Day-in-the-Life of an Education Entrepreneur (and Mom) with CodeSpeak Labs’ Founder

My toddler asserting his independence by closing his eyes at just the right moment.

I’ve spent most of the last decade working at other people’s ventures (Teach For All, Crisis Text Line). Last year I decided to take the leap and start my own company. I didn’t have any startup capital, and I had a one-year old at home and another one on the way. My husband was supportive, and since there is no such thing as a convenient time to start a company, I thought: why not?

I called my company CodeSpeak Labs. The initial idea was to be like Kumon for computer science.

“Are you sure parents would pay for that? It doesn’t seem important enough, like math or English?” my mom asked. She was my early “user feedback”.

Fast forward a year and a half: CodeSpeak now works in K-12 schools in NY and CA, with over 1500 students, and we have 2 programs that we license to school districts: the CodeSpeak Apprenticeship Program and the CodeSpeak Startup Program, both simulations that help students visualize themselves in high tech careers.

Each day my goal is to spend at least one chunk of quality one-on-one time with each child and get at least one important work goal accomplished. This is what a typical day looks like for me:

5:00 AM: Alexander, my 6 month old, starts making noise.

He quiets down but my brain is already buzzing. I reach for my phone and see several emails from Jade, CodeSpeak’s General Manager in NY. Jade’s the best! We met at a Center for Social Innovation Accounting Workshop. I signed up for it when I realized I needed to wear every hat at my new company, including the Quickbooks one.

Jade understands that I send short emails that can sound curt even when everything’s fine.

5:30 AM: Alexander is up again, and this time he’s serious. I feed him while reading the latest on Computer Science For All initiatives around the country.

After he’s done, we go downstairs and I have my breakfast — Cheerios, banana, milk — while we play: making funny faces, reading books, excessive cheek kisses.

7:30 AM: Alexander is asleep in the playpen, I’m on the computer, and I hear Maxwell, my 2.5 year old, calling “mommmyyyyy!” and my mom saying “早晨 (Good Morning) Maxwell!”

My parents have lived with us since my first son was born, first in New York and now in California; they take care of the kids when I’m working. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them about it; the New York Times wrote about the phenomenon last year. But for Asian families like ours, it’s normal (though I am still grateful!).

I have a couple hours of focused time to work on curriculum: a lesson on creating a mockup for client review.

9:30 AM: I ask my mom to get Maxwell ready while I call a potential corporate partner. I got lucky — I had sent him a 3-line cold email and he replied right away. After a brief chat, I load Maxwell in the car and take him to Parent & Me class.

Noon: We’re back home. My dad has lunch ready, and I scarf it down so I can go prepare for my afternoon meetings.

12:30 PM: Coaching call with Austin and Hassan from 4.0 Schools. It’s been awesome to be able to tap into a network of folks who have their own educational ventures. It can be lonely to be a solo founder.

I’m feeding Alexander while I’m on the call; he finishes up and passes out without any noise so I don’t mention to Austin and Hassan that he’s there.

2:00 PM: I’m at Costco, which is a short drive away. While I’m there I call back a school administrator from Texas. When she tells me she found us online, I do a silent happy dance. Usually customers come through word-of-mouth so it’s cool to hear someone discovering us online.

When I get back, I have 15 min to either shower or pump.

3:30 PM: I’m in class at the Boys and Girls Club in Santa Ana. The area’s youth are 91% on free and reduced priced lunch and 96% Hispanic/Latino. We’re working with middle school students to come up with their own tech solutions to problems that they identify (animal cruelty, homelessness). This time, almost all the students say “Trump” is the problem they want to tackle. The idea emerges to start an online campaign to #ProveHimWrong.

5:00 PM: I’m now at an afterschool class for high school students. We treat them like junior software engineers who go through the entire software development cycle as they would at a tech company.

Rosy, one of our students, smiling in front of her first website.

6:30 PM: I’m back home and find my husband playing trains with Maxwell.

7:00 PM: Alexander’s bedtime routine begins with his bath and ends with him in the crib and me typing on my Chromebook in the dark. I write to the school administrator in Texas with different options on how we could support her school district.

9:00 PM: Maxwell is done with his routine and is waiting for me to put him to bed. It’s a sleep crutch that we’re both having a hard time giving up. I fall asleep while waiting for him to fall asleep, then sneak out later, hoping he doesn’t catch me.

I’m one of the lucky ones; I have family support (both sets of grandparents and my sister nearby) and a work schedule that I can control. And yet, most days I do wonder if being an education entrepreneur is compatible with parenthood.

As a startup founder, my startup is supposed to be “my baby”; sorry not sorry to say that I already have 2 babies and the comparison is not even close.

As a startup founder, I’m supposed to have absolute conviction that this one idea that I’m working on will save the world. This is true even more so for education entrepreneurs; our sector attracts more bleeding hearts than unicorn chasers. The reality is at least once a week I question my priorities.

As a startup founder, I’m supposed to be willing to work all day and night, to push myself to the brink of breaking down (or maybe at least one breakdown as an honorable fail). The reality is keeping my kids safe and giving them the love and space they need to grow and thrive is already a 24/7 commitment.

My mom says sacrifice and suffering is part of being a mom.

But does it also have to be part of being an entrepreneur? Particularly in education when we need so many more diverse voices, why do we continue to support a culture that creates barriers for getting more parents involved?

Parents are fierce — you see it at the local level from PTAs to protests. What if we could channel this passion into ventures that could have national reach? What if we created an environment where mompreneurs could improve education as easily as they can start a shop on Etsy?

What if more startup incubators allowed participants to participate remotely, so they don’t need to leave their kids for weeks? (Thanks, 4.0!)

What if we had more networking events when the kids are in school, instead of over drinks at prime bedtime story hour? (Go Creative Mornings!)

What if more companies offered flexible opportunities like shared roles and working from home? (Shout out to Teach For America! Btw, did you know Wendy Kopp has 4 kids? Incredible.)

What if there was affordable childcare? (Thank you 婆婆, 公公, 阿公, 阿嫲!)

What if parents were mobilized as a united force for good? (Parents Together!)

Even writing this has been a little microcosm of my world. As I was getting feedback from Breanna from 4.0 Schools on speaker phone, I rushed to chop garlic for dinner while Alexander whined in the background waiting for me to wrap it up so I could feed him.

I’m constantly zooming in on my small, full world of home and zooming out, wanting to figure out next steps for each of those What If’s.

This post originally ended at the 9 PM line, but Breanna keeps pushing me to think bigger, bolder, to reflect on the global significance. It’s what we as education entrepreneurs (and parents) need to be doing all the time: to do what needs to get done and then still do that extra push if we are create a system that prepares all of our children for the uncertain future that lies ahead.

(And in case you’re curious, baby’s still eating…)

Jen Chiou is the founder and CEO of CodeSpeak Labs, which helps K-12 schools and afterschool centers start computer science programs. She’s a 2016 4.0 Schools Tiny Fellow. You can reach her at jen[at]codespeaklabs.com