When’s the last time you made your children harvest the family’s fields? Hopefully not since the 1800s, when the school day would finish at 3pm and holidays lasted 12 weeks a year so the kids could help their families put dinner on the table.
But while child labour laws and engineering and technology developments have changed that, the 3pm schoolday finish and term structure remains. And it’s something Shazia Juma-Ross, the CEO and co-founder of children’s activities service Skills and Thrills, can’t wrap her head around.
It’s why the former global COO at Macquarie Capital decided in 2018 to pursue the new business venture – the mismatch between a working calendar and a school calendar.
“I loved [working at Macquarie], but I always knew that I wanted to start my own business and I wanted it to be in an area where I had a real passion for the problem that I was trying to solve,” she told Yahoo Finance.
“I decided that that was a space that I wanted to try and fix, and I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’”
During her time at Macquarie, the process of getting kids into out-of-school programs was still very manual - there were faxes being sent, cash changing hands and extensive forms to be filled in.
And while Juma-Ross watched other industries become more progressive with technology, the kids’ activities sector - for both corporates and individual families - wasn’t moving forward – so she decided to jump right in and develop the platform for programs. Skills and Thrills operates as a marketplace connecting parents and corporates with high-quality, vetted remote and in-person children’s activities that range from yoga classes, to science, to business skills.
“One minute I was creating a high-level strategy about where we wanted to go and pricing, and the next minute I was trying to teach myself how to make a Facebook ad in Canva,” she said.
“There was this massive learning curve, and because we were a start up I was also trying to teach myself how to create a startup.”
A few people had tried to talk her out of launching Skills and Thrills, telling her she was too old and that launching a startup was just too much hard work.
“I’m very glad I didn’t listen to them,” she said. “I really enjoy that beginning bit of actually forming something from the idea, all the way through to launch and then growing from there.”
Today, Skills and Thrills has 21 corporate clients and another 50 businesses using its childrens’ activities services while still delivering its original retail proposition.
The arrival of Covid-19 saw the company swiftly pivot to online programs targeted at families who were working from home. The programs meant mum and dad could be working, while the kids would sit with an instructor – virtually – who would be teaching them how to make a lava lamp or slime.
“We actually excelled in Covid-19 as a result of that pivot,” Juma-Ross said, after recording 300 per cent quarterly revenue growth until the pandemic hit.
And services like Skills and Thrills are growing in relevance. The British drugmaker behind Australia’s hopes for a Covid-19 vaccine, AstraZeneca, has recruited 80 teachers to deliver online classes and helped find childcare spots as its workforce pursues a vaccine. And in America, Salesforce, PwC and Bank of America have all significantly increased their childcare benefits to keep kids engaged while mum and dad work.
“It means that the parents can get some real focus time while they’re working from home, so it’s been incredibly popular with corporates and retail,” Juma-Ross said.
“Corporates were really keen on it because it meant they could offer it to all of their staff. Previously, the [kids activities] programs they were offering were limited to the staff that worked in that particular building. Now, with this online service they can offer it to their staff all over the world, so it’s much more inclusive than their older program.”
For Skills and Thrills, that meant international expansion.
The productivity question
It all comes back to that original history of field harvesting: businesses, workers and families are always looking for ways to enhance productivity and get the job done.
Juma-Ross believes programs like this are key to boosting productivity.
“Everyone thought that when we moved to the working from home model that productivity was going to dive,” she said.
“[But] a lot of our corporates have said to us that it didn’t dive, and in most cases it actually got better for all groups, but parents. Then when they introduced our programs, they saw it level off again.”
For working mothers, it’s an even more pertinent point.
“It appears that women have again had the larger share of child-related responsibilities during Covid-19,” AMP Capital senior economist Diana Mousina said in the latest Financy Women’s Index. Survey results show the unpaid work load has increased disproportionately for women compared to men.
“There are some articles flagging academic journal submissions have dropped off more for women than men, showing productivity has been dented potentially from having these other non-work caring responsibilities.
“Lower productivity growth is an important driver for longer-term wages growth. I can personally attest to these productivity challenges.”
Looking forward, Juma-Ross is hopeful. She believes Covid-19 will irrevocably change the model of work, with a large portion of workers choosing to work from home at least part-time.
And she believes that this will ultimately be particularly good for women, who will now be able to choose where they want to work and how they want to work.
“The thing that comes with a working from home model is it forces you to move to an outcomes-focused culture and mindset, which a lot of companies haven’t gotten their heads around yet,” she said.
“There’s still very much a face-time culture where if you’re not sitting in the office, you’re not doing the work and you have to work from 9-5.
“When you move to this outcomes culture, it allows people to have a life outside of work so women can still be very involved in their kids’ lives and still do their day job, but they’ll just be doing it at different hours.”