Rockin’ the role of CEO, at School of Rock
“For me, that’s a calling,” says Dzana Homan, CEO of School of Rock, about empowering people through music.
It was the average live show, except for what was on stage. Concert posters lined the dirty black walls, fans sported Zeppelin and Floyd T-shirts and big-haired servers shuttled drinks to the tables surrounding the dance floor. Then, the house lights dimmed, stage lights brightened and all eyes pointed to a stage populated with high school-aged kids with funky hair, baggy clothes and holding an array of instruments.
Sipping a cocktail in the cheap seats while kids (less than) half my age blasted out The Who and Nirvana, I experienced an entirely different rush than an everyday rock ‘n’ roll show. They had the Jagger-esque moves and Vedder-like voices when it counted, their musicianship was on point and the audience showered them with cheers and adoring applause.
Attendees had no choice, though, as most were the parents of their School of Rock-trained kids rocking the house at a totally legit, big-city music venue. This performance, a joint concert between Minnesotan and Australian franchises, proved the kids attending this franchised, rock ‘n’ roll music school can shred, strut and melt faces like professionals. Or, at least, really promising professionals-in-training.
As interesting as the school’s mission is—with headlining rock gods making guest appearances on stage and in classrooms—it pales in comparison to the life story of its CEO, a survivor and refugee from the Bosnian War, a classically trained pianist with a physics degree, and a résumé focused on changing young people’s lives through for-profit education systems.
CEO since June 2014, Dzana (pronounced ZHA-na) Homan was the head of Futurekids when she experienced her first School of Rock show in 2007. At a live show with a friend whose child started taking his first lessons earlier that year, she was moved by the energy she saw and felt from the stage.
“Jesse was a kid who never touched an instrument, and within eight weeks of summer camp, he was on stage rocking it out and I couldn’t believe it,” Homan said, now almost two years into serving as School of Rock’s CEO. “I’m a musician—I know how long it takes to get any kid from point A to point of performance. At that moment, I was so enthused and thought ‘Oh my goodness, if this is not franchised, I am going to franchise this.’”
In her characteristically direct form, she dashed to the back of the venue, asked questions and learned that School of Rock was, indeed, already franchised. Started as the Paul Green School of Rock Music in 2002, the franchise pre-dates Jack Black’s movie of the same name by a year, although the seeds of the school go back to the mid-1990s.
Pledging allegiance to the band
Two years into the job, Homan is executing an aggressive growth plan to move School of Rock beyond its core of inspiring young rockers. Leveraging its weight as a cultural tastemaker and a provider of live entertainment at venues and festivals across the country, School of Rock has begun cashing in on its status as a hub bringing together aspiring students, musical educators, concert promoters, instrument manufacturers and world-famous bands—an enviable demographic in any circle.
She didn’t speak English when she first landed in the United States from Sarajevo. No hurdle compared to what she had already been through, however, and Homan quickly learned the language and earned her third degree, a master’s in electrical engineering. After graduation, she was poised to start working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory north of Pasadena, California, but a delay in funding changed her direction.
Instead of waiting for the job designing robotic spacecraft, Homan took a position at Futurekids, a school teaching computer skills to kids.
Within two years, she was CEO of the brand.
Flashing back to watching her friend’s son performing on stage, she had been pondering yet another life change after being offered the CEO spot at the Huntington Learning Center in suburban New York. Soon after the show, she accepted, packed her bags, headed east and began running her second school system in the summer of 2008. Her next role was COO of Philadelphia-based Goddard Systems, focusing on an even younger cohort at the preschool franchise.
Reminded of her fleeting encounter with School of Rock in California, she contacted the company about a possible partnership with its Little Wings early childhood music program—teaching music theory and singing Beatles songs with preschoolers. Connections were made through discussions of a potential partnership, and a recruiter searching for School of Rock’s next CEO contacted her.
Eager to nurture the musical side of her brain, moving on again was an easy choice. “I did not have to think about it,” Homan said of the opportunity. “I make decisions really fast and just knew that I could do this and do it well.” Homan became the CEO in June of 2014—a moment she calls a stroke of kismet.
“Education is about transformation and music is the best platform to connect with anybody, a child, tweens and teens and even adults,” she said. “Even amateur musicians or children that play even for a year are kids who develop into independent thinkers. They’re more likely to engage with this world in a very authentic and independent way—for me, that’s a calling.”
Dzana Homan, School of Rock’s CEO, shows off her power stance.
