Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on November 28, 2017
Successful entrepreneurs have an intense passion for developing and growing their businesses. They identify a market need and differentiate their products or services from other providers.
Such was the strategy pursued by Pat Roberts and Nancy Blair when they founded AIM Academy, a first through 12th grade school for children with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences.
Roberts, an educator, and Blair, a nurse anesthetist, both had young daughters struggling in school. When they met, both realized that their children were experiencing similar learning difficulties. After not getting the services their daughters needed at the schools they were attending and unable to find a suitable school in the Philadelphia region, Roberts and Blair sent their daughters to a boarding school in Massachusetts.
Roberts and Blair became volunteers and worked in the field of language-based learning differences. They benchmarked schools focused on teaching young children with these learning differences, including The Lab School, with locations in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, founded by educational entrepreneur Sally L. Smith.
Roberts and Blair spoke to many parents whose children faced similar difficulties and realized there was a Philadelphia market for a school that provided an education to these children.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, “About 13 to 14 percent of the school population nationwide has a … condition that qualifies them for special education. Nevertheless, many more people – perhaps as many as 15 to 20 percent of the population as a whole — have some of the symptoms of dyslexia. …Not all of these will qualify for special education, but they are likely to struggle with many aspects of academic learning and are likely to benefit from systematic, explicit, instruction in reading, writing and language.”
Inspired by Smith of The Lab School, Roberts and Blair in 2006 founded Academy in Manayunk, named for the school’s location in a neighborhood of Philadelphia. In 2012, the school was renamed AIM Academy when it moved a short distance to its current location in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
In addition to the passion of founders and a market for a product or service, all successful entrepreneurial initiatives are based upon one or more differentiators that attract customers. AIM’s approach to educating children with dyslexia and other language-based learning differences is based on ongoing research at leading research universities and data that measures the effectiveness of the program the school provides.
Enrollment at AIM Academy has climbed from 24 students in 2006 to 340 students in 2017. Originally opened as a second through seventh grade school, it now educates children through the 12th grade. Students who overcome their language-based learning differences transfer out of AIM prior to 12th grade to attend private or public school.
The Wilson reading method, as well as a low ratio of students to highly trained teachers, plays an important role in the school’s success. The school is near capacity, and there are plans to expand at a nearby site. Every student is on a journey to college. In 2017, AIM seniors were accepted to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Villanova University, Babson College and Drexel University, to name a few.
Said Blair, “Parents come to us when their child is struggling in either reading, writing or math. We start on the path of finding the child’s strengths, talents and interests, and build on those, as well as help our students build confidence in themselves. Our teaching staff, who receive training every year, are dedicated to making a difference in the lives of our students.”
One of the precepts of Judaism is, “Whoever Saves a Life Saves the World.” Said Roberts, “Our parents tell us that in different ways. Parents tell us you have saved my child’s life. … I can finally sleep at night because I know my child is in the right place. My child doesn’t fight me to go to school anymore. I can’t get my child to go to bed at night because he [or she] is under the covers reading a book and doesn’t want to put it away.”
True to the entrepreneurial mindset of its founders, AIM and the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship of Drexel University have formed a partnership in which five AIM seniors travel to the Close School each week to take an entrepreneurship course, Life Strategies, required for entrepreneurship majors. Dr. Roy Carriker, their professor, noted, “The AIM students arrive already demonstrating an entrepreneurial mindset and in class continue to develop valuable entrepreneurial skills.”
The class comprises not only students majoring and minoring in entrepreneurship, but also students pursuing disciplines from across the university. “In class, you can’t tell the difference between the AIM students and Drexel students, which speaks to the caliber of the AIM students and program,” Carriker said. “In fact, one Drexel senior in the class expressed amazement these students were high school seniors, not university students.”
One of the goals of nearly every entrepreneur is to scale their business, and Roberts and Blair are no exception. Through AIM’s 12 years of experience and their ongoing application of the latest research, they are on the forefront of educating children who learn differently. Through the AIM Institute, Roberts and Blair are teaching what they have learned to educational professionals at other schools. More than 5,000 educators have been trained since 2006.
I came away from my interview with Roberts and Blair thinking how fortunate AIM’s students are – the beneficiaries of the entrepreneurial approach of the school’s founders and the lack of bureaucracy that constrains or slows public and other private schools from adopting programs that aid children with language-based learning differences.
AIM Academy is successful in part due to three factors: the passion of its founders, a market demand for its educational services and the way it differentiates itself from other providers in the market. This is a fundamental lesson for all entrepreneurs: Regardless of the business, a focus on these three factors will increase the probability of the venture’s success.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.