What do the founders of a fast-growing chain of kids’ science learning centers have in common with their fans? An appreciation for the limitless potential of a good question.
- January 10, 2020
Keith Norsym, ’05, recalled taking his daughter to children’s museums when she was little. “I remember seeing parents chase after kids who were running at breakneck speed from exhibit to exhibit. They were engaged, but it felt a bit overwhelming for everyone.” This is a generous way to describe the distracted, sometimes raucous energy inside many children’s museums or indoor play spaces, especially on a bad weather day, when kids’ attention spans are short and actual lessons are often ignored in favor of screens or buttons to push.
This atmosphere stands in contrast to the excited but controlled energy of a group of first and second graders at a suburban Chicago location of Kids Science Labs one chilly fall Saturday morning. The chain, founded by Norsym and Shegan Campbell, ’05, hosts classes and events to teach children problem-solving through hands-on science. Each class and classroom is designed to keep young scientists stimulated. The walls can be written on, and the rooms are divided by transparent garage doors to build students’ excitement preclass as they guess what the materials waiting for them are for. Each class focuses on a question (today’s is “How do they make flat roads?”) and is designed to move the kids around the room to keep them engaged.
First graders are not always great listeners, but in this case, their Kids Science Labs teacher leads them through messy experiments, songs, and a project. When the kids eventually come to help themselves to strips of duct tape waiting for them on the clear glass door, they peer out and make faces at Norsym and me before returning to their lesson. It’s the only time the 7-year-olds acknowledge the grown-ups sitting outside their class.
Campbell and Norsym first met as incoming Full-Time MBA students in 2003, when they found themselves in the same cohort for Leadership Effectiveness and Development (LEAD). Norsym said that, sitting in the front, he noticed Campbell in the back. “There were a few guys in that cohort that I thought asked really thoughtful questions, and I wanted to sit in the back. That was where the concentration of good questions was coming from,” he said, jokingly referring to Campbell’s group as the “cool kids.” Sitting at a new Kids Science Labs location on Chicago’s North Side, they now give off a cool-dad vibe, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and activewear zip-ups.
The pair got to know each other and went on to be LEAD facilitators in their second year. They quickly learned they had more in common than just their Booth courses: both share a Midwestern sensibility (Campbell is from Detroit, while Norsym grew up in Chicago), and they both had engineering backgrounds. Norsym grew up enjoying science—his father was an R&D engineer and his mother served as a longtime assistant dean at the University of Illinois at Chicago, devoting much of her time to increasing the number of women in STEM fields. For his part, Campbell had wanted to be a scientist since he was a child.
“My grandmother had bronchitis, and I wanted to stop her from coughing. As a kid, I used to go in the medicine cabinet at her house and mix toothpaste with other things and ask her to take it,” he said. After studying engineering, he said, “I loved seeing problems and trying to understand them, but I didn’t want to be in the lab. So many engineers just wanted to work on their design. I wanted to talk about so many other things.” As Campbell considered pursuing his MBA, his wife, Celeste Thomas, now an assistant professor of medicine at UChicago, pointed out that he always asked questions about business. “I worked at two startups that had been unsuccessful,” Campbell said. “I was curious about understanding why companies failed.”
Fast-forward to their years post-Booth, and Norsym and Campbell had still kept in touch after graduation. They discovered they were at a similar place in their lives, both feeling a similar dissatisfaction with their careers despite being successful at work. (Campbell worked in investments at Prudential; Norsym in product management at McKesson Health Solutions.) Norsym proposed they put their heads together on a new company.
In 2009 the pair began meeting regularly at a Panera Bread on the North Side. Over espresso and chai tea, each week they’d bring three problems they’d encountered to the meeting.
“When we first sat down, one of the things we said was, ‘We don’t want to have a good idea. Everybody has them.’ We wanted to fix something. We wanted to solve a problem that mattered,” said Campbell.
He said the idea for this approach came from the coursework of professor James E. Schrager, PhD ’93. “We had loved how he analyzed business,” Campbell said of Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management. “We analyzed problems using a similar framework.” One of the first problems they brought up was how young children are curious, imaginative, self-sufficient problem solvers, but often end up avoiding science later on in school. They toyed with other ideas, but advisors including Waverly Deutsch, clinical professor at Chicago Booth and the Polsky Director of the UChicago Global Entrepreneurs Network, kept returning to that concept in particular. “They kept asking about Kids Science Labs,” Campbell said. “Really? That’s the one? We didn’t know if it would be that powerful.”
