Interview by Kimberly Davis Guerra
January is Education Month and our 25th Annual Camp Fair is around the corner, which means we’re spending a lot of time thinking about ways for kids to learn in fun and immersive ways. This month, we’re exploring those topics and more with Ghazal Qureshi, founder of IDEA Lab Kids. A true innovator in the STEAM educational space, IDEA Lab Kids offers not only camp experiences, but also classes, workshops, and birthday celebrations focused on a blend of coding, engineering, arts, science, 3D design, augmented reality, and other innovative subjects. We sat down with Ghazal to find out what started her on her path and get her take on why STEAM activities are so important to kids today.
Tell us about yourself! Where are you from and what is your family like?
I like to say that I am the best of both East and West. Born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, I was fortunate enough to have most of my schooling and upbringing in a traditional Eastern environment where focus on family and education was primary. However, I had a major shock to my system when my family moved to Houston at the start of my senior year in high school. Imagine changing schools and countries in your senior year—talk about extreme culture shock! However, I was blessed again with an amazing higher education, and I gained a degree in computer science. I attended the University of Houston, got married to the love of my life soon after graduation, and a year later, we moved to Colorado for 10 years, where my three wonderful kids were born. However, Houston was still tugging at our heartstrings, and we have been back here for the last 15 years. I am lucky enough to be a mom to three amazing young individuals who are not only smart, but—most importantly—very compassionate. Arianna is a junior at Trinity University studying political science and economics with plans to change the world. Kinza is a freshman studying pre-law with an environmental science focus at Sarah Lawrence, and Ayman (my baby boy) is a sophomore at the Village School studying engineering and entrepreneurship, but he tells me that he really plans to be a movie director.
What was your motivation to start IDEA Lab Kids?
My kids, my kids, my kids! At least in the beginning. Since then, it has morphed into being all about making a difference in the educational landscape. I realized that in order for our kids to be able to compete in this global landscape, they need to learn skills that will allow them a competitive advantage. Among the developed countries, the U.S. is currently ranked very low in math and science skills. This is a shame, as it means our kids will have a difficult time competing with kids from other parts of the world. My motivation now is to even the odds and bring these skills to as many kids as possible. We reached thousands of kids in the community just in the first few short years. Since then, my kids have aged out of the programs, yet our passion to provide the most innovative and the best programs has continued.
You have gone from renting one location in 2011 to offering franchises and locations in 87 markets. How did that happen?
By keeping my head down and not thinking about it! No, seriously, I do think that if I had looked ahead and thought about where we are today when we first started, it would have been very overwhelming. Focusing on each step and milestone, surrounding myself with team members who believed in the same vision, has been the main reason for our success. When selecting our team members, we did not discriminate on the basis of lack of experience or age, allowing us to build a team with passion, excitement, and, most importantly, the innovative vision needed to bring a necessary disruption to the educational space. Bringing in someone that is a drone expert directly from college and allowing them to design the drone programs, or bringing in someone that is passionate about culinary arts and putting them on our R&D team for our cooking curriculum, has been what has allowed us to remain innovative.
Also, let’s not forget the importance of advisors and mentors. As is true of any entrepreneur, I did not have answers to even half of the things that came my way—things as simple as implementing a campus Q&A process to the process for setting up a company to conduct business overseas or supplying parts for activities across many campuses. I had to learn the answers to all of it. This was all done by surrounding myself with experts and advisors. I have leaned on them along the way and learned many valuable lessons.
You mentioned that your motivation for developing IDEA Lab Kids was to help kids gain valuable math and science skills. Tell us about STEAM education and how it serves that goal.
STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education is an interdisciplinary approach to education that teaches kids about these subjects along with their real world connections. STEAM education makes for well-rounded, well-versed students and learners. STEAM-based activities foster the creative process and encourage collaboration with peers. STEAM education improves critical thinking, problem solving, and hands-on learning abilities. Partnering STEAM with project-based learning allows for students to see beyond a monotonous lecture-based classroom setting and offers learning in an interactive hands-on setting. STEAM activities are the backbone of IDEA Lab and are being widely implemented in classrooms across the world.
