking each other home.  We are not going to be on this planet forever.  People laugh when I say, 'In case I’m hit by a bus...' but I mean it.  You could wake up tomorrow, and I may not be here. You may not be here. We aren’t comfortable with that concept of death, especially in the Western world. We’re not here forever. Having lost two very dear friends at a young age I've learned we’re supposed to be having a good time and enjoying this journey.  We get too caught up in life's daily struggles and then all of a sudden, it’s done.  We mourn and we’re sad, and then we go on with the rest of our lives instead of learning something precious from the loss.  That concept is really important to me now.

If you could write the rest of your story, what would the next 10 years look like?

I hope they’re even more fun than the first 45 years!  Most of the time as humans we think we know what is going to happen.  As the saying goes, 'If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!'  I don’t begin to predict my next 10 years because I wouldn’t even be close to being right.  Suffice it to say having a good time and continuing to evolve is important to me. However the universe manifests that for me, I can’t even wait to see.

What do you want all bSmart members to know about your story that would help them ‘bSmart’ too?

Interconnectivity.  Staying connected to yourself is your greatest power as a female entrepreneur.  Our self-image is about our relationship with others. Our self-esteem is about our relationship with ourself.  We spend more time thinking about our self-image and not enough time on our self-esteem and our relationship with ourself.  If you give bandwidth to anything in your life, it’s all about your relationship with yourself.  The more you practice it the more balance that you’ll feel and the more impact you'll have in your life.

Growing a business is messy.  You build the goals, you build the accountability, and then you create

dexterity and flexibility so that if something wonderful comes along, you can shift gears.

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