Susan Fletcher: From Writing Algorithms to Nurturing Absorbent Minds

tophatHow would personality-typecaster Briggs-Meyer classify a problem-solving, puzzle-loving woman who spent 20 years in computer programming only to leave the sector in her early 50s to open a Montessori childcare center? Is there a personality that combines being analytical, systematic, and detail-oriented with a sensitive, spontaneous and playful side? If so, then Susan Fletcher surely would fit that bill.

“I loved working in IT but I’ve gone from logical and impersonal to warm and intensely personal. I get such a kick out of watching the children learn and grow. It’s not just about reading and writing. Little kids are learning to put their dishes away when they are finished eating. They are learning about nature, geography and art. I had to smile the other day when the mother of a 3-year-old told me the response she got to ‘How was school?’ was ‘Great! We painted Starry Night by Van Gogh.’ We are accomplishing what I want. The parents are seeing it and they are excited by it.”

Fletcher’s career in IT got off to an early start. In the 9th grade, she joined her father after school in his lab at a hospital where she programed a new computer they had just purchased. “Keep in mind this was the 1970s so I’m talking the early days of computing. I would sit and write programs to teach the computer to draw graphs. I just loved it, it was so much fun.” Fletcher’s path was clear and she went on to study computer science and mathematics at DePauw University in Indiana.

She married and, joining her then-husband in Washington DC where he was studying law, Fletcher took a position with government contractor SYSCON developing custom applications for the Navy for five years. “I found out recently they are still using one of the systems we wrote in 1986. I don’t know what that says about the Navy, but for me it was kind of exciting to hear I wrote something they are using today,” she laughs.

Fletcher took a two-year “break” to have kids while doing Masters course-work in computer science from the University of Virginia. From there, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she developed software applications for a variety of mid-sized telecoms, hospitality, and retail businesses. Moving again in support of her husband’s career – this time to Atlanta, Georgia – Fletcher briefly stopped working until her marriage came apart and her husband relocated to Hong Kong following their divorce. “It was tough. I was working as a systems analyst for a large agriculture cooperative and the kids were only 4 and 7 years.

With parents living in DC, Fletcher decided to return to the nation’s capital and look for work. She landed a position with USA Today supporting advertising department applications and, after three years, moved over to the Bureau of National Affairs (today known as Bloomberg BNA) building websites and managing content delivery. Seeking more seniority and a supervisory role, the ambitious Fletcher did an MBA at the University of Maryland while working fulltime.

Anthony Susan at Malia's weddingThe new degree paid off and Fletcher signed on as VP Operations for a small publishing company. It was all going swimmingly until the market crash in 2008 and the 44-year-old mother-of-two-bound-for college found herself unexpectedly laid off. After six months, she joined the Federal Trade Commission as an IT project manager but it was a morale-breaking three-year stint. “All the fun of solving puzzles and writing software that people would use was gone. There was lots of politics, a lot of hand-holding, making sure people were doing their job. It was frustrating. My life had changed. I had gotten remarried and the kids were gone. I wanted to do something more personal, feel again like I was contributing more.”

Searching around for inspiration, Fletcher thought back to earlier days when her boys had attended a Montessori, an experience she loved. But as a busy single mom it has been difficult to juggle before- and after-care, and the spring and summer camps that were always needed while she worked. “I thought if I had wanted the best experience for my children during the day – with stimulating activities and a warm and supportive environment – and without interruption during summer and other breaks then of course others would too. I wanted to have a Montessori like the original founder intended as true childcare facility supporting working families from drop off in the morning to pick up in the evening. Just because you have to work fulltime, you shouldn’t have to accept a lower quality program.”

Fletcher hit the ground running. She did a lot of research on childcare licensing and regulations, and started looking for locations. She finally got to a point where a decision had to be made, one way or the other: “It seemed like the right time. I found a commercial realtor and partnered with a Montessori teacher. But then the hard work began as Maryland has very specific staffing and facility requirements. Ideally I would have bought land and built a school but the cost was prohibitive at $2–3 million. At one point, I almost gave up because I found the perfect location but then ran into zoning issues and had to abandon the process.”

But she persisted and using personal savings, a home equity line of credit, and a loan from her parents, Fletcher signed the lease on an old gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While construction got underway, she began recruiting Montessori-certified teachers as state licensing rules require having sufficient staff on hand (1.5 teachers to every child for a 12-hour day). Fletcher kept working at the FTC until the summer before Top Hat Montessori opened in 2012 and since then has been onsite except when out taking courses on child development, curriculum and planning, emergency preparedness, and childcare administration to name just a few. “There’s a lot of training involved,” she emphasizes.

“For my mid-life crisis, instead of buying a sports car, I opened a school. It’s been difficult and I’ve made some expensive mistakes. Even with an MBA, I don’t know anything about running an early childhood education business so I have struggled with staffing, navigating the complex regulations and licensing requirements, and marketing to young parents. In hindsight, I realize I was naïve, but I absolutely love it. It is fulfilling in a way that my IT career never was. Even knowing how hard it’s been, and how little I knew when I started, I am really grateful that I have had this opportunity.”

 

Tips from Susan Fletcher:

  • Be prepared but accept that no matter how many people you talk to, no matter how much you read and how many classes you go to, there are just some things you learn from being in an industry for a while.
  • Use a business consultant from the very beginning if possible. I worked with a childcare specialist to help me turn things around recently but her help would have been even more valuable from the get-go.
  • It’s never too late for a second career. Feeling passionate about my work is rewarding, and makes all the problems seem worth while.

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