As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Miller.
Allison Corey Miller is the Founder and CEO of Happy Camper Live, a lifestyle brand centered around the world of summer camp. Her vision is to bring the magic of summer camp to every kid in the world 365 days of the year. The happycamperlive.com website and App, provide both free and subscription content which includes hundreds of activities taught by real counselors and coaches, live broadcasts, an original 41-episode web series, a 360 virtual reality camp, the world’s biggest “campfire” where kids can upload videos and share their talents, a jam-packed camp store with the best stuff for summer camp, a directory of over 10,000 camps and programs, an informative family blog, and a global community dedicated to community awareness. This comprehensive platform was designed for kids to find their passions, share their talents, and inspire others, all in a safe COPPA-certified community.
Allison and her husband David are the Owners/Directors of Camp Starlight, a private brother/sister residential summer camp in Northeast Pennsylvania. When they purchased the camp in 1999 it had less than 300 campers and had been experiencing declining occupancy for a number of years. For the past 15 years, Starlight has maintained an enrollment in excess of 540 campers. Working together as co-directors of the camp, Allison and David oversee every facet of the camp operation, from hiring camp counselors and planning camper activities to ensuring financial stability and profitability. Since turning around a declining camp into one of the most prosperous in the nation, the duo has been recognized as experts in the field. Starlight is particularly known for the personal attention the Millers give to each child and their commitment to every detail of the camp experience.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I hold a bachelor’s degree from New York University and graduated cum laude from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. I spent my legal career as a litigation associate at one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious law firms. In 1993, I was engaged by Sotheby’s, Inc. as in-house counsel. During my tenure there, I was progressively promoted to vice president and head of human resources.
One summer day in 1999, my husband picked me up from work with my three-year-old daughter and we headed to his childhood camp for our annual visit. On the drive, he talked about his dream to run a summer camp and implored me to run one with him, just like he did every year. However, that time, I finally said yes. Soon after this memorable weekend, I left the corporate world to pursue my husband’s dream.
A few months later, my husband and I became the Owners and Directors of Camp Starlight in Pennsylvania. It was quite a dramatic career change. I had minimal experience with summer camp, and I had not worked much with kids. In fact, I was a very homesick camper in my youth — an experience that proved helpful in supporting new kids during the first few days of camp.
We have been running the same camp for twenty-three years now, and our formerly three-year-old daughter is the Assistant Director. I also have a twenty-year-old son studying conducting, classical percussion, and computer science at college. I never missed any of my kids’ dance recitals, band concerts, or orchestra concerts, and I have spent every summer with my family at camp.
In 2017, my husband and daughter, Hayley, volunteered for Global Camps Africa, an organization that provides summer camp activities to some of the most impoverished children from the townships of Soweto. It was a life-changing experience for the participating youths and our family.
One morning in January 2018, I had a lightbulb moment. I told my husband that I wanted to bring the magic of summer camp to every kid in the world. I also wanted to make camp accessible to kids all year long. Thus, our virtual summer camp platform Happy Camper Live was born.
Happy Camper Live brings the benefits of summer camp to kids around the globe 365 days a year. The company website and app include hundreds of activities run by real counselors and coaches, live broadcasts, an original forty-one-episode web series, and a 360-degree virtual reality camp. It also hosts the world’s biggest “campfire,” where kids can upload videos and share their talents. Finally, the site features an informative family blog and supports a global fellowship dedicated to community awareness. We designed this comprehensive platform to help kids discover their passions, show their creativity, and inspire others, all within a safe COPPA-certified community. It features a subscription model, with a one-month subscription for $4.99, a three-month subscription for $11.99, and an annual subscription for $42.99. There is plenty of free content as well which is accessible to all.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Last summer, I was online reviewing our analytics, and I noticed someone on the site using the URL helpinghandsforlittlehearts.org. I reached out through the private portal on our site’s backend because I thought they could potentially use our virtual program, and I wanted to see if I could help. That evening, I saw a post in a Facebook group for summer camp professionals. September Sucher made the post from Happy Trails for Kids about the virtual summer camps she was running for youths in the foster care system. I reached out and messaged her, as well.
The next day, I spoke with a prospective brand partner, and we discussed the connections I made the day before. That was when I was introduced to Rob Scheer from Comfort Cases, a company that provides suitcases to kids in the foster care system. Not more than two days later, I received an email from Alternative Family Services, a foster care agency in California, asking me to donate subscriptions to children in their program. All this happened in just three days!
