Connecticut business founder, mompreneur, and former high school teacher Ashley Pereira started her “action-oriented social enterprise” Greater Goods Consultants LLC in 2012. In 2016, she launched her company’s latest initiative, Career In STEM®, an innovative online platform for science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM) career exploration.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Ashley about her transition from teacher to business owner.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. How did you develop the business concept?
ASHLEY PEREIRA: While I was still teaching and before I had kids, I knew a family friend who was an evaluator. I started working for her doing side jobs. Three years ago, when my daughter was born, I decided to leave the classroom full-time.
Initially, I wanted to make the same amount I earned as a teacher. I enjoyed evaluation work and had gained enough experience, so I emailed people and asked if they wanted some help doing their research and evaluation. I named my starting rate and I built up enough business that I was able to quit my job and keep doing the evaluation work. Everything was word-of-mouth and it grew organically. I was just doing what I enjoyed. That’s pretty much what it still is today.
NAN: Do you have employees?
ASHLEY: It’s mostly just me. I have a decent number of subcontractors who do my web development and graphic design. I had an intern, Briana Hernandez, who I just promoted to Program Manager. She’s a graduate from Eastern Connecticut State University, which is where I got my Master’s in teaching. She’s awesome! We also have an intern coming on this spring semester, Anindya Martadarma. She’ll be working as Business and Community Development intern to expand our market in New York City.
NAN: Tell us more about Career In STEM.
ASHLEY: The idea behind Career In STEM began when I was a teacher. I primarily taught science to ninth graders. One year, my homeroom class had a mission to complete a job shadow toward their overarching portfolio, which would be due by their senior year. We spent hours every Friday working on it and, at the end of the year, only three of my 15 students completed the mission. The problem was, the kids really had no idea how to navigate the world of careers, which I found kind of scary because they’re going to be out there soon enough.
That planted the seed. Also, in teaching in an inner-city school in Hartford, I often got the question: Miss, why do I need to know this? A lot of times, I didn’t have a good answer. For me, it’s easy because I love science! But trying to get a ninth grader, who is at a third-grade reading level to be interested in anything science-related was challenging.
My last year teaching, the state adopted new science standards. I was going to have to change my entire curriculum anyway. To meet those new standards and try to answer kids’ questions, I aligned everything I did with careers. I was still doing the same content, but through the lens of STEM careers—each day students worked as a certain person, for example a materials scientist in a phase-change lab, to learn not only the content but how it connected to careers and the real world.
Career In STEM is the embodiment of that. It’s everything I did when I was teaching that final year. It’s everything I wish I knew when I was an undergraduate studying to be a veterinarian because I loved animals and had no idea what else I could do other than be a vet. It’s also information I wish I had when I was a teacher to show my students what’s out there.
When I asked most of my students what they wanted to do for a career, they would say: Basketball player, football player, nurse, lawyer—jobs they knew. But there are so many other options and ways to earn a decent income. A lot of times you don’t even need a Bachelor’s degree if you want to work in a trade industry. How would these students know?
ASHLEY: One of my advisors, Chip Janiszewski, has been my friend and mentor since I was in college. He’s an active member of the West Hartford Chamber of Commerce, and we met 10 years ago at a Chamber networking event. He mentioned reSET as an entrepreneurial resource to check out when I was first getting started with the business and trying to figure out the process. Nobody knows where to start when they are starting. reSET was a starting piece. And I started small by joining their mailing list about five years ago and listing myself in the member directory.
When I saw the latest Flight Night event posted, I figured it was the right time for me to try pitching. My company has been gaining traction. I’ve been earning money and I’ve been working on my next steps. For me, Flight Night was an opportunity to get out there. I haven’t done any networking and I realized that’s going to be key to my growth in Phase 2 of my company.
I was a teacher. I don’t really have any knowledge or training on the business side. I need to be able to connect with businesses and understand their needs, so I can provide something of value for everybody, not just my idea of what I think is valuable.
NAN: Have you utilized other startup resources?
ASHLEY: Yes, I’ve been meeting monthly with Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Knight at reSET. He’s a great resource to run ideas by and make connections. Every time we meet, I create another list of things to do. I work on that list and then I come back the next month with what I’m working on and what I need help with.
NAN: You mentioned going into Phase 2 of your company. What does that look like?
