GiGi’s Playhouse, a Story of Miracles, Hope, and Finding Inspiration in Unexpected Places

“There is a higher power driving GiGi’s Playhouse and I am just blessed to be sitting in the driver’s seat!”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Gianni, Founder and “Chief Belief Officer” of GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers, and the visionary behind the organization’s launch and dramatic growth. Soon after learning of her daughter GiGi’s Down syndrome diagnosis in 2002, Nancy formed GiGi’s Playhouse, an organization that quickly opened up a whole world to those who thought they had no hope. As one of the fastest growing non-for-profits in the country with 35 locations, including Mexico, and more opening this year, Nancy’s journey to create GiGi’s Playhouse is a story of miracles, hope, and finding inspiration in unexpected places.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Thank you for listening! I am a mom of 4 kids and we live in South Barrington IL. I started GiGi’s Playhouse 14 years ago after my youngest daughter, GiGi, was born with Down syndrome. I had been in advertising and decided I needed to put all I knew into advertising and marketing some of the most incredible people in the world! Down syndrome gets such a bad rap and I wanted to change the way people saw GiGi and all of her friends with DS. Without much of a business plan, but lots of passion, we launched the first GiGi’s Playhouse in 2003. GiGi had just turned 1 year old. We now have 36 locations across the US and Mexico, and a demand to open 200 more worldwide using the GiGi’s replicable model. GiGi’s Playhouse is the ONLY international network of Down Syndrome Achievement Centers created to provide FREE life-changing therapeutic and educational programs for all ages and spread an International message of acceptance for all!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company

Every time I have an interview or photo session something happens to remind me that none of this is about me. I’ll get a big zit or run out of hairspray, or one of my kids will forget a homework assignment and need me to bring it to school, leaving me no time to get myself ready to be on camera. I think it is God’s way of saying, “This isn’t about Nancy Gianni; this is something bigger.” He may think it’s funny but I don’t!

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Everything we do is FREE! We offer therapy, tutoring, fitness and careers skills programs to children and adults for free. Typically when a business works as hard as we do, you grow your profits. That is why you go in into business! Well, GiGi’s growth is extraordinary but our profits are not measured in dollars but in the lives we are changing every day. I know our model of free educational and therapeutic programming would not fit into any Fortune 500 CEO’s business plan! But you know who wins in this plan? The kids and the world! Watching a child walk into GiGi’s Playhouse non verbal is very difficult, then seeing them after the GiGi’s programming reading books or talking on the phone just blows me away! The impacts are incredible!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My Mom. She told me to never give up on anyone. Everyone has a purpose and some people just need a little help. My mom was the hardest working woman I know. When she wasn’t working at her job or raising kids she was volunteering. I learned from watching her help others and my kids learn by watching me. All of us have little eyes on us and we have a responsibility to shape them in to who they are going to be in this world.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

There is a higher power driving GiGi’s Playhouse and I am just blessed to be sitting in the driver’s seat! My favorite part of GiGi’s is changing perceptions! I think being able to share our replicable and sustainable model with communities across the country so they can engage their entire community in the gift of GiGi’s Playhouse is incredible! Yes, GiGi’s serves individuals with Down syndrome and their families but it also serves the entire community! Individuals with Down syndrome benefit from FREE tutoring in literacy and math, FREE therapeutic based programming, FREE career skills training, and all the tools they need to succeed in life. BUT At the very same time, the community gets a dedicated place to learn about the value of acceptance and how they can be a part of changing the world. A place that feels like Disneyland but has the courage of a Lion! I LOVE TO SHARE THAT!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. If there’s anything that I’ve found in my years of business, it’s that most people do not truly listen! This is why I’ve learned to use multiple and concise visuals to spread the word about the ways that GiGi’s Playhouse is inspiring change. We have more than 36 Down Syndrome Achievement Centers throughout the U.S. and in Mexico, and we serve over 77,000 people of all ages for free — that’s a lot of impact! But we can’t just tell people about it to get them to support our mission; we have to SHOW them the work that’s taking place and the lives that are changing for the better.

2. People will hurt you. You need to be thick-skinned, because there are haters and predators out there who want to bring you down. The best part about that, for me, is that, even though it hurts me, it motivates me to work even harder to prove them wrong!

3. My advice, surround yourself with positive people who genuinely want to make a difference and solve tough problems, not just complain about them. Make this one of your organization’s core values! Positive people spread their way of thinking to everyone around them, which benefits the culture and even the mission you’re trying to accomplish. I am inspired by my staff and amazing volunteers, who run 97 percent of our programs — they take on challenges every day and find solutions that enable us to help more families.

4. Miracles really do happen! My daughter GiGi is the best example of this in my life. And GiGi’s Playhouse, too. When I launched GiGi’s, too many people wanted me to make it all about business and not BELIEF. As soon as I listened to myself and followed the miracles, not a manual, we started to grow exponentially. And that growth continues. We are consistently growing at a rate of 35% a year. Hundreds of communities, including many overseas, have inquired about opening a GiGi’s Playhouse.This extraordinary journey has been made possible by miracles and a sustainable, replicable model. The perfect mix of business and belief!

5. Nonprofits have to work twice as hard to spread awareness and generate support. We have to worry about the same things as for-profits — compliance, human resources, taxes, insurance, etc. — but we’re expected to do it all without spending money! So, we must be persistent and persuasive with our fundraising, and we must be creative in finding ways to do more with less. The challenges are constant, but the rewards are great. When I meet the courageous families we work with and see how we are helping their children overcome obstacles and prepare for the future, I realize I’m doing exactly what I was meant to be doing.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

Wow! There are just too many to list! They all have huge platforms and I would love an opportunity to speak with them and ask for their help in stopping people from targeting kids with disabilities and making fun of them. We have a social responsibility to this world to be better. Every race, sex and political party have people fighting for them! Who is fighting for individuals with disabilities? They make up the largest minority in the world, and in our country, yet we are still afraid to take a stand and protect them.

Children with Down syndrome wear their diagnosis on their face, they cannot hide their difference. I am here to tell you that difference do not discriminate and they are seconds away. All of us are one birth (child or grandchild), one accident, one fall of a bike, one illness away from being different or loving someone that is different. Believe me, when this happens, you will yearn for the world to be a more accepting place for them. I think we NEED to start now and that is what I would LOVE to talk about!

We have started a movement called #GenerationG. It is simply a conscious decision to be better every day. Be generous. Be kind. Be accepting. It doesn’t cost anything. People can take the #GenerationG pledge with their kids, their colleagues or on their own. We need to start somewhere. Our children are watching us and taking our lead, lets shape this world into a place where we are all accepted, respected and embraced for who we are.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.

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