I began with individual calls to each company, and a week later, we were all on Zoom together. We started brainstorming ways to support the goal of bringing summer camp to kids at home. That is how Happy Camper Hangouts was born. Happy Camper Hangouts is a weekly program for kids in the foster care system. We provide virtual camp activities, such as dance, yoga, martial arts, arts and crafts, and more. Campers spend valuable time with their peers and counselors, many of whom have lived experience in foster care during “cabin time” (small break-out sessions). Every camper has the opportunity to build confidence by participating in team activities and group events and learning new skills. The program is run by Happy Trials for Kids, with the programming and technical support of the Happy Camper Live team and platform. Here is a link to last week’s interview about this program on KTLA.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I went live for a segment on IGTV live, and my guest did not show up. I needed to improvise, so I went forward with the virtual event and had the conversation all by myself, covering my guest’s points as if he were there going back and forth with me. After that solo performance, I made sure to put together a better confirmation system for guests for our live programs.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
You know when someone is just a “yes.” No matter what you are about to ask, they are just in for the ride. That is what happened four years ago when I shared my vision of bringing the magic of summer camp to every kid worldwide with Steve Slavkin, who created Nickelodeon’s hit summer camp classic Salute Your Shorts. Steve was my husband’s summer camp counselor decades ago, and they remained close friends. While my vision was nothing more than a statement at the time, Steve saw its potential. He worked with me to set the creative direction for Happy Camper programming and directed Happy Camper Live’s web series. We spent three summers creating content and often turned to our spouses and children for ideas and talent. It became a fun family affair. Our daily work calls felt like get-togethers between old camp friends. Happy Camper Live began to feel like a real camp family.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience, what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
In my opinion, what is holding women back from founding companies is the initial risk. Many of us women, especially my fellow mothers, put ourselves last. Establishing a company takes time and money. Most moms feel guilty about potentially putting the family’s nest egg in jeopardy and taking time away from raising their children.
Some women become entrepreneurs before starting a family and can hit the ground running. As for me, I did not start my company until my son was a junior in high school, which made it challenging to find the time, resources, and mental space to get started. It was a difficult time to start a business; however, now that my son is away at college, there is plenty of time to fill.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
More accessible financing and funding methods would be beneficial. Putting your family’s budget at risk is a considerable hurdle, not to mention the lack of salary in the early stages. We also could be educating women on business practices more. The business world was a very intimidating one to join. Even as a former lawyer and head of human resources at a major auction house, I did not know how to obtain funding. Everything I have done up until this point has been self-funded. While there are support groups, women need mentors and dedicated advisors to help with each step.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Wow! It has been the most rewarding experience to build something on my own and from scratch. To have a vision and see it through to fruition. It is like being pregnant, having a baby, then raising that baby. You are so excited at first about all the opportunities, creating vision after vision for your child’s future. When you first begin, it is thrilling and inspiring. Then come late nights, long days, and trying moments. At times, you will even feel helpless and overwhelmed. As the business grows, it feels as though you’ve created another life force, which you can now see, admire, and, at times, get frustrated with. One that challenges you to the core, just like a teenager. When the business matures, you find mutual respect between you and what you created. There is more balance in the relationship. Bringing something to life is an incredible feeling of accomplishment and pride. I can step back and admire all the work I did to create this incredible opportunity for children all over the world to benefit from Happy Camper Live.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?
The biggest myth about being a founder is that it’s rare for women to do so. There are so many outstanding female entrepreneurs all over the world! By saying there are few founders, we create the perception that needs to be changed. Yes, we can acknowledge the inequity. However, as we are doing here today, we should be celebrating the great number of women who are building businesses.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that you can do anything you dream of doing. That being said, you do need to be self-motivated to be a founder of a company. Every day, I wake up and take a step toward fulfilling my vision. Some days I question why I am investing so much of myself and my resources into this venture. Will it pay off? Am I fooling myself to believe it is going to be a success? That’s why you need commitment and perseverance; there will be moments of doubt and uncertainty. You have to enjoy working alone. In the beginning, it’s just you and your brilliant idea, which is exciting and, at the same time, isolating.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I will phrase the five items as pieces of advice in the interest of being helpful.
