Ep #30 | Discovering the Spark of Young Entrepreneurs


Monica is the Executive Director of Break Into Business located in Atlanta, GA. Since 2013 Break Into Business has trained over 500 entrepreneurs aged 9-17 who have launched over 150 profitable businesses, earning thousands of dollars in profit. Prior to Break Into Business, Monica worked with The Boston Consulting Group. Monica has her undergraduate degree in business from Queen’s University, in Canada, and her MBA from Harvard.



Shantel: Hi, Monica. Welcome to the Imagine More Podcast. 

Monica: Thanks for having me. 

Shantel: Of course. We're excited to learn more about your journey. To kick things off, will you tell our listeners a little bit more about your start and your path to becoming an entrepreneur. 

Monica: Sure. So I'm Canadian. I'll start there. 

Shantel: Okay. 

Monica: Start at the very beginning. I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario. I went to college in Canada, and I studied business, which is a key part of my story, at an amazing college called Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. While I was there, I actually kind of fallen into business as a major. I was good at math, but I didn't want to study engineering. So business seemed like a good default. But this is where it ended up being a huge turning point and my life because I realized just how incredible business really was and the power of that, which ultimately led to the organization that I run today, which is called Break Into Business. 

Shantel: Nice. What is Break Into Business?


Monica: So at Break Into Business, we coach young people to launch real businesses and today, what that looks like is being based in Atlanta. So I traveled all the way to Kingston, Ontario to Atlanta. I can share a little more about that journey. Right now it lives here in Atlanta, and each summer we coach about 250 young people ages nine to 17. As they come through our programs and spend a week with us and launch a real business. So our goal in doing that is to spark a passion in these kids for business, which is what, as I mentioned, something that I had fallen in love. Ultimately, I just have a deep belief that business is the most amazing tool to unlock potential in people. Kids and adults. So we just start early. We unlock that potential really early. We see their passions come to life and we see their gifts come to life in a way that they never even realized they could.

Shantel: That's amazing.

Monica: Mm-hmm.

Shantel: Let's dive into this story of what made you shift to Atlanta.

Monica: Yeah. So when I was in my senior year in college, my best friend and I were on a total entrepreneurial streak. We were launching businesses all over the place. We had an exam prep business. We had a day planner business. They were pretty awesome. So we thought the next one to put in our portfolio was a camp because we both loved to teach, but we were studying business and we felt like if we hadn't done business, we would've been teachers. But maybe we can combine those things. So we convinced the director of our college program to let us start a summer camp in the business school. We convinced 30 kids to join us for the summer, more so convinced their parents to send them to us. We just ran this experiment where we hosted a business camp for a week. It had very little oversight. We were in charge. We hired our friends to help us run it. We decided what we were going to do is have these kids launch businesses because we felt like that would be the best way to bring it to life for them. It was a massive hit with these kids. They loved every minute of it. Their parents would tell us they were up til midnight working on their business. Couldn't wait to come to camp the next day. It was so great, and it made so much money when they launched their businesses. We felt like, "Man, I think we're on to something with this concept." So the two of us went out into the real world. I was with the Boston Consultant Group in Toronto, and she was with Bain And Company. So competing consultant firms. But we kept going back every summer, taking vacation time, and running business camp. Our colleagues thought we were insane, but we just loved it so much. Then ultimately, our lives moved forward. I went off to business school at Boston at Harvard, and she started her own super successful business in Toronto called RateHub.ca. It was just too much for us to keep going back and running this camp. So we stopped doing it, but it was always on both of our hearts. So eventually, when I landed here in Atlanta with my husband, it was the first thing I wanted to do was get Break Into Business started again. It happened in 2013 and we've grown a ton since then. Now sitting here in 2017, we're up from 10 kids in 2013 to we had 250 kids in our summer programs. We had our first licensing partner running Break Into Business in Oklahoma. We have a growing after school program and an advanced program called The Accelerator where we take kids to the next level with their businesses. These are our most motivated kids. 