Creating musical fusion
School of Rock has grown mightily since its formative years, with a footprint now stretching into eight countries with 174 locations in the United States. At this scale, the school claims it’s the largest employer of rock and roll musicians anywhere in the world.
In less than 20 months since taking the helm, Homan has expanded its American footprint by more than 40 percent and added more than 6,000 students to the system with consecutive months of double-digit same-school sales growth. It is on pace to eclipse 50,000 students in the coming years.
Getting these students out of the classroom and onto a stage in front of live, adoring audiences is one of the cornerstones of its curriculum. Thirteen years in, School of Rock students have played thousands of concerts at legendary venues including CBGB, The Trocadero, The Knitting Factory, The Whiskey, The Roxy, The Experience Music Project, BB King’s Blues Club in Times Square and Prince’s former First Avenue in Minneapolis.
“There are a number of fantastic businesses that should be available everywhere, but this is more than a business,” Homan said of the importance of growing. “This is a cause.”
With locations in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Australia, the Philippines, Chile, Panama and South Africa, Homan admits there are several rock and roll-friendly countries missing from that list—all of Europe, Japan and South Korea, to name a few—but stressed the company’s primary objective remains expanding its home turf.
“Coming back to that original passion we just spoke about … the mission is to reach as many kids as we possibly can in every single school and also grow our schools by numbers,” she said.
School of Rock’s classrooms aren’t what you may remember from band class. Rather than traditional lessons, instructors focus on igniting passion within students, boosting their confidence and getting them excited about music.
“Music learning is not about you and I sitting in one room and you play your instrument and I’m the teacher,” Homan said. “Music is meant to be shared and we, people who grew up through the conventional system of learning music that way dreaded those recitals—it was a nightmare.”
Viewing the traditional music education as “stringent,” School of Rock focuses on “the song as the center,” playing with other kids, learning their favorite songs and slowly graduating to more complicated songs that are, eventually, played on stage at some of the country’s largest music festival like Milwaukee’s annual Summerfest.
Homan says part of the mix to uncorking confidence and greatness is making sure kids are unfazed by early mistakes.
“Remember your mistakes when you were learning piano?” she asked, touching on my own youthful foray into musical fusion. “Your professor or teacher stops you and you feel horrific—we actually are encouraged when kids start talking and making mistakes—that’s cool—we want them to do it more and more because we know they will get it.”
Battle of the bands
Since arriving as CEO, and shuttling herself between Los Angeles and Chicago, Homan has focused on improving communications with franchisees, which some said was strained during the previous leadership of Chris Catalano.
Installed by the school’s private equity backer, Sterling Partners, Catalano was School of Rock’s CEO from 2009 to 2014. He previously served as chairman of the board of directors at Redbox and chief financial and investment officer for McDonald’s.
Joe Roberts, a founding partner and member of the School of Rock board of directors, said Catalano’s leadership was a natural evolution for the school as it sought to transition the company from an early- to mid-stage company, expanding from 40 to approximately 180 units during his tenure.
“Chris had a great role in School of Rock,” he said. “If you get into conversations people will pick him apart, but on a big-picture scale he did a good job.”
Calling himself the “active, screaming voice for the soul of what we do,” Roberts is an advocate of Homan’s current leadership who participated in the board’s search process. He called her a strong, driven and bright leader.
“She’s off the charts, she’s extremely bright,” he added. “She knows how important it is that the franchisor be strong and that the franchisees be strong.”
David Marsh, owner of a School of Rock in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, felt there wasn’t enough involvement from the corporation before Homan’s arrival.
“They let us be out there on our own,” he said. “As they grew, more of the new franchisees wanted more support and wanted more bang for their buck.”
“My style is very bold. It is in effect loud in terms of that passion.” — Dzana Homan, School of Rock
Trouble in the ranks
Homan’s leadership has also rubbed a cohort of franchisees the wrong way. Before this year’s School of Rock international convention in Las Vegas, a band of franchisees formed an association to amplify the volume of their concerns, including difficulty communicating with leadership, newly implemented mandatory general manager training, monthly P&L reporting, an unpopular redesign of system-wide websites and a slow rollout of seasonal marketing campaigns.
Ken Martin, an Australian franchisee, said much of the rancor he’s encountered centers on Homan’s direct management style.
