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1. What is your business?

KLIMB is a consultancy that provides dyslexia assessment and helps dyslexic children and their families overcome the educational and emotional obstacles that go hand-in-hand with the disability. I conduct Slingerland Assessments and, then once I know exactly what the problem is, I help families put together plans that cater to the way kids learn. These plans can be a big help to teachers, tutors, and parents in gearing a child’s lessons to his or her learning style.

Dyslexia is a hereditary learning disability among people of normal intelligence who have difficulty acquiring and processing language. When children learn to read, they first figure out the sound that each letter makes, for example, “D” makes a “duh” sound. Dyslexic people have a hard time connecting letters to the sounds they make and then blending them into words. As a result, people with dyslexia often mix up the reading of words, for example reading “was” as “saw” or “of” as “for,” consequently reading becomes extremely slow and inaccurate. Dyslexia can affect a person’s ability to read, write, spell, and even speak, which clearly makes school an extraordinary challenge. It is said that 20% of the earth’s population is dyslexic and many are undiagnosed.

Research shows that dyslexic children’s academic trajectories are dramatically improved with professionally guided reading tutorials. As a result, there is a lot of demand for trained reading tutors, and in Northern California, the tutoring cost is about $100 an hour. Having spoken to many families about a tutoring plan for their children, I grew concerned about how many families couldn’t afford tutoring for the recommended four to five times a week.

In response to that concern, I just launched the pilot program for Keep KLIMBing. Its purpose is to level the playing field so that all children, regardless of economic advantage, can experience the beneficial effects of reading intervention. Effectively, it is a buddy reading program that we provide at no or low cost to families so that intervention can happen as soon as possible. The buddies are trained volunteers, and the reading locations take place in donated spaces like libraries and schools.

One of my favorite quotes is from dyslexic Albert Einstein, and it reads: Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Inspired by this quote I named my business, KLIMB, which is meant to be a misspelled version of the word “climb” as someone with dyslexia might spell it.

 

2. What made you decide to start your business?

When my oldest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia 5 years ago, it was really hard for me. I remember feeling incredibly lonely as I was navigating everything for the first time. Then a year later, my second daughter was also diagnosed as dyslexic. My oldest daughter became extremely anxious at school each day and especially around the weekly spelling tests. We were worried about her stress level at such a young age, and so we moved her to Charles Armstrong School, a local school that was specifically set up for kids with dyslexia. My younger daughter continued to go to her regular school, as she seemed to be managing her stress and getting the support she needed.

As a result, I had experience with dyslexic kids at regular and targeted schools, and I learned how to advocate for my kids at each place. Then, my older daughter went back to the regular school after three years, and so I became familiar with re-entry. At the same time that my oldest daughter returned to her mainstream school, my son, the third child in our family, was diagnosed with dyslexia.

I am passionate about improving the lives of kids with dyslexia, and the time also seemed right once my kids were in school fulltime. I wanted to do something of my own and to be contributing.

 

3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?

Having experienced the roller coaster ride of dyslexia for the past five years, at one point I looked around and realized that I knew a lot about all aspects of the disability. I felt strongly that all children with dyslexia should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, and I felt like I could make that happen given my educational background in psychology (undergraduate and masters).

As part of my research into dyslexia, I spent some time learning about Richard Branson and other famous dyslexics. Richard Branson, the well-known founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Airways, was told by his former headmaster that, “He would either end up in prison or become a millionaire.”

What is interesting to me about this quote is that it quite accurately summarizes the outcomes for kids with dyslexia. Some of the most innovative people of our time are dyslexic, Steven Spielberg, Charles Schwab, Thomas Edison to name a few, and there are estimates that 48% of prison inmates are also dyslexic. A lot of this bifurcation has to do with how these people, as children, ended up feeling about their reading problems. Some felt they had talents to contribute even though reading was hard for them, and others felt they had nothing of value to give.

 

4. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?

Yes, two examples particularly stand out in my mind as heart-breaking times for me that drive me to advocate for these kids.

