The Challenging Journey From Teacher to Startup CEO

IMG_0208Today’s guest post is written by Melissa Corto of Education Modified, a company that provides educators with research-based, job-embedded professional development to increase collaboration and improve the outcomes for students with special needs. This will be her first post of two, regarding claiming her identity as an entrepreneur after teaching in New York City public schools.

I never had any intention of becoming a startup CEO. When my co-founder and I first chatted up the idea for Education Modified, we never dreamed of starting a company. Sure, we thought we were going to build an app, put it up on the app store, dust off our hands, and go back to business as usual–teaching in the New York  City public schools. No big deal.

Three years later, we’ve grown from an idea into a company. And it has been both wonderful and excruciating.

The Peanut Gallery Chimes In

The hardest part has been balancing my identity as being a teacherpreneur, and female CEO. While my womanhood has not defined this struggle (and so will not be the focus of this piece) it should not go unnoted. (**See example).

As many entrepreneurs know, a common struggle is filtering through polar-opposite pieces of advice to decide what is best for your company.

I have experienced this, and more, receiving conflicting advice about who to be.

Some of my favorite examples include:

“You will never raise money as a teacher, don’t mention that in your pitch at all.”

“I think you are the best person to solve this problem, because you are a teacher, NOT a CEO. You have to share your classroom experience.”

“Always wear red, do not wear your hair down, and do NOT tell investors you are a teacher.’”**

“Your company is going to solve this, but you need to OWN it. Stop being a teacher and start being the CEO.”

“You better build a really strong board, because you are teacher, not a CEO.”

“You have to explain your experience as a teacher–how you saw a problem and knew how to fix it–because you understand. You need to tell THAT story.”

Merging CEO and Teacher Identities

These are just a few of the many two-cent pieces I’ve been tossed since I started, and the coin flipping was nauseating. Each time someone pitched my identity, I winced physically and emotionally. Some days I tried to shy away from the teacher persona to be more “CEO-like.” No talk about classrooms, but only gross-margins and CLV (customer lifetime value). Other days, I gushed about my students and my desire to address a serious problem in education because I had lived it.

The next day, I’d be back in a suit jacket trying my hardest to not be a teacher.  It was exhausting. And, it wasn’t working. I was being neither teacher nor CEO, and becoming lost in an abyss of indecision.

Until one day when I moved my desk into the common working space and was”‘redecorating,” my desk overflowing odd bits of memorabilia, a co-worker walked by and exclaimed, “Ha, you are such a teacher.” I looked at all letters from my students, the colorful quotes, the “Voice Level” poster and inspirational poem, and it hit me. I took pride in having my own desk. For nine years as a teacher I didn’t get one, and now as a CEO, I did. “Yes, I am,” I replied.

I realized in that moment that I am both a teacher and a CEO and that being both was my advantage. That’s what innovation is, isn’t it?  Applying two unlike things to combine with each other to create something new and better.

Since then I have owned the fact that I get to be exactly who I am: a public school teacher with 10 years of classroom experience in New York City schools, and now the CEO of an education technology startup.

Despite conflicting advice to the contrary, it is a strength to combine these two identities to offer a unique perspective to my startup. Sure, I still have to read my audience to recognize who needs to know that I have a depth of classroom experience and who would be nervous about a former teacher running a company. But I am the one that gets to make that decision.

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2 thoughts on “The Challenging Journey From Teacher to Startup CEO

  1. Monica, This website is very inspirational. I am a former college instructor who is building a college prep tutoring business. To compete with billion dollar companies in this space is difficult. I have seen too many students and parents fooled into thinking the ACT and SAT will guarantee success in the college classroom. So, I have come up with a virtual tutoring program that focuses on reading and writing for college. Call it my contribution to help parents and students save money and time on college.

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