Debra Kirchen, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, knew as early as second grade she wanted to be a teacher and spent much of her adult life teaching. But all the while, she wanted to expand beyond the classroom to enrich students and bring learning alive for them. So in 2010, she struck out on her own and opened Teacher Tutors matching K-12 students with seasoned teachers for private one-to-one tutoring, academic coaching, and counseling all over Northern NJ. At the same time, she ran after-school enrichment programs in Livingston elementary schools, eventually leading her to open an enrichment program of her own—Brainiax Innovative Learning Center—offering classes in robotics and S.T.E.A.M.-based programs, kindergarten readiness workshops, and private events. We interviewed this Livingston-based mom of two young sons to talk about how she knew she wanted to work in education, where her love of fostering pitbulls came from, and the local hiking spots where she and her family go to unplug.
Please tell us a little bit about you and your family.
My husband, Yarin, and I have been married for 11 years. We have two boys, Daniel (8) and Josh (5). We live in Livingston and moved here for the excellent school system and the easy commute to NYC. We foster pit bulls and other dogs, and because of it, our neighbors know us quite well. I always knew I was meant to be a mom, but it was a tough road to having my babies–I lost a pregnancy at 6 months, and it eventually took me 8 pregnancies to have my two beautiful boys. After that first loss, though, I stumbled upon a dog that needed to be cared for, fostered, and eventually adopted. She was rescued from a fighting ring when she was about 9 months old, and she was the sweetest, gentlest dog I had ever met. I swear she saved me as much as I saved her. She’s 11 now. That experience got me hooked and now saving dogs from kill shelters is a passion of mine.
Tell us a little about your career background and how your prior experiences come into play when running your own business?
Mr. McFarren was my 2nd-grade science teacher, and he had an intense and infectious love of the subject. He was so inspiring, and it’s because of him that I fell in love with learning and teaching. Fast forward to high school, and I volunteered to teach a special needs child Spanish, working one on one with him during my elective. I also taught confirmation classes at my local synagogue and got my substitute teacher license after high school. After getting my Masters in Education from NYU, I was offered some very prestigious teaching jobs at private schools. Still, I ended up accepting a teaching position for 3rd grade in the South Bronx instead. I chose this because I’ve always lived in nice areas with excellent schools, and I felt that I would be serving a greater good by teaching in a district with a higher need. In that school, I had to learn how to be resourceful and creative, and it had a significant impact on me. Eventually, my principal asked me to coach other teachers in a leadership role, and this experience helped me realize I could push beyond the classroom to reach more kids.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
In 2009, I got swine flu from a student, and I was quarantined in a hospital for a week. As such, I have a very healthy respect for viruses and knew I’d have to do everything possible to keep our students and our educators and staff safe during the pandemic. Thankfully, my tutoring business paid the rent, and we were able to offer free online enrichment programs to engage and help children socialize during after-school hours. Because we always offered online tutoring in case of inclement weather, our instructors are tech-savvy and able to teach engagingly online, so we didn’t suffer a learning curve the way so many other businesses did. With both businesses, there has been a mix of how families approach the pandemic, but I’ve been able to satisfy most by offering a mix of different solutions like online sessions, small groups with private classes in someone’s backyard or at their home, and small groups at the center thanks to multiple air purifiers and other adjustments. With the Delta variant now we are as prepared as possible and treading cautiously, but I feel like we’re ready to handle whatever comes our way so that we can be there for our students and give them the support they need.
How do you reset after a particularly challenging day?
I have multiple ways to help me relax. A nice long walk with Sky, our adopted dog (or dogs if we have a foster at the time), usually does the trick. And though I’m not the best cook, I do enjoy cooking with my children. My older son says he wants to be a chef, so I like helping nurture that, and it’s a good thing for us to do together. We recently mastered risotto, and we want to push ourselves to try new recipes, too. And then, once the kids are asleep, Netflix gets the job done!
What do you wish you had known about being an entrepreneur before launching your business?
I wish I knew how much work it is when you own your own business—you sleep, breathe, and think about it all the time. I still would have continued on this path knowing this, but I would have been prepared. I recently joined B.I.G., a women’s entrepreneurial networking group, and I’m excited to continue to learn from this group of remarkable women.
What are some of your favorite local NJ businesses?
I do my best to support local, and Love Letters is my go-to for all of my gifts. They have the best selection of gifts, candy, and novelty items, including many that can be personalized. My neighbors Pat and Jeanette own the store, and they’re the kindest people I know. Also, as a family, we love to dine locally, and often we’ll head to Ikes on the weekends for a delicious breakfast. We also love The Twisted Tulip, which has the best coffee and gluten-free muffins, and Seymour’s Cafe, a luncheonette with incredible “create your own” salads and fresh juice—I love it so much I could eat there every day!
What are some of your favorite things to do in NJ with your family?
The Maplewood Dog Park never disappoints. And hiking and camping help us focus—it’s healthy to unplug and the perfect way to take a real break from technology. We usually head to Eagle Rock, South Mountain, or Watchung Reservation, but we also hike many NY trails. Also, a few times a year, we head to Alstede Farms because the kids love to feed and watch the animals and to see where our fruit and vegetables come from. We’re members of the Livingston CSA and receive farm-fresh food once a week. We have lots of fun figuring out what to make with whatever we receive.
What words of wisdom do you have for other NJMOMpreneurs?
Owning a business takes a lot of energy, perseverance, and grit, so if you’re going to take the leap into entrepreneurship, you need to be passionate about what it is you’re doing.