Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Dr. Sonia Toledo, CEO of Dignity of Children, located in Bronx, NY, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Dignity of Children was established in 2008 with the purpose of creating environments where children are fully self-expressed and emotionally safe so they can thrive. Since then, we've been serving not-for-profit organizations in New York City – training their staff and leadership on the best practices in child development, building 21st-century culture, and creating curriculums. Our customers are mainly school personnel (including teachers and educational leaders) and after-school program staff and leadership.
Tell us about yourself
I have been working in the after-school youth development field since I was a young high-schooler – it was my first summer youth employment job at the age of 16. At that time, I already knew that I had a knack for working with children because I had been taking care of my family for as long as I could remember. Later on, while raising my own children as a single mother in Harlem, New York, I developed a passion for creating learning environments where young people feel empowered, motivated, and driven to make a difference in the world while building self-confidence and other skills necessary to succeed in the modern world. What motivates me is knowing that I can help kids that feel left out like I once did as a little girl diagnosed with a learning disability who was being bullied and chastised for falling behind her peers academically. After getting my PhD in education, I realized that my struggles had very little to do with the lack of academic skills and a lot to do with my lack of confidence, self-worth, and inability to feel my contribution to the world.
So, what drives me every day is providing children opportunities to express their talents and skills while discovering their interests and passions and being accepted for who they are. Moreover, I truly believe that our children have some brilliant solutions to the problems we have created in the world. All we need to do is give them a chance to share their ideas and have a voice to make a real difference in the world for a prosperous future. At my company, we are training educators to create such thriving environments for young people.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
I have been running a business for almost 15 years now (since 2008), and during this time, I have been through many ups and downs, but I am still standing. Moreover, I have established a strong international team that works towards one vision - to provide educators of all levels with everything they need to be their best selves and inspire youth to THRIVE. Looking back, I was so determined to continue making a difference with the people who work with children that I persevered despite some of the hardest moments I had to experience in my life. And today, after years of hard work and countless hours of product development efforts, we have designed a virtual global platform – a professional learning community for educators with curriculums, trainings, and other resources to support them in creating student-led learning environments to raise creative thinkers, innovators, social entrepreneurs and future leaders in various fields. I am beyond excited and grateful for the opportunity to now serve not only New York City but also educators and children all over the country and globally! We are already partnering with companies all over the world, including Israel, Brazil, and Australia, and our goal is to make our curriculums and trainings available to as many educators and students as possible! And the best part is that we have found a way to share some of our resources, including our signature Social Entrepreneurship curriculum, for free through our complimentary Basic Membership (which can be accessed on our website).
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
Oh, patience. I am often not able to do everything I want at the same time for financial reasons, so I have to learn to pick my priorities and wait until the right moment presents itself while juggling between tasks and wearing many hats, which can be exhausting. So, I am learning how to be patient and trust the process. Also, like with any small business, cash flow has always been a challenge for us. Even though we can generate over half a million dollars a year in sales, to maintain a high-quality, competent staff, we must pay them well, so payroll is a huge chunk of our expenses. I want to make sure that everyone who works at Dignity of Children is proud to be a part of our team and feels that their work is valued and recognized. I have an amazing team, and their contribution to our mission and vision is priceless. So, every day I focus on making sure I can meet payroll, always working on figuring out ways to compensate my staff for the brilliant work they are doing. I know that if I take care of my people, they are going to stick with me and do good work. And in those moments when we struggle with cash flow, and I have to tell my staff that I have to pay them later, it's very hard for me. So far, being patient and managing cash flow have been my biggest challenges as a business owner.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
Tenacity is my very first tip - just remember to never give up if you believe in what you do and know that it's your calling. Stay focused and do something every to get closer to your dreams. Just keep going. Just keep going. Just keep going no matter what. My second tip is to never stop learning. There is so much to learn as a business owner that you simply can't avoid becoming a lifelong learner. You have to learn how to build and manage relationships within your company with your leadership and staff and with the people outside – funders, policymakers, other businesses, your customers, etc. You have to learn and understand accounting, finance, marketing, operations, and sales. It doesn't mean you need to do it all yourself – no, if you can, it is always better to delegate. But if you want your company to succeed, you must understand all areas of business; you must be able to read financial documents, track KPIs, analyze strategies, and much more. It comes with experience and constant learning, so don't worry if it doesn't happen in one day; it is not meant to happen this way. Read books, attend seminars and focus on developing your strengths while surrounding yourself with the people who complement your skills and help make up for your weaknesses. And finally, my third tip is to always remember that your craft comes first. Do not ever shortchange your craft for money; money will always follow if you do good honest work that serves people. Let your talent speak for you. People will always come back to you if you provide them value – if you focus on giving rather than taking. That's what my company and I are committed to. We know that as long as we are offering our customers value, they will stay with us and continue to return. You can't buy loyalty; you have to earn it. So, these are my three tips – tenacity, self-development, and sticking to your craft.
Where can people find you and your business?
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