- First of all, take a crash course on the different ways to fund a business. I got my education in bits and pieces along the way. Ultimately, I have waited to fundraise and remain self-funded. Still, I wish I understood funding at a deeper level from the very start.
- Take every call. I have connected with the most interesting people on this journey. Initially, I did not know how all of the calls would tie together, but I trusted that there was some reason we were introduced. I have formed some fantastic relationships and developed programs like Happy Camper Hangouts, Peer2Peer, Hearts of Gold, Hearts of Hope all because I took the opportunity to connect with different people. It is super fun and exciting to network. I have a file on my desk named “Fantastic Females I Have Met Along the Way.” The file includes notes from my many calls with the very women who inspired that file name. Of course, I have encountered some incredible men along the way, as well. I just really love that particular folder!
- Know when to hold them, and know when to fold them. It is okay to pivot or simply walk away from a bad deal. An idea may seem excellent at first, but you later discover that it will not work. Even though you may have invested time and effort into a project or a relationship, it is better sometimes to put on the brakes than force matters. For example, we had a big online event planned, and it seemed that the software we were using was not the most user-friendly. It would have worked for an established audience. However, we were reaching a new audience, and the steps to register, download, and attend were complex. The vendor was not willing to cancel the contract, so we pivoted and made the event on-demand through our platform, and we made the live event a bonus rather than the other way around.
- Do one thing every day to move the ball forward. There are days when I feel stuck, or like Sisyphus pushing a large rock up a steep hill, only to find it rolling back on nearing the top. I know that if I can do just one thing to move the ball forward every day, I am making progress. Daily productivity also makes goals feel more achievable since I can look ahead and know that I am only “X” steps away from getting there. Just last week, our non-profit arm, The Happy Camper Project, was approved. The Happy Camper Project aims to raise and utilize funds for struggling summer camp and youth programs so they can continue to offer activities to their students, campers, families, and community.
- Always make it a priority to focus on your professional and personal development. The idea of Happy Camper Live came to me after reading The Power of the Subconscious Mind and Think and Grow Rich. I had one of those lightbulb moments, so to speak. I woke up one morning with a mission of bringing year-round summer camp to kids worldwide, no matter their socioeconomic or geographic status. I created a clear financial goal: to earn a specific sum of money or more by a particular date. I developed a morning routine wherein I state my purpose that day along with other affirmations. Quiet time (the word meditating feels like too much pressure) and reading and writing are included in the routine. I read one book each week that is either personal or professional development-oriented. My morning routine also focuses on structuring daily priorities with one clear outcome. I have hired a business coach and recently completed the Landmark Forum and Landmark Advanced Course. These courses were life-changing, and I highly recommend them.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
This past summer, thirty-some-odd camps, schools, and programs delivered meaningful and interactive programming through Happy Camper Live.
During the school year, Happy Camper Live hosted weekly hangouts for kids in the foster care system. We also ran day-long adventure camps for middle schoolers. Subscribing camps and programs value the platform’s back-end administration, which makes it easy for them to run their sessions and receive daily and real-time content updates. Happy Camper Live’s ability to get camps and programs up and running in no time has been a lifesaver since the pandemic.
Programs vary in every regard, and our platform offers complete customization to every user. Some run daily programs for up to six hours, while others meet once a day or a week for an hour. The platform allows organizations to create their own communities effortlessly using external learning resources such as Google Meet, Google Classroom, Zoom, and our own event platform, Gather24.org. With the continued shift to online learning this academic year, school and after-school programs utilize the platform as a branded, centralized community space to facilitate their program goals. Happy Camper Live eliminates the need for constant contact through emails, newsletters, and other one-off communications.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Like public schools, I believe summer camp should be free and accessible to every child. Happy Camper Live makes this possible with our virtual platform. This initiative could one day be adopted by in-person camps, as well.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to speak with Guy Raz from NPR’s How I Built This. When I started Happy Camper Live, I listened to his guests talk about how they began and built their businesses. His show inspired me to take a step forward toward my mission goals every day. I especially loved his episodes featuring the female founders from Soul Cycle, Canva, Hint, and Minted.
I would also love to connect with any individuals or organizations that provide grants to support us continuing to expand our programs for kids in the foster care system, homeless families and children with ASD.