WORK IT! CEO & Founder Lori Theriault told Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about the challenge of developing a startup that’s the first of its kind and how she’s overcome that hurdle to build a successful business.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. When and why did you start WORK IT!?
LORI THERIAULT: I started the business in January 2015. I had spent 30 years in manufacturing management with a focus on operations and human resources. I had always worked directly for the business owners themselves, and I know working with visionaries has helped support my natural visionary strengths. I developed management and leadership skills over the years and had enough technical knowledge to communicate well with many personalities.
And then, in January 2015, I asked myself: What do I want to be doing for the rest of my life? Obviously, I knew I wanted to run my own show, but it needed to be using my social/emotional strengths versus the technical side.
Around that time, I had a dream that I needed to help people build resumes that were as equally filled with passion as with skill. I was tired of meeting people whose resumes listed plenty of skills and education. They would land the job, but they wouldn’t love it. After a while, the company is left with an employee who’s very qualified—but very unhappy and that will cause issues within any organization.
I thought there’s got to be a better way. And I thought career planning had to start earlier with high school-age students.
NAN: As you were developing the business concept, at what point did you realize you had a marketable service to offer?
LORI: As I was developing the business concept in 2015, I soon realized the personalized program I was building to help students align their strengths to their life purpose really didn’t exist to the magnitude that my program would take them—and there was definitely a need.
My end goal was to be able to help people in high school and college start building resumes with passion. By May of 2015 I had developed a program and started with a pilot class at New Britain High School. I worked with a freshman class of 17 students—all of whom were struggling getting to sophomore year.
NAN: How did you become involved with the school? Did you just approach them ask to run the program?
LORI: Good question. In the last 12 years of my career, I had recruited 16- and 17-year-olds from New Britain High School to help with administrative tasks. Over the years, we would bring seven or eight students into the workplace to help with different projects, which helped them identify their career paths. The company provided tuition reimbursement for college. Some students went into engineering, some went into administration, and one became a certified public accountant.
There were a lot of success stories from those New Britain High School students and there was a lot of relationship building going on between the school and me, personally. When I decided to start my own business, the personal relationship was already there. I believe New Britain is a city that is more visionary than many of the smaller towns in Connecticut and I’m grateful for working with the students and New Britain High School’s, Sondra Sanford, a true advocate for student to career over the years.
NAN: What types of startup challenges did you encounter as you were starting out?
LORI: Because what I was introducing was an entirely new concept, I knew marketing would be more challenging. I did dabble with different consulting firms, but I was offering a product that was completely new to the world. There’s no competition for what I do as far as career coaching for kids. Of course, there’s career coaching for adults, but there’s really no career coaching for children as young as 10 years old.
A lot of consultants compare what you offer to your competition but, with what I was creating, there’s really no competition. It became a marketing burden more on me than them. That’s where a lot of money was wasted, because it was a concept that many marketing experts didn’t fully grasp yet. Being the visionary, you are a few years ahead of people and that adds some stress and a test of your patience.
NAN: How are you marketing?
LORI: Marketing is a huge business expense for startups. And so is branding. As I said, I’ve spent money where I shouldn’t have over the years and I continue learning from those experiences.
Word-of-mouth and social media are what’s got me to where I am today, three years later. Being able to pilot in a larger school gives me more reference and credibility, especially in the early stages of building the dream.
So, I would say my survival is really due to parents spreading the word all over the state. I’ve built up the experience over the last three years. Finally, I can say this year, year number three, people are starting to grasp the concept.
NAN: Getting back to working with students, in what ways do you encourage entrepreneurship?
LORI: I’m fostering entrepreneurship by identifying students ages 10 and older who have been born with entrepreneurial strengths and providing the leadership development and coaching to help them reach their business ownership goal one day. Fueling the passion while they are young is important for this program.
I also support entrepreneurs running family businesses and small businesses, that’s another of my specialties, because working with your family can be challenging. I’m able to help those businesses keep their personality dynamics in check.
NAN: Have you worked with any students who have ended up launching their own companies?
LORI: Yes. And I continue to provide coaching, accountability, and monitoring.
About 30% of my 1,000 students are either solopreneurial or entrepreneurial minded. I’m able to potentially keep them as clients on a routine basis as they embark on their journeys. Again, some of the students I work with are young. They’re not ready to launch a business yet, but they could be soon.
NAN: How has WORK IT! evolved since 2015. Has it grown to other schools?
LORI: New Britain High School is a main hub for me. I do a lot of testing with my program there. Recently, I evolved into working with a teen parents program as well as a United Way Summer Program.
With my manufacturing background, New Britain High School has asked me to participate in rolling out the Academy of Manufacturing, Engineering and Technology (NAF Academy). That connection, which started about a year ago, enables me to build business partnerships so they can repeat what I’ve done over the years, bring students in, and let them help businesses grow.
The other thing that’s evolved with my business is the opportunity to offer the program to parents. Having an office here in Farmington enables me to provide private classes and help students identify their strengths and create a plan for themselves.
In the three years since I’ve launched, I’ve worked with 1,000 students in 46 different towns and cities around Connecticut, five countries, and four states. I’ve used Skype to get the same results. So, there are no boundaries to this program, which is amazing.
With 1,000 students behind, you can’t just forget about them—they are all ages. So, I’m in the process of going back in, capturing where they are in their journey, and offering any support they might need. What I’m finding so far is they’ve carried the torch and they’re still strong.
NAN: That ties into more of the career coaching you provide.
LORI: Right. When students leave high school, they no longer have support through the school, so I’ve become a “career coach for life.” After working with high school and college-age students, I realized I needed to go to a lower age group, middle school, because kids can experience a “dark period” in middle school, which was triggering more work I then needed to do once they reached high school.
I was able to pilot the WORK IT! program with different families more on a private level, which helped spread the word. And then parents were bringing their children to me for other concerns: bullying, not paying attention in school because they’re not liking the classes, communication issues at home. So, this program not only identifies the student’s career path, but it helps parents understand the way their child communicates and what can be changed from a parenting standpoint to be better understood.
NAN: You’re also working with employers. Is that more with internship placements and engaging students in job shadowing?
LORI: I do work with employers for business consulting, student placement, as well as sponsorship. Some employers sponsor classes, particularly from the technical high school. They’ll sponsor 12 students with the hopes of the students being able to identify or confirm that they want to be a specific trade, such as an electrician or a plumber. These specialty-skilled trades have a resource through WORK IT! to get their new recruits because there’s such a shortage of skilled trades students.
NAN: And how are you collaborating with those businesses?
LORI: I reach out and I do a lot of networking. And when I network with other business owners, many times they’ll say it’s so hard to find good help. Then that’s my introduction to being able to help them. I also work with area technical colleges bringing an awareness of my business offerings leading students to hands-on continuing education. I have referred many students to area colleges that I believe align with their learning styles and career passions.
NAN: What does the future look like for WORK IT!? Any specific goals?
LORI: My goal is to have 500 employees in the next two years all over the country. I’d like to to recruit students ages 16 to 21 and give them some life skills and work skills, so they can be better groomed for other work places. Franchising would also be something I would consider.
NAN: Earlier you mentioned your “natural visionary strengths.” What does being a visionary—or an entrepreneur—mean to you?
LORI: Many people confuse the solopreneur with the entrepreneur. An entrepreneur enjoys the team effect and a solopreneur likes to control most aspects of their business with little or no employees. To me, being an entrepreneur means you were born to run businesses with your passion for business and people—any business!