When Robin Gross started Science Encounters in 1983, she did so for one reason. "All I wanted to do was to teach science. Since no single elementary school could hire me full time, I had to find another way. I decided to focus all my energy on teaching science and became a science specialist, which meant I had to go into practice for myself," she says.
Today, Gross does much more than teach science. As president and founder of Science Encounters, she employs 20 full and part-time teachers who provide hands-on learning programs to private and public elementary schools in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland. Science Encounters, in cooperation with another company called Discovering Science, started by one of Gross's former employees, also operates a science-oriented summer camp, after-school programs, and uses science to entertain children at birthday parties.
Science Encounters provides teacher-training workshops to improve the ability of regular classroom teachers to engage children in science. The company has trained teachers in the Washington, D.C. public schools under district contract.
Says Gross, the most rewarding part of her job is "seeing the utter delight of children building a bridge in our architecture class, or mixing chemicals together and watching the colors change and learning about chemical reactions."
As an educator with limited business experience, Gross sought out the expertise of a business-development consultant to help get Science Encounters off the ground. "I was very scared [about running the business]. And I was wise enough to know that I was ignorant in a lot of areas."
Some of the skills Gross learned from the consultant were how to run a staff meeting and supervise her employees, how to screen potential employees, and how to price her services.
"I have always spent a lot of money on accountants, lawyers, and consultants. I feel like it is money well spent, because I can't do this alone. I've found people I can trust and I've gotten good advice-that's worth a lot of money. It's helped me feel like I'm doing this carefully and making good decisions," says Gross.
Gross is keenly aware of the accountability involved as a private-practice educator. "Every day is a risk. The greatest risk is having my name and reputation hanging out in the world every day. I am totally accountable. If someone is upset about a class or a teacher-training session or camp, they know who to call, and it's me. There's no place to hide."
During the decade Gross has operated the company, a lot has changed for Science Encounters--the company reorganized as a partnership, expanded, obtained trademarks, and is now pursuing contracts to teach science at the public schools.
A lot has changed for Robin Gross too. When she started the business, she was single. Now she has a family and is raising two young children. Being her own boss is more important to Gross than ever before.
"I have tremendous freedom. I set my own schedule. I'm able to be home with my children when they're sick, or bring them to my office. Even though things have been tough financially, certainly in the beginning, there's a lot to be said for having the flexibility I have. I'll never trade the benefit of having the freedom to run my life."
Says Gross, "I just feel lucky and blessed that I get to work with curious, fascinated, and fascinating kids every day and earn money doing what I love."