Shantel: Wow. I love that. I've been to a few of the events and just been so extremely inspired. I can't wait to learn a little bit more about the curriculum of what you guys are doing now and where you see the business shifting. Are you still working with your friend? Does she help or contribute at all to the camps in Atlanta? 

Monica: She contributes her heart and brain on many problems. She's not formally involved. Her business is quite large. At this point, it consumes a lot of her time. But I still have the hope that one day she'll sell it and become the comedian Break Into Business Subsidiary. So we'll see if that materializes down the road. But she was awesome in those early days. She shared resources from her own team, graphic designers, web development, things like that to help get us started. So she's been a great friend. I have to say, in terms of your involvement, I think you might be the number one Break Into Business customer in Atlanta. You probably carve out 10% of your annual ... I think every time I see you, you have your arms full of candles and different things from our sweet kids.

Shantel: Yeah. I can never turn down whatever they're selling at their booths. I think it's amazing.

Monica: They're really hard to pass up on especially my favorite is when people are trying to be nice and they say, "Hey, I would but I don't have cash on me," and their instinctive response is, "We take credit card." 

Shantel: Smart. Smart little kids. 

Monica: They are.

Shantel: So you talked about a license partnership in Oklahoma. Can you touch a little bit about that? Is that always been part of the business plan? 


Monica: No. That was really exciting because that's something that actually came to me. So at the beginning of last year, myself and my board were really at a point if thinking, "You know, what would it look like for this to grow beyond us running programs in Atlanta?" It's a very intensive experiential type thing. It's difficult to scale when you got kids. The magic in this things as we give them a ton of freedom to launch these businesses. So you can't put it in a box. It's really hard to just hand to someone. We take them really far in a weeks time. There's kind of an art behind doing that. So that just leads to challenges on the scaling side, on the growth side. But we also felt like we had some responsibility to try and grow it because we saw the way that our students were benefiting from the program. The things they were doing with it and we felt like we need to figure out a way to at least try and bring this outside of Atlanta to our little group. So an organization called Love Work that's a non-profit organization based in Norman, Oklahoma approached us and said, "We've seen your students. We heard one of your entrepreneurs speak at an event. It's amazing. How do we get involved? Can we run this?" So actually it was their idea to become a licensing partner. So I think that's a helpful thing with growth. When people are coming to you and asking for things, it's more likely to be something that sticks than me trying to push something from a growth perspective. So they ran a camp this past summer. We provided a bunch of training, curriculum. I flew out there to see how it went, and it was phenomenal. So we've already got a couple more partners lined up for this summer, and that's definitely we're looking at how do we hand this off to more people. That will be our path to growth.

Shantel: That's amazing. If I ever move outside of Atlanta, you know I would love to get involved in some degree in other cities. Is the board, is it volunteer based or is your entire organization, is it primary volunteer-based during the summer camps? How can people get involved in helping? 

Monica: Yeah, that's a good question. So our staff in the summer is all paid. We ask a lot of them. Blood, sweat, and tears to help these kids launch all of these businesses. They work really, really hard. So typically our team looks like a senior teacher leading a program and then they're supported by four college-age interns who work directly with the kids. So this summer we had two of those teams deployed. So ultimately over 10 people kind of trying to run this thing. Then we also have a lot of Sharks that come in. So the number one way we have volunteers is we bring in these amazing business leaders and entrepreneurs from around Atlanta to come serve as a Shark for a couple hours. They hear our student's pitch. They invest their own real money. We ask $20. Certain Sharks go above and beyond that. I'm thinking of you. Remembering you this past summer. So that is a lot of fun because it lets our Sharks really see into the program and see what these kids are working on and encourage them in the most powerful way because these kids are so passionate about their business. So when someone invests, it's just a huge gift. The money is the smallest part of it, it's really the belief in them, and coming from someone that they respect so much is great. They take the advice very seriously that they get. So our biggest volunteer is our most volunteers come in as Sharks, and then the board is also on a volunteer basis. Again, it's a group of entrepreneurs and business leaders from Atlanta who have connected with Break Into Business in one way or another and just felt like they want to become more involved in helping us grow. 