ASHLEY: That’s a good question. Phase 1 was the embodiment of everything: I posted all the lessons I had created as a teacher for sale and I made a couple of online courses for summer camps to test the waters. Phase 1 is working, it’s profitable, and I haven’t really had to do anything. It does it on its own.
Phase 2 is serving as an aggregator rather than as a producer. So, much like Innovation Destination Hartford is a hub of entrepreneurial information, I see myself as becoming a hub for those interested in STEM careers.
My target is students interested in STEM careers who don’t know what to do or where to start. I would be the starting point. And then really anybody else—teachers, nonprofits, schools, businesses, and parents looking to help their teens in the career exploration process. The STEM pipeline is so leaky right now. An information hub for providers and searchers doesn’t exist. I saw that as a teacher—my students couldn’t figure out where to find information. So, I want to put it all in one place. That’s Phase 2.
I tested my vision for this aggregator with the STEM Career Connectory, which is a Facebook group with more than 300 members. I’ve noticed people are hesitant to post things in the group because they don’t want to be seen as selling something. But the teachers want to know about it. As a teacher, I would’ve loved to know there was a coding nonprofit in my city where I could refer kids who are interested in coding. I want to bridge that gap between the people who are looking for things and the people who want to be found without making it feel like you’re being sold to. Phase 2 for Career In STEM is the creation of a place where people come for knowledge and connect with all kinds of STEM services.
Of course, I still want them to buy information. And maybe I’ll make a commission or maybe you’ll only be able to see certain information if you’re a member of my site. I haven’t figured out the monetization piece 100%.
I also want to fuel that STEM pipeline. So, my first step in bringing Phase 2 to life includes the job shadow finder. Not only would that be helpful for teachers and students, but there’s no better way for companies to build their pipeline than to offer opportunities for teenagers to job shadow. And then, if they can connect kids with a mentor and have them come to some events, they can build their STEM talent pipeline while kids are still in high school. Don’t companies need that? I think they need it. Right now, I’m testing that as a pilot study.
NAN: Aside from funding, what’s been your biggest startup challenge?
ASHLEY: I don’t really need funding. It’s free for me to make my lessons. It’s not free for me to host my website, but that cost is minimal. So, funding isn’t a challenge for me. What is a challenge is time. I’m a mompreneur. The whole reason I started my own company and left a full-time job I loved was to raise my kids. I love my business, but I’ll never let that take first place.
I know I could be making $1 million. But being there for my kids is worth more than that right now. Obviously, I could scale faster. I could get more done. I could be in every school in America. But that’s not my priority right now. So, time is my biggest challenge—but I’m okay with that.
Another big challenge is getting people to answer me! Big companies—the ones you would think would be most in need of a STEM pipeline and complain the most they don’t have enough workers—need to return my phone calls, because I have teenagers who want to job shadow there right now!
I don’t know the way around that. So, what I need the most is connections. Obviously, knowing where to start and knowing how to navigate the business world is challenging for me because I have no formal business training.
NAN: That’s where meeting with Eric may help.
ASHLEY: Yes. And he’s a great connection because has a STEM company, so he’s able to answer my questions from a lot of different lenses.
NAN: Any advice you would offer something thinking about launching a startup?
ASHLEY: My advice would be to just start. I had every excuse under the sun too—I was a teacher, I didn’t make a huge salary, I have kids, I have to pay the mortgage. Everybody has the same excuses. Either you do it or you don’t.
Start small. That’s also why I don’t believe I needed funding. I feel like a lot of people start out thinking they need investment, but they haven’t proved their concept can work. I think you should prove you can work with where you are and what you have to get your business off the ground.
I know if I had gotten funding five years ago for what I thought I wanted to do then, it would have been completely different. I believe my limited time has been the best thing for my company because it’s imposed training wheels. And it’s made me take incremental steps, which is perfect, because I can do this baby step and see what works, see what doesn’t work, make tweaks, and take the next baby step.
If I had $1 million from day one, my company would definitely not be what it is now. So, I believe training wheels and baby steps are a good thing. Don’t try to go to the max. Take a little step first. It didn’t cost me anything. I started this company with zero dollars. I put all my lessons plans onto a huge teacher website and they started to sell. I used that money to build my website and then I used that money do this.
So, I think baby steps are good. Big dreams and goals are awesome too, but slow down first and just start. That’s my best advice.
Learn more about Career in STEM