The first example of a really hard experience was when I volunteered to give twenty Slingerland Assessments at a Bay Area school. Of the 20 kids I screened, every single one of them needed help. Until I got there, I hadn’t realized the overwhelming need. They may not all end up being dyslexic, but they all needed reading support. Because of feeling so helpless with such great numbers, I was motivated to create an intervention arm of KLIMB, what eventually became Keep KLIMBing.

The second example comes from my consulting practice. I was working with a kid from an affluent family, who ended up being dyslexic, who had been told by his teachers over and over again that he just wasn’t trying. It was heart-breaking to see how down on himself he was. He was still so young and clearly bright but he was giving up. This is a tragedy but unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon.  I often recall this student’s particular story when I’m tired or feeling stretched, and it pushes me on.

 

5. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?

My kids were the reason for this. My children are my daily inspiration. Seeing the effects dyslexia has on a child at such a young age is profound. Without the belief that you have anything worthwhile to contribute, a child will give up and this is what happens to so many bright dyslexic children. I never wanted my kids to lose confidence or think that they couldn’t achieve anything they wanted in life. Watching my children work and persevere each day motivates me to do the same, to persist in my goals for KLIMB, regardless of obstacles along the way.

 

6. Were there any partnerships or advice that were particularly helpful?

Lynne Ruppel and I initially met for business referral reasons, but in that first meeting we ended up conceiving of the idea of Keep KLIMBing. Lynne and I were both concerned about all of the families who can’t afford the tutoring but who needed it just as badly as the families who can afford it. Lynne is an educational therapist who is well educated on reading intervention, and her involvement is integral in making the idea of Keep KLIMBing work. Lynn trains the volunteers on various phonemic awareness activities, games, and literacy instruction and creates daily lesson plans. These trainings and lesson plans help set Keep KLIMBing apart from other reading buddy programs. Through Lynne’s explicit instruction and our early intervention, one-to-one model, we aim to provide quantifiable reading improvement for every participating child.

 

7. Who did you speak to for support as you were working on the idea/launch?

Two people have been incredibly supportive to me.

The first is Tuck Geerds, an educational therapist. She gave the Slingerland Assessment to both of my daughters, and I was always inspired by her and appreciated her advice. When I started this business she gave me great advice. One of the truly wonderful gifts was that she allowed me to use her proprietary tool that helps with deciphering the results of the assessment. This has been a big help in giving parents really clear feedback on their children’s needs.

The second person is my husband. He also has dyslexia, so I think he supports me both because he understands so clearly what it is like to live with the hurdles of the disability and also just because he believes in me. He supported KLIMB from the start and has helped spread the word of my business through his wide network on LinkedIn.

 

8. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?

I was nervous that my consulting wouldn’t provide something of value. The consulting side is hard to quantify, and I wanted clients to feel like I was making a difference in their lives. I knew that I was helping out when the mothers were relieved by my advice. Sometimes it is something so simple. In one instance, a mother was asking about audiobooks and whether it was OK for her son to listen to them since he loved them so much. It turns out that audiobooks are great for kids with dyslexia, so she was thrilled that she could preserve that pleasure for her son.

The role that parents play is also very interesting to me. I really believe that whatever feelings the parents have get subtly communicated to the kids. So, I also spend a lot of time giving parents motivational information so that they realize that their child really can do anything she wants to do. Dyslexia doesn’t go away, but giving parents hope prevents them from unintentionally sending negative feelings to their kids. All of these amazing people like Branson, Einstein, Spielberg, Picasso, had this. Of course, they had to work hard to get what they wanted, but that is an important lesson too. Whenever I can help remove the worries of a parent or give them hope that makes me really proud.

 

9. What are some of your current challenges?

Keep KLIMBING, the reading buddy program will need funding to become self-sustaining. Right now proceeds from KLIMB Consulting support it, but I need to fundraise to grow it. We have started but we need to create a more seamless and scalable system to recruit volunteers, and we need to get schools and libraries to provide space. Just a lot of logistics surrounding the buddy reading, but I think that once I figure it out in one location we can replicate it easily. My dream is for it to become a national program.

 

10. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?

The most wonderful surprise has been the kindness of people. The response from mentors and volunteers is heart-warming. I feel like there is so much negativity in the world that it is so nice to see all of the goodness in people.

Date of conversation: June 6, 2017

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