The pair began building the concept in 2010, hiring teachers and raising capital. “We realized that what we needed were high-quality teachers,” said Campbell. “We weren’t going to hire people who weren’t motivated.” Their first job listing, which they placed on Craigslist, read, “If you think the education system is broken, we’re two motivated individuals who want to fix the system overall.”
They also invested in design, hiring Woodhouse Tinucci Architects, who designed the downtown Chicago Booth Gleacher Center annex. Campbell said he and Norsym had a clear vision of how they wanted Kids Science Labs locations to be, and the designers helped turn that vision into a creative environment for kids. “Open environment, lots of sight lines so we could see into the space. We wanted it all to be creative and not cluttered. We wanted to have a kid walk in and say, ‘What is that?’ The ceilings are open and the walls have paint that turn them into dry-erase boards.” Norsym said they also wanted the space to be pleasant for parents and caregivers, installing sunny, Swedish-design-inspired sitting areas for parents staying onsite for their children’s classes, which they could watch through the garage doors.
It didn’t take long before they ran into their first significant hurdle, when they tried to open their first location in January 2011. “We had written some classes, and had signed a lease to open a center on Elston and North Avenues,” said Campbell. They began to build out the space but had to back out because the City of Chicago refused to give them a permit. But then a prime space near a Whole Foods on North Avenue, with parking, became available.
“We were taking on significant risk,” said Norsym. “We both had one child. Both of our wives were pregnant. The lease that we went into was extremely expensive for a brand-new startup that had a lot of unknowns. We had a limited amount of capital. We had, between us, four months of retail experience. We had never negotiated leases before.”
But by January 2012, after being open for just four months, Kids Science Labs had broken even. It was a triumph that the founders attribute to having done their homework. “We went in with a lot of preparation and due diligence,” said Norsym. “You have to be confident.”
Campbell said that by studying successful companies, he knew that “you have to have customers who understand what you’re selling.” In the case of Kids Science Labs, parents understand that the ultimate product is more than just a fun science demonstration for children. “What we’re offering is access to long-term performance,” he said. “I want to help your child be able to frame a good question, be willing to engage it, be able to analyze.” This builds skills, he said, for children “to be empathetic enough to think about how someone else might approach a problem and be able to think about the solution in a bigger landscape and figure out whether it works and how to make it better, which is the nature of innovation.”
Companies, he said, commonly look for hires who can problem solve in this manner. “Someone that has creativity, that can adapt, that can deal with a blank sheet of paper—those are tangible skills,” he said. These skills, he and Norsym believe, can be instilled as early as preschool age. Do their youngest fans understand that they’re learning vital skills that could make them more hirable in the future? Not for children 8 and under, Campbell says, “But for kids who are 10 to 14, we do openly talk about how much you gotta be able to problem solve, work in teams, create from scratch when you’re older.” Each class, he said, is written to build resilience. “We designed our classes to incorporate failure. We purposefully have the students encounter a part where it doesn’t work. That part of the learning process is critical to long-term performance,” said Campbell.
The pair measure success by child retention. “Building Kids Science Labs, we wanted a place that kids never want to leave, and then the parents will be convinced that we must be doing something right,” said Campbell. Their key, he said, is their question-based approach to leading classes. “If you ask questions that are uniquely interesting to kids: ‘Why do some foods smell good?’ ‘What would happen if I pulled a leg off the chair?’ ‘Why does the door make a different sound when it slams versus when it shuts?’ the kids will love you. The parents will love you.”
“We purposefully have the students encounter a part where it doesn’t work. That part of the learning process is critical.”
When it comes to his own leadership style, Campbell said that his most influential teachers at Booth—including Deutsch, Schrager, and Harry L. Davis, the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, share something in common: “They’re storytellers. Story is so powerful when you’re trying to create anything, when you’re dealing with potential.” He said that a key lesson in creating a good company to work for is for managers to hear their team’s side of the story. “It feels like being a parent. The mirror they give you . . . they’ll help you, if you listen, to realize where your flaws are. They show me a lot of things.”