Shantel: That's great. What I really appreciated about ... I mean, the Shark Tank experience was so fun. But these are real companies. They do take it so seriously and they're coming up with wonderful ideas. As a serial entrepreneur in your past, is it sometimes tough to not want to just like jump into some of their ideas that they present? 


Monica: That is a great question. I have a track record of trying to get too involved with my own opinion. I'll hear an idea and think, "Oh, I just don't think that's going to work." My instinct to want to try to convince them to pivot or shift their idea to something that I think is more safe because ultimately, I want them to succeed. I want them to make money. Even though this is a great environment for them to learn in because a "failure" in a camp environment is nothing like losing your life savings starting a business. So we want them to learn here and to fail. So my first step if I'm worried about their idea is I will put tons of pressure on their market research. So we have them all do market research. Again, we want it to be real. We send them out to ask people if they're interested in their business, and our hope is that people will be honest with them. Sure enough, a lot of times groups will come back and say, "You know, we got a whole bunch of no's. People just didn't seem that excited." They look pretty downtrodden in that moment, but we celebrate that because we say, "Isn't this amazing? You found out that this isn't going to work before you invested a single cent and more than two hours of your time. What a gift that is to you!" A team comes back from market research and their still gung ho about it, I will let them roll. A lot of times they prove me wrong. There is a business this summer that you may have seen. Actually, it might have been a different week. But it was a group of boys and they were so excited about this business where they were going to melt down crayons to make candles and sell them. Their price was pretty aggressive. I'm thinking, "Okay. Are they going to be able to pull this off? That sounds kind of complicated. What's it going to look like? Will it just be brown?" But they did an amazing job. They sold out first. They got a big investment by the Sharks.

Shantel: Wow.

Monica: So they totally proved me wrong. So that happens all the time.

Shantel: Nice. Well, how do you optimize your day during the offseason? Are the camps just in the summer? 

Monica: The camps are concentrated in the summer, but we still have a lot going on during the school year. We are running after-school programs in a few schools around Atlanta and even outside Atlanta. We also have a couple major classroom projects running right now where we actually are going into classrooms and teaching the curriculum to a full grade level. So we have one of those that's wrapping up next week. We have our advanced students coming through our accelerator program. So these are the ones who participated in the summer and have a next big idea. So we provide opportunities for them. They just completed a Fall Market at Ponce City Market. We'll pick five of them to pitch in our big event in February called The Final Pitch. We'll give out $1,500 in real seed funding.

Shantel: That's amazing.

Monica: They are all very, very excited about that. They all want to be selected. It's the hardest thing to get that panel to choose five. So that's what we're up to during the year. In terms of how that translate to my schedule, something unique about me is I'm very committed to ... I don't love the word mom-preneur, but something I'm trying to achieve is pretty carved out life with my children in a home life in addition to being an entrepreneur and running this. Also, it's a big part of my life. So what that looks like right now is I work full-time three days, and then I'm mostly home on two days during the week. So that presents its own challenges because I have to be hyper-efficient during my three days at work.

Shantel: Do you have a system or a tool that you use to prioritize those days at work? 

