5 questions with Sara Watson

Sara Watson is the Global Director of ReadyNation, a business membership group that supports executives to promote public and private investments that help build the future workforce. They work on issues from early childhood through young adulthood. This fall they sponsor their twelfth Global Business Summit on Early Childhood, November 1–2 in New York City.

You’ve written recently about the burgeoning of innovation and social entrepreneurship in the early childhood space. What’s one area ripe for innovation that no one is tackling yet but should be?

It’s exciting to see early childhood become a new area of attention for social entrepreneurship, with great initiatives such as the Gary Community Investments Early Childhood Innovation Prize. I started collecting examples for this Social Capital Markets blog and realized there are so many ideas far beyond the core early childhood field. One of the most compelling and yet rare is co-location of preschools and elder care homes, with the most prominent being Providence Mt. St. Vincent in Seattle. It benefits both populations and could be very attractive for prospective clients, with a vast potential for growth.

You’ve been leading ReadyNation’s work for several years now. Some of ReadyNation’s business members are well-known, such as PNC, but what are some of the exciting new companies or sectors represented by your work today?

I talk about six types of business actions to support early childhood — supporting communities, working with employees, engaging customers/suppliers, pursuing social innovation, using media platforms, and directly advocating for policy change. KPMG has been active on many of these levels, and they have many executives as members of and advocates for ReadyNation. The firm is dedicated to lifelong learning and literacy, and KPMG’s Family for Literacy is their flagship citizenship initiative that has partnered with First Book to distribute more than 4 million books.

QuikTrip, a multi-state convenience store and gasoline marketer, incorporates early literacy messages throughout its social media channels, to attract and educate parent customers. The Coin Laundry Association’s “Wash Time is Talk Time” campaign works with its member laundromats (as well ReadyNation and Kiwanis International) to create reading corners that are also platforms for agencies to offer access to services. We’re also thrilled to work with many state and local chambers of commerce that see early childhood as part of their mission of making their communities great places to live. The four city chambers of commerce in Tennessee — in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga — are a powerful unified voice for early learning.

We’ve seen some major shifts in the last few years — what’s new about the early childhood debates?

One debate that’s worth dissecting a bit is on play. There are people raising concerns about over-structured early education settings, saying that kids need to have more playtime. At the same time others point out that many children are still in settings that aren’t structured enough. I wish that both sides would spend more time acknowledging that we all agree children should have developmentally appropriate settings (with parents or in out of home settings) that include purposeful and free play.

What have you learned from the expansion of ReadyNation’s work outside the United States?

I’m proud to say that we are the only international business group that is working with local leaders to create active networks of business champions for early childhood. We’ve started with Uganda, Romania and Australia — very different countries! And we’ve given initial technical assistance workshops on this topic to early childhood leaders in countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia, China, Italy, UK, France, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil.

I’ve learned that early childhood leaders worldwide have many of the same hopes and questions about working with the business community — for example, knowing that executives are willing to advocate for the same type of high-quality services that experts want. And business people have similar concerns worldwide — a more productive workforce, both now and in the future. There are of course big differences such as the political contexts and the exact agenda, whether it’s reducing stunting, providing infant care for working parents, or reaching those especially at-risk, such as Indigenous Australian children or those in the Amazon River basin.

What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand childhood and the experiences of children today?

This is going to sound perhaps odd and not at all cheery, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading about World War II. There’s so much international suffering and upheaval now, as there was then. Children were separated from their parents, families were uprooted, young people had to grow up fast, taking on adult responsibilities before their time. Recent books such as The Women in the Castle, Sons and Soldiers, All the Light We Cannot See, and Beneath a Scarlet Sky focus on young people’s experiences then, which in some ways are similar to those in countries experiencing violence today. In a more traditional vein, Dr. Laura Jana’s new book, The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today that will Shape Your Child’s Tomorrow, conveys the importance of early brain development in language that speaks convincingly to business leaders.

Looking ahead, what signals or trends do you perceive that make you most hopeful about the future our children will inhabit?

I love the explosion of efforts to convey the message that what young children need most is simply people who love and care for them. These include the Boston Basics’ five messages, Vroom’s parenting tips, Too Small to Fail’s “Talking is Teaching,” the Thirty Million Words campaign, and the Urban Child Institute’s “Talk Touch Read Play” initiative. (It is especially noteworthy when these efforts include early math and science as much as reading.)

I also love the trend of taking early childhood messages and services to everyday spaces. ReadyNation has been working with the Coin Laundry Association (which was encouraged to join this space by Too Small to Fail) and Kiwanis Clubs to bring reading corners into the laundromats that parents and children must visit, and one of the Clubs is branching out to the community hospital waiting room. The Coin Laundry Association just convened its own Literacy Summit to brainstorm ideas on how they can use these outlets to spread the message everywhere. Just how cool is that?