He said his employees have helped him learn a lot as a communicator. Despite being loquacious on the job, he said he has introvert tendencies. “People do want to hear from me; they want the opportunity to sit down and talk. Maybe I just want to eat by myself. But sometimes the organization needs something different from you. It’s not about me.” He also said he’s pulled back on expressing his opinion at work. “Give space to other people; they want to solve the problem too. You have to learn how to coach people who don’t want the same thing. Some people are super organized and a little more transactional; some are like, ‘I want to feel my way through it.’”
Over nine years, Kids Science Labs has grown to seven locations, including six in the Chicago area and one in Seattle that opened in 2016. Norsym said that as the company has grown, he’s learned to be sparing with his dry sense of humor, as well as to focus on the art of clear internal communication. “That becomes very important the bigger you get. Making sure the messages are distilled and simplified in a way that’s very elegant, exactly what you need to say and no more, can be very powerful in an organization.” Norsym also drew inspiration from his time studying under Harry Davis. “Business Policy is a class rich with perspective and wisdom, and it reinforces the power of drawing ideas from other domains,” said Norsym. “Words like ‘honor,’ ‘curiosity,’ and ‘courage’ are not used frequently enough in business school. Harry’s class made me a better listener, gave me permission to trust my instincts, and allowed me to be a genuine leader with the courage to be different.”
Opening a location in Seattle, Norsym said, was a purposeful way to test whether he and Campbell could apply their values and best practices they established in Chicago and run Kids Science Labs remotely. “Our ultimate goal is to reach as many kids as possible,” he began. “We used to be very resistant to franchising—”
“Adamantly opposed to it,” Shegan said, jumping in.
They weighed the decision carefully, considering lessons from the Seattle location. For instance, they had to update their Chicago-based curriculum. “We had very specific lessons on the ‘L’ train, the seasons, the Chicago harbor,” said Nina Tinucci, Kids Science Labs’ director of education, who joined the company in the planning phase of the opening of the first location (and whose husband, Andy Tinucci, designed the space.)
Ultimately, Campbell and Norsym decided that franchising was the best avenue to reach more children. “If you select the right people to be your franchisees, the acceleration of your growth can be faster,” Campbell said. He said their employees’ culture of transparency will help them guide future franchisees.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, Campbell and Norsym have had to change the nature of their relationship to the company as it grows. Currently, they’re working on opening 50 locations over the next two years. “Shegan is no longer writing the curriculum. He is in the classroom as little as possible,” said Tinucci, who says that the founders worked to create a culture that encourages teams to be more accountable. “The company needed this evolution to happen in order to grow.” It’s a change from Kids Science Labs’ early years, she said. “We all taught the classes. We all wrote the lessons. We all took out the trash.” As the company grows, she said, “the two of them had to learn, and are still learning to some degree, that they can’t have their hands on everything that’s happening. They have to be able to let go of some of that responsibility, and to do it well.”
Campbell and Norsym have yet to formally measure the impact a Kids Science Labs curriculum has on its alumni, the first of whom are now high-school aged, although they do hear from families whose children remained involved with hands-on thinking, such as a 2011 Kids Science Labs graduate who is entering Northwestern next year as a science major. Campbell’s and Norsym’s own children belong to the early cohorts too. “My youngest was taking classes three times a week at 18 months old,” said Campbell. That was their way of answering the question, “Can we actually teach an 18-month-old kid?”
“We have very patient and supportive families,” said Norsym, who said he’s seen the Kids Science Labs influence in his own children. When his daughter was 5 years old, he said that one morning she asked him to build an airplane with her. “As an engineer, that was a scary question,” he said. “How big is she thinking? Does she want it to fly?” He asked her why she wanted to build an airplane. “She responded, ‘Because, Daddy, I’m a builder and a scientist.’” He paused, wiped his eyes, and took a few breaths. “That’s very meaningful to me. That is my daughter defining herself in a way that will give her confidence in life. In my mother’s career, I’ve seen her fight to keep women in scientific fields and engineering. Now, my daughter has the confidence to push against that headwind and she can pursue whatever she wants.”
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