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Women in Small Business: 5 Questions with Golnar Abedin

Name: Golnar Abedin, Founder

This past Friday, my kids had their last day of school and started summer vacation. We've been lucky to be at an amazing public charter school in Washington, DC, Creative Minds International Public Charter School. This year, after 8 years of leadership and vision, the school founder, Golnar Abedin, is stepping down to make space for new leadership and to pursue new opportunities. I am so thankful to her, for creating such a special learning space, and I wanted to catch her on her way out and feature her in my 5 question series.

1. What led you to start your own school?

After more than twenty years of work experience and academic studies in the field of education, I had a vision for an ideal public school that would be inclusive, that would respect the dignity and uniqueness of each child, and that would broaden students’ sense of self through an international and arts-based curriculum.

I believe that education is a human right and that, ideally, every child, from a young age, should have the opportunity for a well-rounded and high-quality education. I was very fortunate to be given the chance by the DC Public Charter School Board to implement my vision at Creative Minds International PCS (CMI). Below are some of the experiences that led me to design the CMI model and start the school.

As a child, I travelled and moved to various countries, and I learned new languages at a young age. By the time I entered high school, I had gone to seven different schools in three different countries. I always valued my international experiences and appreciated having a broad cultural perspective. I believe that now, more than ever, it is critical for educational settings to prepare students to be global citizens by providing them with experiences that support their own sense of identity while they learn about other cultures and languages in the world.

Before studying education, I had completed my BA in psychology and was very interested in child development; I was fascinated by each person’s unique way of learning. In 2008, I met Dr. Stanley Greenspan and was deeply inspired by his work in developmental psychology. His book The Learning Tree applies a developmental perspective to academic and social-emotional growth and describes how children’s sensory processing profiles affect their learning.

I also met Dr. Greenspan’s son, Jake Greenspan, who is a child development specialist and director of the Floortime Center. From Jake, I learned interactive parenting and play strategies, which I used to tap into my son’s interests and optimize his development; I experienced amazing results.

At one of Dr. Greenspan’s last conferences (about a year before I wrote the application to start CMI), he asked everyone in the audience to personally get involved in changing our education system. His concern, which resonated with me and was part of my motivation for starting a school, was how little consideration is given to students’ emotions and interests in the learning process.

I contacted Jake Greenspan right after his father had passed away and asked if he would join the founding group for CMI and help me integrate the Greenspan developmental model and social-emotional learning into our curriculum and teacher training. Our shared vision and collaboration supported me in making this mission possible, and helped me feel less alone in the endeavor.

Last, but not least, my son was an inspiration for me to start CMI. As a parent, I struggled to find a school that would serve his needs. I was looking for a rigorous education model that would respect my son’s intelligence and strengths while also providing support for his challenges. I knew that he was talented and very intelligent but that in order to thrive, he needed a supportive environment.

Unfortunately, by design, most schools are not built to be inclusive of learning differences; instead, we have a segregated system of public education in which many students fall through the cracks. As a special education teacher in New York City public schools, I had witnessed this problem first hand: there is a big gap between what we know, on the basis of research, to be best practices and what actually takes place in most public school settings. I did not want to see my son fall through the cracks of mainstream public education.

My vision in starting CMI, and integrating Dr. Greenspan’s developmental strategies into an inclusive school design, was that I would help not only my own son but also many other students—students like those I’d taught in New York City—who might not otherwise have access to the educational resources they needed to thrive.

It has been amazing to watch my son and his peers grow academically and socially, to see their individuality supported by CMI teachers who have gained this deeper understanding and by the rest of our supportive community.

2. What is your organizational philosophy?

My philosophy is inclusive and centered on a respect for individual differences. For positive outcomes in any organization, community members must feel included and respected for who they are and what they contribute. This ideal is harder to achieve in larger organizations, because it takes a team of individuals to believe in and practice this value system, and it assumes a shared vision among a larger group of individuals at different levels of the organization.

3. What have you learned about yourself by starting your own school?

I have learned so much—I don’t know where to start! I realize that I have the capacity for taking on a lot of work, and I struggle with maintaining a work–life balance when I am passionate about what I do. This challenge has taught me the importance of self-care, exercise, and meditation, as well as planned time with family, to counterbalance the demands of work.

I have also learned that I am very sensitive and care deeply about my colleagues, coworkers, and community, which makes it emotionally challenging, at times, to be in a supervisory role and to make tough decisions. It has taken time for me to learn how to emotionally balance being a supportive leader with holding individuals accountable.

Finally, I have realized that we still live in a society in which expectations are based on traditional male leadership qualities; female and multicultural perspectives and leadership styles are not valued in the same way. It has been a learning experience to navigate this reality as a multicultural woman who values authenticity, integrity, and truth—qualities that seem rare and out of touch with the politics of leadership in public service.

4. What has been the most surprising thing for you?

The most surprising (and rewarding) part of my experience has been the opportunity to design and implement the Creative Minds International education model, in keeping with our school’s mission and philosophy, within the public school sector, despite all the challenges and limitations along the way. Visitors often describe our students as happy and engaged, courageous and expressive, included and cared for.

I am deeply thankful to our teachers and staff, as well as to our parent community, for partnering with me to implement the CMI mission, working hard to build a caring community, and going above and beyond what is usually expected in a typical public school setting.

5. What advice would you give to a woman starting a new business endeavor?

(1) Make sure you have the support you need to ensure you can take care of your own well-being and your family as part of your business plan.

(2) Be resilient and resourceful as you navigate the process of starting and running your own business or organization; view setbacks as opportunities for growth.

(3) Make investments in talent development and recruitment a top priority.

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