Running a residential summer camp for teens, far from family and friends, this creative mom launched her own day camp for young girls to occupy her daughters while she worked round the clock. With a focus on hands-on science and project-based fun, Curious Jane was an immediate success and has evolved today into a highly successful camp, after-school, and community-events business aiming to empower girls to solve problems and experiment in unexplored subjects.
“We take a STEM approach but it’s also creative. Really my goal with the girls is to remove fear of failure as they tend to have greater internal and external pressure to get something right. I want girls to fail. I want them to see it’s totally fine and they can learn from it. I want them to use their hands, look at the world in a different way, open the kitchen drawer and see tools and resources for their creativity, and, best of all, know they can do it themselves,” she explains with enthusiasm.
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Razook Murphy always did well at school. Academics were a top priority, and she didn’t disappoint when going to Yale. But her choice of major – graphic design – at an ivy league school was non-traditional. Graduating a year early, Razook Murphy moved home and did some work in the field only to discover it wasn’t really her thing.
She married young, at 23, to an entrepreneur who was building a computer camp business in which she was very involved. But the day after her honeymoon, the newly pregnant Razook Murphy was initiated into the very grown-up world of financial strain and endless worry: “My husband, Doug, was in a very serious car accident. He survived but the recovery process took a year. The business went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. We were wiped out and basically had nothing.”
With her options limited, Razook Murphy felt her best shot was to retrain and – thanks to her parent’s support – she returned to school to get a Masters in industrial design. With their one-year-old daughter and not much else in tow, the couple moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she started studying at The Pratt Institute and Doug began to rebuild his business. “It was pretty tough going. We were lucky enough to have a lovely older woman across the street who looked after Eleanor while I studied and worked on Doug’s business. We had to take a lot of loans and drained our financial resources, but we managed.”
With her degree in hand and another baby joining the family, Razook Murphy ramped up her involvement in the business. While this was the family’s main bread and butter, she still found time to teach at Pratt and do some industrial design freelance projects.
Fast forward a few years and with the recession going strong, Razook Murphy and her husband needed to get a little more creative about making money in order to stay in their increasingly expensive Brooklyn neighborhood. The plan was to establish a new overnight program – Blue Tree Camp – for teenage girls on the Bryn Mawr campus outside Philadelphia that Razook Murphy would run while her husband remained in Brooklyn.
But what about her daughters? What to do with them while she worked?
“I didn’t have anything in my mind. I was in pure panic mode. I was only thinking, ‘We have to be able to pay the rent so we’re going to call Bryn Mawr and rent space there to run a teen girls’ summer camp. Maybe I can set up a day camp on the side for younger girls where I can put Eleanor and Livvy Grace while we work and work and work. Curious Jane is a fun name. Yeah, let’s go with that.’ It was as simple as that,” she laughs.
And so Curious Jane was launched purely out of necessity, as so many service-oriented business are.
Before taking it to Bryn Mawr campus later in the summer, Razook Murphy rented some space in Brooklyn, signed up a few of her friends, and got started. “We ran a few weeks of Curious Jane in early summer then I packed up my kids, packed my stuff, moved to Bryn Mawr, lived in the dorms for six weeks, ran Curious Jane there and then ran the teen overnight program,” she recounts breathlessly.
Starting small, Razook Murphy hired one teacher and did everything else herself, from driving the camp van to designing the classes, all the while being responsible for Blue Tree. She created an umbrella entity, Girls Dream Out Loud, to house Blue Tree and Curious Jane. “So I won’t lie, it was incredibly stressful that first summer. My kids were there, other kids were there. I look back on it and it creates panic in my stomach. But you put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.”
The following summer, she saw the pay-off. While the Bryn Mawr Curious Jane camp remained small with the focus being on the teen Blue Tree program, the Brooklyn camp took off. “We went from 78 camper weeks in 2009 to 520 one year later … 700% growth! What happened was that the girls came, they loved it, their moms loved it and we had an audience.”
And who wouldn’t love classes with names like Guerilla Art, Spa Science, and Gadgets + Gears. You can even learn how to create your own graphic novel or made quiz boards with conductive paint in Wired 101.
Growth came mostly through word of mouth and there was a huge response from the community. Within another summer, Curious Jane opened a Manhattan location and today offers its camps in eight locations.
While it initially subsidized Curious Jane, after six years the Blue Tree teen residential camp has run its course and this summer was its last. “Basically Curious Jane proved to be the much stronger brand. It was able to support itself. It’s unique in that it’s all girls and based on themes like toy design or electronics. These 6-11 year olds are so jazzed to be in the classroom working on their projects because the staff is just so awesome. Curious Jane’s approach has attracted the most phenomenal young women as staff members. It’s a very collaborative and inspiring environment,” Razook Murphy explains.
Curious Jane got a big boost in 2014 when it won a generous small-business grant as part of a nation-wide competition. “It was tremendous! There were some debts that needed to be cleared but most importantly we were able to engage a business development group. We’d always grown organically and didn’t have a strict game plan. Frankly we were a little all over the place and they helped us narrow the areas we wanted to move into, to lay a path should we wish to pursue additional funding. We also secured a new office space which allowed us to accommodate more staff and supplies and therefore do more outside of the office. And finally we launched a magazine for cool creative girls. It’s advertising free, full of fun stuff to create, and just awesome!”
And how does she feel now from those heady camp days in 2009? “I’m thrilled, I love waking up every single morning and coming to do what I do. That’s an enormous blessing. I love the people I collaborate with and the fact that I do something good for girls, especially my own girls. They can see a role model, a strong confident woman. Success for me has been being able to grow and develop resources at every state, and frankly to have developed a little bit of grit. People respond so positively to Curious Jane and I get to make a living from that. How great is that?”
Tips from Samantha Razook Murphy
- Don’t let fear of failure hold you back.
- Connect strongly with your first customers, value them, learn from them, serve them, they are by far your best tool in growing your business.
- Mind your time and your energy — throw yourself in but take a moment to step back
- Reach out for feedback — it’s scary but critical
- Put one foot in front of the other
- Remember that “balance” has no momentum… chaos does. Get comfortable with that, use it!