As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Cameron Smith.
Cameron Smith is the CEO & Co-Founder of Bennett Day School in Chicago. He was inspired to create the school after the birth of his first son in 2010. As a new parent, he recognized that there are very few options for progressive independent schooling in Chicago. Many parents resort to moving to the suburbs when they would prefer to continue to live, work, and learn downtown. Both the motivation to innovate and a commitment to the city inspired the creation of Bennett Day School.
Cameron served on the Board of the Namaste Charter School where he was the Treasurer and Chair of the Investment Committee. A licensed attorney in Illinois, he is a member of the Education Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association. As a member of the North American Reggio Emilia Alliance, Cameron is energized by the ideas and best practices he observes as a regular participant at educational conferences and gatherings. Cameron was previously a Vice President at private equity firm CHS Capital LLC in Chicago where he focused on investing in education and healthcare services companies. While at CHS, he served on the Board of Royall & Company, the leading provider of strategic enrollment marketing services to traditional colleges and universities. He currently serves on two external boards, and previously served on the non-profit Neighborhood Parent Network of Chicago (NPN) board. Cameron is also a member of the Chicago Chapter of Conscious Capitalism. He holds a B.S. degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania as well as J.D. and M.B.A. degrees from Northwestern University.
Thank you for joining us Cameron! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in the Midwest as the son of a locomotive engineer and a school teacher. As a railroad family, we moved around a bit through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, but we spent most of my formative years in suburban Detroit, Michigan. My parents were both extremely passionate about their jobs — my mom loved teaching and my dad loved trains. I used to help my mom set up her classrooms, and as a teenager I worked on the railroad as a brakeman and in the snack car. Like my parents, I wanted to find my own calling too. I went on to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and later Northwestern University for graduate school where I earned my JD and MBA. I learned about private equity and venture capital while in school, and I quickly learned that industry would allow me to grow and learn about a wide variety of businesses to help me find my calling. Who knew it would bring me back to education and those times in the classroom with my mom.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
If you open a school, put up a clear sign by the toilets that are for your youngest learners with huge letters that tells parents NOT to flush wipes down the toilet!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I really enjoyed reading ‘The Future of Humanity’ by Michio Kaku. To run a social enterprise and to be an entrepreneur, now more than ever, you have to imagine a world in your own industry that might not have ever existed before, while also rooting what you do in that which is familiar enough to others so that they will want to come along for the journey. This book was really a primer on all things outer space related, and related to the burgeoning space economy, which made me realize it was as clear as day that my children could not be educated for the future awaiting them by doing things the way they have always been done yet to expect a different outcome. That is the definition of insanity! The book not only inspired me in part to build the school that my children and others deserved for the future awaiting them, it also inspired my own fascination with space. I am definitely a space nerd and a lifelong learner. I have also gone back to school part-time and I’m working on obtaining a master’s degree from the Colorado School of Mines’ space resources program. I love outer space and want to share that interest with our students at Bennett so they can consider a career path here among the stars as well.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
In private equity, I found myself drawn towards mission-driven companies, specifically those in education. I was going to take a tried and true path and was on track to become a partner at my firm. However, the more I learned through the companies I was investing in, the more I had an appreciation for the intricacies of education and how schools could best serve their students. I learned that collaborative time that teachers got to spend with one another in school has a great impact. I also learned that you need to make what is extracurricular, curricular, so that when students apply to college they stand out. I wanted a school for my kids that would change their experience based on their interests. With a deep desire to provide my own children with real-world learning, I knew there would be other families like my own in Chicago. I knew that I needed to start a progressive and project-based school. It felt too important not to make it my life’s work and purpose.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Don’t take it personally. Even though I do. But I have to say this to myself often. My entire personal and business circle is entangled. My kids go to school with my customers. Some of my employees are also my customers with their own kids at the school. It is incredibly important to have friends, mentors, and a support network around you, outside of your business, that you can lean on regularly to get you through the ups and downs. Because they certainly come.