“Dzana has an image problem, and I think it’s a cultural difference,” he said, referencing her eastern European upbringing. “There’s been a lot of talk behind the scenes over the last 12 months as to her management style and how Dzana’s very cut and dry.”
After his visit to Las Vegas for the conference, Martin felt the issues may be receding and said many fellow franchisees are more focused on the brand’s growth strategy.
“A majority of the franchisees have the same view I have,” he said. “People are sick of the bickering and Machiavellian tactics in the back room, and just want to see positive growth for everybody and have said, ‘Let’s give Dzana a chance.’”
Stacey Marmolejo, a franchisee with two Twin Cities-area schools, strongly backed Homan’s leadership, but said some franchisees she’s spoken with also singled out her personal style.
“She speaks her mind,” she said. “She’s very direct, she doesn’t beat around the bush and some people are just flat-out uncomfortable with that.”
Asked about the formation of the franchisee association, Homan defended her leadership by listing the system’s growth and sharing feedback she’s gleaned from other franchisees.
“My style is very bold. It is in effect loud in terms of that passion,” she said. “While I think people like the passion and energy and commitment and care—and they usually share that with me—I’m pretty sure that for somebody it can be overwhelming to deal with my determination to make things right and make things good for all of us.”
Homan added she’s unclear about the association’s objectives, but previous experience at franchise organizations with associations gives her concern about its impact on newer franchisees who may be unsure where to turn with complaints.
“Nothing is done without people sitting together,” she said. “A franchisee relationship in its essence is a one-to-one relationship, and the one thing I hope is that people don’t have wrong assumptions about whatever entity is going to do something for that.”
She acknowledged some franchisees may not have received responses from her or the corporate team as soon as is her claimed standard—one day—but added that the team was unusually busy growing the corporate headcount, which should alleviate such concerns in the future.
“As a responsible franchisor, we have doubled down on additional support, doubled down in getting high-end marketing, advertising tools, operating tools and platforms, and enhanced our operational and IT marketing support,” she said. “That’s what we’re going to commit to regardless of how we interact, either one on one or however franchisees organize.”
‘Tiger mom’ upbringing
Seated across the conference room table at School of Rock’s offices in suburban Chicago, Homan was visibly animated talking about the power of rock ‘n’ roll for the benefit of young people and society as a whole. She can name-check musicians and legendary music venues all day, and has a storyteller’s ability to make an extended, impassioned case for the importance of her school’s mission.
“Rock is an entrance into igniting that passion for the learning of music, and once you have that then you can play what you learn and can pick up anything—ultimately, you become fluent enough that you create your own music,” she said. “What is also important to us is that we teach these kids how to rock their own life, how to own their own life, how to understand that empathy is important.”
Her linguistic extravagance is punctuated by bursts of laughter, enthusiasm talking about her favorite musicians and also by solemn moments discussing the challenges of spending so much of her life on airplanes while still struggling to see her family that’s now stretched across the globe.
Homan tied her intensity to being raised by what she calls a tiger mom back home in pre-war Bosnia.
“When I play certain pieces I can remember the times when I was learning that piece and my mom was in the kitchen preparing dinner, hollering her comments back at me good or bad,” she said. “And I can smell what she was cooking at the time.”
The war was never far from the conversation, and her survivor story as a refugee and one-time American outcast had a profound impact on her worldview.
“War changes priorities in life—I had to learn a new language, adjust to this new culture and how this new world works. I didn’t know any shows, I didn’t know what a Social Security number was, I didn’t know what the DMV was,” she said. “Why I succeeded, and many immigrants do,” is because “I had a background in music.”
Shifting away from heavy stuff, the formal interview ended as our photographer set up our shoot with Homan with a guitar and drum set at School of Rock HQ.
Reminding us she’s a pianist, not a drummer or guitar player, Homan was a good sport and pounded on the drums and faked some chords, while shouting down the hall to her coworkers.
“I’m sorry!” she yelled, while laughing, tossing her hair around for the camera and continuing to bleat out her own fledging drum solo.
Homan is serious and intense when talking business, calm and measured talking about her difficult childhood and the electric center of attention with the day’s work in the bag.
Seeking a final nugget before closing my notebook, I asked how her own musical background informs other aspects of her life.
“Everybody needs to have some sort of outlet that empowers them,” she said, now holding an electric guitar in her hands and jumping for the camera. “These positive experiences reinforce a process that you go through in learning anything and leveraging other people and networking and communicating and collaborating—those are the magic components of success in life. So yes, we start with music.”