What has been one of your best moments as an entrepreneur?
There actually have been many, but two rise to the top. The reason I am an entrepreneur is because I wanted to be in charge of my own destiny. However, very soon after choosing that path, the reality sank in that I was also in charge of my own paycheck. This was exciting, yet scary. The day I was finally able to write that first paycheck to myself made me realize that I had made it as an entrepreneur.
The other big moment that stands out in my mind is when my very first employee, Adam Gockley, came to me and asked to be one of the first franchisees. It showed the commitment that he had for the brand and validated the work we’d done up to that point. To this day I beam with pride when I see how well he has taken the IDEA Lab Kids brand to new heights in the Austin market. I feel particularly proud as he learned the business from me and worked from the ground up straight out of college.
What has been one of your biggest challenges?
Learning as I go. When I first started, I was a mom focused on getting the best of the best programs together to directly impact my kids. As we grew, I was suddenly responsible for making sure we are doing right by all the stakeholders: the kids in the community, the parents that placed their faith in us, the team members that were counting on the company to do well, the franchisees that had invested in us. I had to learn how to get out of the mindset of a small business owner and become a team leader taking responsibility for all of these individuals. The biggest challenge was to let go and let others take on the tasks in this growing organization. I had to take the time to bring in the right people and give them wings to fly.
How do you possibly juggle everything? What’s your biggest secret?
My amazing husband. Even though during the first few years he kept telling me that I was taking on too much and should slow down, he finally realized that I was not listening to reason and would carry on doing what I wanted to do. At that point, he rolled up his sleeves and did everything he could to keep things moving both at home and at the company. He has been an amazing husband and father, as well as a great business partner throughout this journey. Living on takeout, being the family chauffeur and the family and business accountant, he only complained about me working too hard and never made me feel bad about missing out on family time. He made sure we work together as a team, both at home and at work. It has been his ability to help me see the light at the end of the tunnel that has always given me the energy to keep moving forward.
What do you think the biggest hurdle is today for parents in Houston?
Time! The amount of activities kids are involved in today is exponentially more than what kids in my generation were involved in. Compounding that problem, parents are also often juggling more demands on their time from work and family commitments. This has created anxiety, stress, and an overall feeling of not being able to get everything done. Houston is also a large city, so shuttling the kids from, say, a birthday party to a museum playdate takes a toll on the limited time we have today.
Why do you think Houston is a great community for families?
With Greater Houston being the most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the United States, with cultures from all over the world, it means that we have a unique opportunity to submerge our children in different cultures and traditions, and prepare them to be global citizens of tomorrow. It gives our children the ability to grow up around people that are different from them, become compassionate and tolerant, and learn from different points of view. Houston is a great cultural melting pot. It is also an amazing place to soak in the various festivals, events, and exhibits that take place on a weekly basis throughout the year. Taking the kids to these (often free) events is how I fondly remember spending many weekends while the kids were younger. It allowed us time to bond as a family, get out, and enjoy the city, and it also exposed the kids to the world around them. Another amazing thing about Houston is that even with all the culture, history, and high-tech industries, it is still very affordable, thus allowing parents to provide the best quality of life for their children. As parents, we should avail ourselves of all the cultural and educational advantages our city has to offer and provide our kids with windows into this cultural enchantment.
What is the best advice you were ever given? Would you like to offer any advice?
One piece of advice I was given early on that I have tried to follow is “stay true to your passion and make sure you are happy every day doing what you love and are passionate about.” I would add that it is important to establish the culture of relationships and nurture them. Also, as you start out, do not be afraid to be yourself and make some mistakes along the way. Remember failure is part of the equation, and as long as you learn from your mistakes and commit to making yourself better every step of the way and learn to step out of your comfort zone, you are making progress.
We thank Ghazal for taking time out of her crazy schedule to speak with us. As a supporter of IDEA Lab Kids over the years, we are very pleased and proud of any part we have had in their success. We wish you all the best and look forward to watching you continue to grow!
To learn more about IDEA Lab Kids or get your kids involved in their programs, visit www.idealabkids.com.