When the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread across the U.S. in 2020, preschools, schools, universities, and other educational institutions decided to close their doors. Yellow Brick Road Early Childhood Development Center remained open. If it had shut down like others, it would have probably never opened again. Under the exemplary leadership and guidance of its CEO, Jessica Johnsen, Yellow Brick Road made it through the tough times, and the organization and its team have become much stronger as a result of that.
Jessica recalls that she and Kylie Schrader, Chief Operations Officer at Yellow Brick Road, realized, “If we close, we won’t reopen. We can’t close. We can’t risk our employees not eating or paying bills.” So, instead of shutting down, Jessica decided to dig her heels in. She and her team did not let the pandemic disrupt their operation. No employee was laid off or furloughed. It is because Jessica did not adhere to old methods but innovated every single day. She worked around the clock to keep her team motivated and children safe. “I’ve never pivoted so much in my life,” Jessica says. “It was something new every day and a new direction each week, but we did it. We made it through, and we are a stronger team because of that.”
Yellow Brick Road
In 2006, Yellow Brick Road started in a church in Plymouth, Minnesota. Ten years later it moved to a standalone building in Plymouth thanks to the efforts of Jessica’s friend, Bob Carlson. “The same summer, the company added a second location in Minnetonka, MN, then further expanded into Maple Grove and Eden Prairie. A couple of years after its establishment, the organization apparently started to lose its way. It began to face a cultural and financial struggle. “The organization came into some financial and leadership difficulties in 2018, and in 2019, Mr. Carlson who helped keep the organization going called me to come in and help him,” Jessica says.
After joining Yellow Brick Road in June of 2019, Jessica made some major changes. One change Jessica did not make was her now COO, Kylie Schrader. Kylie was the backbone of the organization and what kept it going despite the hardshps. Because of her efforts and excellent teamwork, the organization could overcome the crisis and achieve success and growth. “Over the past 2.5 years and through the pandemic, the leadership team was determined to inspire growth and change,” Jessica says. Each team member has made a commitment to the children and to each other — make Yellow Brick Road the best place for children to flourish and the best place for employees to work.
Jessica’s suggestions and strategies have turned the culture of Yellow Brick Road around. They have also helped stem the tide of turnover and pulled the organization out of the short-term debt. Jessica has also enabled Yellow Brick Road to acquire Seeds to Seedlings and Sonnet Montessori School brands. It is currently operating nine schools in two different markets. Jessica considers all these as her huge accomplishments as a leader.
Her team has not changed Yellow Brick Road’s philosophy or diluted their focus on the kids- the two unwavering aspects of the organization. Over the past two years, Jessica’s team has tapped into innovative ideas and technology to revitalize their teacher training, leadership development, onboarding process, and marketing.
“We are proud to say we don’t chase every shiny new fad but keep the roots of developmentally appropriate practice. We pride ourselves on intentional innovation.” Jessica says.
Starting in Childcare Industry
Jessica’s interest in the childcare industry started in college. As her dream was to be in business, she enrolled in Colorado State University to study Business Management. While doing her business management coursework, Jessica joined child development classes. Initially, she was doing it for fun, but eventually, it became a second major. Jessica worked at the CSU Early Childhood Center. She recalls that she and her amazing colleagues, Priscilla Patti, Lacey O’Connor, and Emma Brown, were passionate about childcare. Along with having fun working together, they also genuinely worked for the best interest of the children and teachers.
After the program doubled in size and expanded, Jessica was hired by ChildCareCRM. She became a speaker, coach, and consultant and traveled all over to conferences. She learned from vendors, directors, and owners of childcare centers. “I was fortunate enough to meet some of the most amazing mentors in the industry and to eventually work at Georgetown Hill Early Schools for a few years before being called by Bob, my friend and mentor, to come and join his team at Yellow Brick Road,” Jessica says.
Goal: Achieve Professional Success
Success is important for Jessica. Her goal has always been to be professionally successful. “For me, success is providing quality employment for an industry that deserves so much more respect than it gets,” Jessica says. It is about inspiring children as well. She believes that when they see successful businesspeople within their learning environment, they learn about work ethic and getting fulfillment from a personal mission at a young age. They begin to model themselves on such people.
Jessica grew up watching her mom be successful and happy in her career. She was not like those adults who complain more about their work hours than thinking about hours that they get to contribute to a cause. Jessica always wanted to model her career on her mom’s professional life.
“Success for all” is the driving force behind Jessica’s decisions. “We want children, families, and staff to be successful – no matter what!” But she does not believe in telling falsehoods to increase her organization’s enrolment rate. Jessica understands that Yellow Brick Road may not be the most successful environment for every child, family, or employee. “It’s important to recognize that and be transparent,” she says. “No single person’s success is greater than the whole, not even my own. That drives me each and every day.”
Capable of Finding a Solution to a Problem
Jessica believes that she is capable of finding a solution to every problem. When something challenges her, de-motives her, or drains her energy, she begins to look for a solution on her own. She does not wait for someone else to find that solution for her. “No one will give me a solution,” Jessica says. “I am in charge of finding one.”