Monica: Well, my biggest thing is to compartmentalize my time. I can't afford to waste a lot of time in transit. So a big thing is with meetings is trying to stack them on specific days. So I'll try and save Fridays for that. But then if I have something lands on a Monday that I can't miss and I'll then try and stack everything on the Monday. So that's my number one tool for optimizing my time. I also find that it's great to have a hard stop on each of these meetings to go to my next appointment because it just prevents things from going way over that don't necessarily need to. So I found that it's a double benefit if I can keep myself pretty busy on those days moving from one place to another. Atlanta's pretty big. So if you're driving around meeting a few people, it can really take a lot of time. Then I also ... A big part of my role in leading this organization is developing the curriculum that we teach to our students. I take that very seriously and it's one of my favorite things about what I do. I try and carve out my best window of the day, which like most people is the first thing when I get to work. So I'll try and block that on my calendar for a day a week or two days a week, depending on what season I'm in. I will very purposely close out of my email the second I open my computer. So I don't even see it. I devote that time to working on curriculum while I'm fresh and without interruption because that's when I do my best thinking. 

Shantel: I'm glad that you shared that. I especially like the stacking methodology. I try to be diligent about only taking phone calls or setting meetings on certain days of the week, and I struggle with saying no when they're like, "Oh, I can only meet on this day." It's like, "Shoot. Well, I guess I can." But it sounds like you have a really strong sense of these are the boundaries and you really stick to that.

Monica: It doesn't always work, but one of the things that can be helpful about working on a part-time schedule is my time is truly very limited. So it's the best forcing function for being really efficient. I think working moms might be the most efficient people out there. So that's helped me a lot. Then on my off days, a tool for me is that I actually turn my email off, my work email off of my phone. So I got into Settings and just unhook my email. So then I'm completely free of distractions at home. That's become really important to me as well.

Shantel: That's great. Let's touch a little bit on what you were like as a little kid. Were you also entrepreneurial at that point in your life? 


Monica: I would say I was. There were sparks of entrepreneurship. My best girlfriends and I on my street growing up were always running ... We had Kool-Aid stands. We didn't do lemonade. We had Kool-Aid stands all the time. We were trying to get our neighbors to buy tickets to come see us in concert. There was definitely that kind of seeds starting to sprout at an early age. But I would say, as a child, I was really shy. I was very academically oriented, especially math. That was something that I really enjoyed. But I didn't see any connection between that and necessarily this career down the road that I'd be really excited about. I've never been able to bridge that gap, which is why when I went to school and studied business, I was a huge ah-ha for me that my wiring on the math side and analytical side could turn into this really exciting career in the business world. So that is the same kind of gap that we're trying to bridge for these kids. So we get this group of 30 in the summer and their personalities are all over the map. Some of them are the total drama kids who get in trouble for talking at school all the time. Then others are more like me as a kid, very shy, reserved, more academic. What's cool is we put them on teams and we show them how they're all necessary on that team. So they each get a role. We have a CFO, that would've been me as a 10 year old. We've got, we call it, the CSO, Chief Sales Officer. These kids are hilarious. They can sell anything. So we set them loose. It's fun because their parents have heard throughout their life that the wiring of theirs is a negative. They hear that all the time from their teachers. Johnny talks in class. Suzy's being disruptive in class. She's too energetic. She doesn't sit still. So what's fun is we can put that on its head and say, "What a gift Suzy has. She can talk to anybody. She has amazing energy. She's such a value to our team." It's just that can be a huge, huge turning point for these kids.

Shantel: Do you ever have kids that wanted a different role than what they were kind of plugged into, or do they have conversations internally, like, "I think you'd be really great at this role." How does that selection process look like? 

Monica: Yeah. We let them work as a team and self select. Certainly sometimes kids end up in a role that may be their second choice. But we try and coach as it's a really good thing to try different things. We'll even push kids. So we get a lot of kids that come back year after year and they get a new title every year. We hold them to a higher standard and challenge them each time they come back. With those kids, a lot of time we'll try and push them into a role they haven't tried before. Because, again, this is the time to experiment and learn and be great at something, be not so great at something, and be able to see down the road where you might want to go.

Shantel: Speaking of learning experience, do you have ... What do you think is the biggest mistake you've made as an entrepreneur or biggest shift or learning opportunity for you? 

