Sheila Kilpatrick: Small business, big success
Sheila Kilpatrick never planned on starting a business when she began offering childcare services out of her home. She was mainly looking to earn some money to help support her family.
Along the way, though, Kilpatrick not only found a source of income. She also found she had a knack as an entrepreneur.
That natural bent, along with her deep-seated tenacity, has helped her grow her formerly home-based childcare effort into a two-state, multi-location business called Discovery Gardens Childcare. It also led the Oregon Division of the Small Business Administration to name Kilpat-rick as the state's Small Business Person of the Year for 2020.
Her journey as an entrepreneur and businesswoman hasn't always been easy, Kilpatrick admits. There were times when she thought about giving up. However, even in the face of setbacks, she continued to push forward. She was driven by a belief in herself and her ideas, even when others questioned her decisions.
When she decided to become one of the first local childcare providers to look at storefronts as a way to step up from the usual at-home provider model to a more formal business-minded approach, for example, many told her she was moving in the wrong direction. Kilpatrick, however, held firm.
"I knew it was a good idea," she said.
As it turned out, she was right. But she's also learned that merely pushing forward based on her intuition can sometimes cause more problems than it solves. Listening to others has been one of her hardest lessons to learn, she says. But it's also one she sees as among the most important skills for an entrepreneur and small business owner to embrace.
"I tell (other small business owners), don't take no for an answer. But also be open enough to listen to what others have to say," Kilpatrick told Opportunity magazine. "You have to have an open mind. It doesn't mean you have to take everything someone tells you, but you need to listen."
Kilpatrick never saw herself as an entrepreneur or a business owner in her earliest days as a childcare provider. She worked as a medical records transcriptionist, but a series of events led her to decide to leave the job.
Her older daughter had been born with spina bifida occulta and required surgeries to help straighten her spine. Another daughter also was born with the condition. Trying to juggle medical care plus a full-time job was overwhelming, so Kilpatrick decided to focus on being at home full-time.
"I was going to be an at-home mom. That lasted about two hours," Kilpatrick said with a smile and small shrug. When a friend mentioned they had a family member looking for childcare for the summer, Kilpatrick offered her services.
She soon found the opportunity offered more than just a "nice way to bring in some money." She genuinely enjoyed the time she spent caring for her charges during daily adventures at Portland's range of parks.
"That was a real eye-opener for me," Kilpatrick said.
Before too long, she found herself providing childcare for a few more families during that summer. A relative who had an in-house childcare business explained to Kilpatrick the steps necessary to become a state-certified provider.
Kilpatrick still wasn't looking at child care as a "forever" job, but the idea of being able to get paid from the state to provide child care services was intriguing. She also was beginning to realize that there was more to childcare than picnics in the park.
"I started to quickly realize that raising other people's kids isn't the same as raising your own kids," Kilpatrick said. The insight led her to start taking classes in early childhood education at Clark Community College.
Even as she moved forward with her studies, however, she encountered some challenges in her personal life, including some marriage problems. As she faced the possibility she might have to shoulder providing for her daughters on her own, Kilpatrick realized she would need to establish financial stability. She also realized approaching child care as a real business rather than just a "nice way to make some extra money" could provide that foundation. She dove into her college classes and used what she learned to develop a childcare program that relied on children's input, parents, and the center's teachers.
"I really indulged in school. (The classes) answered so many questions about the development of kids — what they were going through, what they were thinking. For me, it was so enlightening; it was so positive and uplifting and inspiring. I was just seeking knowledge."
Kilpatrick also took a class in running a small business, information she tapped when she had to stop her studies just short of earning her associate's degree. She focused her attention on using the information from that class and a template for a business plan an entrepreneur she met had provided to move forward with establishing her childcare services as a well-structured business.
Although the door to her degree had closed for the time being, another door soon opened. Two unions were launching campaigns to unionize childcare providers. As Sheila became involved in helping lobby efforts, she began to broaden her horizons about running a business as a provider. She started noticing some agencies had money available. She also began connecting with other providers who shared information with her.
"I was seeing things on a much bigger level. I was able to learn what they were doing. I was able to develop as a provider and a business owner."
Taking a business-minded approach helped Kilpatrick expand her home-based business with a second childcare location in another house she leased. In 2010, she decided to take an even bigger leap of faith. She started looking for a commercial space she could lease that would serve as an actual childcare center. Not everyone agreed with the idea, including one of Kilpat-rick's business mentors. She persisted, however, backing her plan with research she had done that showed moving into a storefront-type space was a solid business decision. As it turned out, her research and her instincts were correct, and Discovery Gardens flourished.
The move was especially significant for Kilpatrick because it marked what she saw as a turning point for her business, a step up the ladder in terms of recognition and growth.
"We only had 14 kids because it was a very small site, but I was happy because it was (a commercial site). I would do things other people wouldn't do, but I had a vision. People questioned me a lot, but I fought for all of my visions."
With three locations in Portland, Kilpatrick decided to expand into another state. She was ready to make a move in her personal life, so she conducted market research on three areas: Las Vegas; near Tampa, Florida; and an area in Mississippi.
She eventually decided to move to Las Vegas, where she opened a center — in a commercial building — in 2017. She recently secured a loan to buy the building where the operation is located and opened a second location.
While Kilpatrick says she's honored to be this year's recipient, she's had little time to sit back and enjoy the accolade.
Balancing locations in two states requires a lot of traveling between Portland and Las Vegas. The success of centers in both states is something Kilpatrick celebrates, but it's also something she struggles with.
"I still see myself as a small business owner, and that's the challenge. How do I keep that small business feel? That feel for me is … to be to be true to my mission statement and to be able to still be embedded in my community — for my staff to know who I am, for the parents and the kids to still know who I am."
The COVID-19 pandemic posed another challenge. Even as she was still absorbing the news about the honor from the Small Business Administration, Kilpatrick had to shift her attention to figuring out how to adjust Discovery Gardens' operations to continue to operate during the pandemic.
Childcare providers like Kilpatrick's business were deemed an essential business. So Kilpatrick and her staff immediately set in place practices to ensure the Discovery Gardens' staff, chil-dren and families would be kept safe and healthy.
"In the end, it's all about the families," Kilpatrick said. "I'm going to do what I have to for the families that need us."
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