Jen Brown (Oleniczak) is the Founder and Artistic Director of The Engaging Educator. The Engaging Educator has been improving communication, presentation, and social skills through improv-based continuing education since 2012, and has reached over 25,000 people, all non-actors, with improv! Jen has given three TEDx Talks on the power of Improv, grown EE to three locations in NYC, Winston-Salem, NC and LA, and recently began The Engaging Educator Foundation, a 501(c)(3) which offers free and low cost Improv workshops for educators, at-risk adults, teens and students on the Autism Spectrum. Read our interview with the lovely Jen below…
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
I think it was both the desire to do something more than the status quo and also to fill a niche. I noticed that people weren’t encouraged enough to think about how they said what they said – it was more focused on what they said. I came into contact with way too many people who felt that it didn’t matter how they came across, what mattered was their words. While I do believe that authenticity is important, you have to consider the audience – specifically the people you are talking to and trying to reach. It started as simply as me offering improv classes to teachers and educators, and then went into working with non-actors, specifically people who wanted to improve their communication, presentation and social skills in a non-traditional way.
Tell us about your business.
The Engaging Educator improves communication, presentation, and social skills through improv based education. We’ve been working with everyone from college students and high school students prepping for their first interview, all the way to CEOs and founders that are looking to polish their speaking skills and interpersonal communication skills. We work strictly with non-actors, leading public classes in NYC, NC and LA, as well as traveling for private workshops.
Personally, I did three TEDx Talks on the power of Improv. We were also named one of the Best Places to Take an Improv Class in NYC by CBS News.
Where is your business based?
NYC, Winston-Salem, NC, LA.
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
I just started doing it! In the beginning, I threw everything at the wall to see what would work. It was a really good strategy in the beginning, and now I’m doing a lot of refocusing and refining. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I’ve never made business goals. I’ve just started to embrace all of that now, and I’m really excited to see what the focus will bring.
I’m really glad I did just jump in, and fixed things later – one of my favorite parts of improv is show, don’t tell – you don’t talk about doing things in improv, you do them. I’ve definitely moved forward with the company with that in mind!
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
Grassroots baby! Finding people, asking them to share the love and spread the word. We aren’t an ‘ad’ company – if you read about what we did in an advertisement, it wouldn’t end as well as it does now with personalized communication. Since the beginning, I’ve been a big advocate of ‘see what happens and refine as we go’ – which has worked really, really well for us. We aren’t doing a lot of the same things we were doing five years ago – at the same time, our mission is the same!
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
I think the biggest challenge so far has been my occasional lack of confidence in my abilities as a business person. My background is in theatre, dance, art history, education, museums… nothing that screams ‘business’ and one of the first things a museum-friend said to me when I started my business was ‘Oh you are like a brand!’ I said ‘Hey thanks!’ (Because I worked hard on being a brand) and she replied with ‘That wasn’t a compliment.’ I find that as much as we say that we support everyone else, there are quite a few folks out there that are pretty dissatisfied with their lives and ready to pull you down or doubt you.
How did you overcome these challenges?
I started dealing with my own demons, and stopped dealing with others. When I moved from NYC to NC, I cut a LOT of people out of my life – and I’m pretty quick to do it if people aren’t supportive or introduce more doubt than necessary. I’m not saying someone who asks you to think about things before you do it – I’m saying those folks who flat out don’t support you, you know they are somewhat toxic or even just unhappy to a point that their unhappiness bleeds on to everyone around them. You have to be around people who challenge you AND support you – you need that squad! I’ve also been doing everything I can to educate myself: podcasts, articles, writing – anything and everything to dig into running a business. It’s the control of the situation that really helps – I can educate myself!
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
I let myself have down days. I don’t agree with the idea to just push through everything – sometimes, you need to walk away and sometimes you need to have a cry. We pride ourselves on being so strong and tough – the ability to be vulnerable IS a strength, because it’s YOU. I have days that I need to put myself in time out – I don’t write those days because I know whatever I do write won’t sound like me. I usually use those days to edit information or to do tasks that don’t involve the personality of the company. I give myself the time I need to recover, and then get up, dust off, and kill it all over again.
I just had a pretty tough time – I was actually questioning why I was going through all of this anymore. It just didn’t seem worth it, and it really didn’t seem like it mattered what I was doing anymore. I felt completely out of control of everything, and like my voice didn’t matter. So I gave myself some time to just check out – and then I started really thinking about how I could pull it back together. Turns out, once I stepped back and looked at things, I figured out what I needed to do to move forward. If I hadn’t stepped back and walked away for a few days, I probably would have been even more unhappy in my work. Now, I’m refocused and ready to kill it again.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
I think about them, but I don’t worry about them. I know what we do is really, really special – we listen to people, are passionate and enthusiastic and pay attention to the individual. I’m not out for world-domination – I just talked to another woman who ran workshops and programs for people in a slightly similar way, and asked her what she wanted – she did reply with world-domination! I just want us to do a great job and keep doing a great job.
The other thing that I KNOW distinguishes us from competition is our desire to teach ‘non-actors’. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, after a class or a program, ‘I’ve done improv before and this was nothing like it!’ We focus on tying this into life – and life as a non-actor. Improv is one of those beautiful things that helps your communication, presentation and social skills – you can work your self-awareness at the same time you are working your speaking skills. The thing with classes with actors – the actors want to work on their stage skills. Sure, you can make the argument that everyone is onstage or everything is a performance, but we’re teaching people that REALLY don’t want to be onstage and their business is more than a performance. So when we are talking about improv, we’re not thinking at all about the theatre application, we’re thinking about YOU and YOUR occupation and your life. Since we don’t allow actors (I will refund them!) we’re focused on the life skills, not the theatre skills.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
It’s actually advice from an old college professor – and it applied to acting but I’ve recently started thinking about it again. She said to all of us, “If anything else makes you remotely as happy as acting, do that.” It’s completely applicable to entrepreneurship! If anything else makes you remotely happy, do that, because if you are just ho-hum about running a business, this is not going to be fun. Those lows will be WAY too low for you, and the highs, not high enough.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
It’s ok to take a break. I hate when people are all ‘hustle harder!’ and ‘push through!’ and ‘no breaks!’. It’s ok to be not ok – and it’s ok to rest. I went through burn out, both in NYC and here in NC. It’s not ok – you don’t do work that you’re happy with, you’re working just to work and everything suffers. I check in with myself, really answer the question: “How am I feeling right now?” and take a break when I need it. If I need to stop work at 5, I do. If I need the weekend off, I’ll take it. There are nights I’ll work until 11 or 12, Sundays I’ll be emailing. It’s all about checking in and balance.
What is your favorite business tool or resource?
I really love podcasts like ‘She Did It Her Way’, Quickbooks and Tweet Deck. We interact with people on Twitter A LOT, so it’s nice to organize, I’m terrible at keeping track of things and Quickbooks makes things less scary and you ALWAYS need a squad, even if it’s remote!
What social media outlets do you use? List them below.
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
I read A LOT of great articles – I find following folks on Twitter is my go-to for articles. My most recent ‘favorite’ is this one: www.careercontessa.com/advice/Confidence-in-10-Minutes
Anything that helps with confidence is awesome in my book!
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
I’m working on creating goals and moving forward, as well as booking more speaking engagements.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
Making goals! Seriously, I’ve never thought about goals – I’ve done a lot of ‘ok what next’ and ‘ok next crisis’ instead of planning what next. So my April goals include a tip mailer for public speaking skills, further develop and grow our social media reach, develop an outreach plan, start to revise and set up SEO on the website and get one piece of PR from another source. This month I’m doing well!