Monica: Yeah. I think the biggest mistake for me or I guess my biggest regret or something I wish was bringing people in earlier. I am one of those people that's wired to be heads down, make it happen. Scrappy is a word that I would apply to myself. I don't ask for help very well. I don't spend enough time bringing people into my vision, especially in the early days. It was very much, "Hey, if I just put my head down and work really hard, I'm going to make this happen." Whereas, it would've been a lot more fun and a lot easier early on if I had devoted more of that time to sharing my vision with others and letting them come into it. I mean, the greatest gift that I've experienced in the last couple years is having a board that really believes in Break Into Business. They help in tangible ways, but they also push me and hold me accountable in a way that's been really powerful.

Shantel: I appreciate you sharing that. I think just having people around you to kind of cheer you on and, like you mentioned, hold you accountable I'm sure is invaluable.

Monica: For sure.

Shantel: How do you continue to learn and be inspired?

Monica: Yeah. That's a great question. I think like so many people podcasts can be great. We're on the road in Atlanta. I'm on the road all the time. So that's a big one for sure. I have loved being a part of a community called Plywood People that's based in Atlanta and their mission is to lift up social innovators. One of the ways they do that is by providing resources, conferences, retreats, and things like that. Where they'll bring speakers in to challenge our thinking and to help us to connect with one another. I've learned so much from people in that community doing good things that are different from me, but they're doing it with excellence and I'm able to take things away from that. We do a lot of sharing between the community of I'm stuck here, how did you do that? That's been hugely helpful as well. So being part of a larger community, I would say, has been such a helpful tool for me.

Shantel: Is it a collaborative like co-working space? 

Monica: Yeah. Great question. So there is a co-working element to it and I have been working in that space for about three years now. So I've been there for a while, but it's a pretty small space. There's usually about 10 entrepreneurs in there at any given time. Because it's small, we're very close net, and we all know each other's business really, really well. So it's helpful. When you really need it, you can kind of snap your fingers and you got like nine coworkers around you in that critical moment. But the community is much larger and you run into the same people at different events or meals or things like that that they're hosting or all these people coming in and out of the space that we're able to connect with. So at any given time, they probably have over 200 social entrepreneurs in their very active community.

Shantel: I'll have to check that out. It sounds like a great community.

Monica: Yeah, you'd love it.

Shantel: Well, only two more questions for you, Monica. First, what is next on the horizon for Break Into Business? 

Monica: Yeah, that is a great question. So just came out of a board meeting this past week and really the focus of conversation is on growth, but it looks different than a conversation about growth two or three years ago when we were talking about how do we run more camps in Atlanta. That was growth was running more camps, and we're at a point now where we'll run 10 camps next summer over the course of six or seven weeks. So it's busy. It's a lot. It's probably about at the point where it makes the most sense to stop growing in that way on our own and start focusing on growth, as I mentioned, in giving it to other people. So really the focus now is getting better and more structured in our thinking about how do we hand this off in a way that still creates an amazing experience for Break Into Business students. Whether they're in Norman, Oklahoma, Birmingham. We have a group there right now. We're starting up a group in Missouri next semester.

Shantel: Wow.

Monica: So we're starting to see it spread. As we do that and run those experiments, we get better at handing it off as well. So that's really a focus.

Shantel: That's really exciting. 

Monica: Yeah. It is. We're going to have little entrepreneurs making sales all over the country hopefully.

Shantel: Well, I'm excited to see you and your business continue to grow. How can people get in touch with you if they want to learn more or have any follow up questions?

Monica: Yeah. You can always visit the website BreakIntoBusiness.com. We're going through a very exciting re-branding process right now. So that'll go live soon, but the websites up. Then follow along on Instagram at Break Into Business and you'll see some really awesome kids in action.

Shantel: Great. Well, thank you so much for being on the Imagine More Podcast. We really appreciate it.

Monica: Thanks, Shantel. It was a pleasure.