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My sons are 6 and 10-years-old. They seem to think, now that the workplace and home have converged, that clothing is optional in the workplace! I lamented with some other school parents earlier that this is clearly an HR violation… I’ve also found that ritual and routine is really great. I wake up early enough to get at least an hour to myself to exercise. Quiet time in the early morning just for me is time for creative thinking as well. After that, my kids are up too; most days, we’ll get in a half hour of doing something active together. From there, I do breakfast with them before they start learning from home. Keeping this routine sacred has really been a blessing.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Certainly the move that Bennett Day School made in mid-March from learning at school to learning at home. Over the course of a weekend, the faculty at Bennett heroically created a distance learning program and infrastructure. We felt like speed was better than perfect, and when it started it definitely was not perfect. But I’m thankful that we got started right away and were able to work out any issues we had in just a matter of weeks. We’ll make more changes as needed for the future too. For now, we have hours of live and engaging programming that is keeping my children and others at Bennett actively learning around their screens from home with their teachers and friends.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It’s important to engage in media programming that makes you feel good, not just anxious or depressed! We delivered here through Bennett Labs, the innovation arm of our educational institution, which shares new ideas with the rest of the world that are born out of the wonderful work done by our faculty and students at Bennett Day School in downtown Chicago. Through Bennett Labs, we created Bennett Live, providing free educational media programming to bring joy and a love of learning into homes everywhere in a time when they could use it most. We have programs for children as young as 3-years-old through middle school aged youth that are live and pre-recorded. The content is available to view on Bennett Day School’s YouTube channel and our Facebook page. In just a little over a month, we have reached over 200,000 households from our nimble and innovative school in Chicago. It feels good to be there for families everywhere!
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-COVID economy?
Absolutely, this is a time to innovate and to look positively as best we can. We are experiencing a once-in-a-century event, and we need to look for the opportunities to be creative today. In the education sector, I am optimistic that we will find ways to utilize educational technology that is thoughtful and intentional. It is not innovative at all to merely transfer worksheets or rote and rigorous activity from a workbook to a tablet. There’s nothing innovative about that, other than saving paper. So, I do see numerous opportunities to engage learners while using technology in ways that are active around the screen while pursuing projects and building things.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
If you run an organization or business that depends on in-person delivery, you must imagine a world where that has permanently gone away. While I’m certainly optimistic that will not be the outcome, it’s important to also know that ‘normal’ will never look the same. Assuming things will go back to ‘normal’ soon will not push you to innovate and diversify what you do today to not just survive the current pandemic, but to thrive beyond it.
Additionally, as the COVID-19 death rates tragically grow throughout the country, disproportionately affecting communities of color, inequities along the lines of race have been further exposed. All businesses and individuals have a responsibility to identify institutional and personal biases and blind spots and to engage in meaningful conversations that acknowledge and challenge the systemic racism in our country.
As a young school community, I’m thankful to not be encumbered by years of tradition and entrenched systems, but even a new, forward-thinking school is susceptible to implicit biases. We have made it clear to our school community and beyond that inaction is not an option; we refuse to let the fear of making mistakes override the demand for a more equitable and safe society for all, including within the physical and theoretical walls of our school.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
First, I don’t think we should think of this as a means to transfer or change things for after the pandemic. You need to think about how to change things right now. For us, children of course still need to be educated, and we need to make the most of that experience even if we are not in the same physical space. Now that we’ve created Bennett Live and shared that with the world, it’s important for us to begin thinking about how we can further engage with our school families in Chicago and those who have started to enjoy just a little bit of Bennett in their homes around the world. That could mean additional programs or other ways to pursue learning with Bennett, even if you’re not located in Chicago!
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Don’t wait. Don’t be paralyzed. Do as much scenario planning as you can. I have to say, having a plan, even though it is so detailed with so many different decision tree points and scenarios to consider, feels much better than not having a plan at all. At the same time, it’s important not to act too soon. So many things are changing quickly, so it’s important to take your time and gather as much information as you can. See how things evolve, have your playbook, and be ready to move quickly.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If we go back to 1915, poet Robert Frost is with us now more than ever:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
I started Bennett Day School because I wanted to create a school dedicated to learning by doing, with a project-based approach, that I knew I wanted for my kids and felt other families would want too. We have taken the road less traveled, and it has made all the difference for our children. I couldn’t ask for anything more in life.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Bennett Live: https://bennettday.org/bennettlive