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Ratcheting Up

With tech jobs rising, Engineering for Kids sees opportunity


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One entrepreneur is banking on the nationwide focus on science and technology education to grow her franchise system, Engineering for Kids. Will its head start last long enough to gain traction?

After witnessing a “great spark” in her young children as they watched students clash in an engineering competition a few years ago, Dori Roberts had a business epiphany. She started Engineering for Kids, and now her franchise is poised to take off along with rising interest in STEM education, otherwise known as science, technology, engineering and math.

Dori Roberts, founder of Engineering for Kids

Dori Roberts, founder of Engineering for Kids, helps a student with a project. She thinks engineering is a “really great career.”

A former high school engineering  and technology teacher for 11 years, Roberts knew her then 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son were amazed with what the students were doing and wanted join in the competition. But she couldn’t find any programs for their age group. That void prompted Roberts to create Engineering for Kids. But she also had another inspiration to launch EFK in 2009. After she left teaching, she built an after-school engineering club that grew from eight to 180 students. Fast-forward five years: Roberts’ daughter now wants to be an architect and her son an engineer.  

The Fredericksburg, Virginia-based EFK offers programs for kids ages 4 to 14 to acquaint them with STEM concepts via various hands-on workshops, including learning-based classes and after-school programs, evening classes, in-school field trips, birthday parties, home-school programs, Scouts workshops, and preschool programs. The concept has been a hit with parents, schools and community centers, reaching nearly 10,000 students and roughly 1,000 public and private schools. 

And with STEM-related fields a hot topic with everyone from President Obama to corporate CEOs, Roberts beleives she can add 50 franchises across the country this year. EFK currrently has 25 locations in 10 states, along with sites in Kuwait and New Delhi, India.

Convinced all kids are natural engineers,  Roberts is driven to help kids learn more about engineering. Her expansion plans come as the U.S. Department of Commerce projects that STEM jobs will grow by 17 percent from 2008 to 2018, creating 2.4 million jobs. In contrast, only 10 percent job growth is expected overall nationally during that same period. A recent study  by Intel Corp. reported 63 percent of teens have never considered a field in engineering. But 44 percent of the students said they would consider engineering as a career if they knew more about it.

“Our nation is not graduating enough engineers to fill those needs, so our company’s philosophy is to inspire kids at a young age to understand that engineering is a really great career,” Roberts says.

Emphasizing girls

Motivated by her high school chemistry teacher to study science and math, Roberts is passionate about getting females at an early age interested in engineering. She says once girls realize that engineers can help save and improve lives by building a better dam or a prosthetic device, they become attracted to the field. In 2011, EFK added a “girls-only” program with classes and camps. “It has been a very popular program and something that we do on a continual basis,” she says. 

On the competitive front, growing the EFK franchise network may not be a cinch. The math, science and  technology category in children’s education represents more than 2,700 franchised locations, says Scott Lehr, senior vice president of U.S. & International Development at the International Franchise Association.

Lehr says the niche has a few strong players like Kumon, Mathnasium, Mad Science, High Touch-High Tech, Computer Explorers and Nutty Scientists. IFA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison says, “This segment in franchising is growing as these companies are  trying  to fill a skill set where there may be a void in the market.”

Trying to stand out

In general, EFK could find its biggest competition from a brand such as Mathnasium, says Eric Stites, CEO of Franchise Business Review in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “There are a lot of parents spending money to supplement their kids’ education through tutoring services and stuff like that,” Stites says.  “So Engineering for Kids will be competing with those dollars and time will tell how successful they are.”

Dori Roberts

Dori Roberts launched the franchise during the recession, but says revenue is rising 30 percent each year, on average.

Still, EFK’s different twist on the concept could make it stand out. EFK’s competitive edge may be that it has created its own category in the franchise sector that’s aimed at kids, says Joel Libava,  owner of Franchise Selection Specialists, a Cleveland consulting firm. Libava said EFK’s offerings play right into the United States’ need for more engineers to compete globally. “This is great timing,” he says. “EFK needs to reach out to the White House.”

Also, Libava says EFK needs to ensure its programs are truly unique to set itself apart from any competitors or copycats that try to develop engineering-related franchise concepts. “This concept has legs,” Libava says. “As long as EFK thinks like Disney and provides an amazing atmosphere and experience, they have great potential.”

Hands-on a must

Roberts is confident about EFK’s growth possibilities. She says a good franchisee candidate is someone who enjoys being part of the community, likes working with children and believes in supplementing a children’s education above what’s taught in public schools. Former teachers, parents involved with a school system because of their own children and entrepreneurs are among franchisees Roberts is targeting.  

The investment to begin an EFK franchise is $29,350 to $50,550 for a home-based business and $51,850 to $93,550 for a retail EFK location, according to the company’s Franchise Disclosure Document. That amount includes a $14,500 to $15,000 franchise fee. Royalties cost franchisees 7 percent of their annual revenue, Roberts says.

Despite launching EFK during the recession four years ago, Roberts says revenue has risen an average of 30 percent each year. Parents talking about EFK and people understanding the brand’s value have fueled much of the growth.

Patty Potts, formerly an environmental and occupation health engineer in Virginia, opened an EFK franchise in May 2012 in Lorton, Virginia. After investing about $40,000, Potts says her home-based business has grown quickly. “I love the hands-on aspect of the franchise because you get to do something for each class instead of just listening to students,” Potts says.

Dara Dawson, previously a math and science teacher for 20 years at middle schools in Virginia, believes it would be a good fit for her. She plans to target clients such as schools, community centers and home-schooling programs in Fredericksburg and Richmond in Virginia.

Dawson is pleased with the structure Roberts has built for franchisees. “You plug in and hit the ground running with a solid business because they have such a good support program,” Dawson says. 

 

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