From “How can I be a better employee to get promoted” and “how can I lead as an employee” to “how can I reach this employee I’m having a hard time getting through to” and “what can I do to fix this particular problem?” Jessica is constantly asking these questions. She is also watching her mentors, taking notes, and reading books. Jessica attritubutes her success to the sharing and opportunity that her mentors have provided her. She has always carried with her the knowledge that she has gained from them.
Jessica likes to be known for what she has accomplished and not what set her back. Each setback has helped her grow more and learn skills that she can rely on daily. She never sees herself as a victim of circumstances. “We make choices each day that impact who we are and what we experience,” Jessica says. “There is one job, in particular, I could have left sooner, but then I think that maybe the timing of that is what led to me where I am.”
Jessica became CEO of a financially struggling organization. It was not easy to get Yellow Brick Road back on its feet. She had to make some hard decisions to successfully revive its fortunes. While doing so, she learned to be fiscally responsible. It was, however, not in a cheap way. Her strategy included looking for opportunities along with making sure that children and teachers are always a priority. “That is where the money goes first,” Jessica says, adding that they watch their spending to make sure that they can remain affordable but pay competitively.
Leadership Team Makes the Difference
Jessica and her team are supportive of their competition. “This is a tough industry, and we are in this together,” Jessica says. She also highlights the biggest difference between Yellow Brick Road and its competitors being the leadership team. “The dedication these women have to the success of every child and employee is second to none,” Jessica says. “There are no trade secrets, only implementation, and with the group of leaders we have in my organization, there is A LOT of implementation.”
She and her team strive to learn and grow each day. They read a lot of books on leadership. They never hesitate to admit their mistakes publicly. Jessica leads her team to believe that we are all human and we will support each other through every step forward and every step back. “We also are competively priced and pay our teachers well,” Jessica says. “We help our employees reach their personal goals.”
Yellow Brick Road is also constantly innovating ideas to increase morale and build culture. “We let our teachers be creative with the curriculum to meet the kids where they are – not where we think they should be,” Jessica says. “We believe in outdoor learning. I grew up on a farm, and a lot of my own learning happened outside. Most of all, we have FUN. It’s a core value.”
A Leader’s Routine and Proud Moments
A firm believer in “The Miracle Morning,” Jessica sets her day up for success. She likes to keep her email inbox clean and go into her days and weeks knowing her priorities. Every single day, Jessica picks one thing that will drive her company forward.
She also tries to visit a school or two to check what is happening. “I keep in close contact with my leadership team, so I always know what’s going on,” Jessica says. “If I can jump in somewhere to assist, help with hard conversations, or conduct an interview, I’ll do that.”
Jessica spends a lot of her time in meetings with team members who keep the company moving forward, whether in person, by phone, or by zoom. If they are in the middle of an acquisition, then she spends a “tremendous amount of time” on-site getting to know the new school(s).
“Basically, my job is to know what’s going on, follow up with, and follow through for my team,” Jessica says. “Nothing is worse than being the bottleneck of the organization, so I spend a lot of time making sure my team has the tools and resources to do their work.”
Jessica feels elated whenever a member of her team gets promoted or masters a new skill. She loves to see her team have “ah-ha moments” and “breakthroughs.” It also makes her happy when she gets positive feedback from parents and staff.
“When one of my team or my COO, Kylie stops to genuinely thank me, I know that I am doing the right work,” Jessica adds.
Nothing Can be Equal or Balanced
When it comes to work-life balance, Jessica holds the same views as that of author Matthew Kelly. He says that it is a flawed concept. “The work-life balance suggests you aren’t living while you’re at work,” Jessica says. Nothing will ever be ‘equal’ or ‘balanced’,” she adds. “So if that is the goal, you’ll always feel like a failure.” Jessica believes that the biggest way to fail at work is to watch the clock. She wants her team to feel like their entire life is successful and happy.
“Home affects work and work affects the home. It just does. It’s not about the quantity of time at either place, but it’s the quality that matters,” Jessica says. “Some weeks are longer than others, and some are so fun they feel like no time at all.”
Jessica wants her team to be staffed so team members can use vacation time as well as enjoy being at work. “I am a firm believer in vacation time and taking care of yourself, but I am also a firm believer in taking care of yourself every single day,” she says.
Vision for Future of Yellow Brick Road
“We want to put really good little humans into the world,” Jessica says. “The work our staff does each day has a direct impact on the future of society.” One of her visions is to see her team continue to grow and take on new schools and challenges. Jessica points out that there is room for everyone to grow.
She also wants to create employment opportunities. “The more strong and smart leaders we have, the more the children benefit from an amazing organization,” Jessica says.
“We also want to grow our other brands within the greater Minneapolis area,” Jessica adds. “The greatest impact we can have on the way of our society and our world is to inspire others and teach the future.”
Advice to Her Younger Self and Message to Aspiring Businesswomen
“Keep growing and learning. READ. Be obsessed with learning and also be obsessed with implementing” is the advice Jessica wants to give her younger self. Her message to aspiring businesswomen is that they need to stay in every conversation and every room.
“There is not a single person you can’t learn from,” Jessica says. “Give people the time of day and listen.” She adds that they need to help others more than they expect to be helped by them. “Give more than you get. There is nothing beneath you and nothing you can’t reach. Do all the things.”