When Jennifer Romanoff, our NJ Mompreneur of the Week, was looking for an activity for her two boys that combined play and learning but didn’t take up much space, she introduced her kids to magnetic tiles—those vibrant geometric shapes that cling to each other magnetically using the imagination as a guide. Little did this former teacher know then how life-changing those tiles would be when she had an idea to use them to create a jewel-toned wonderland incorporating STEM principles so kids (and adults) could experience learning and fun with each visit. Fast forward, and that idea morphed into Genius Gems, an indoor play space in Millburn that blends play and intellect with magnetic tiles in all shapes and sizes where no two experiences are alike, and kids come back again and again for things like 3-D printing, coding, Robot World, and much more. And it’s become such a success that Jennifer created Genius Gems products and will open a second location in NYC by the end of the year. We caught up with this West Orange mom of three to find out how she and her husband work together, the homemade activities you can do to get your kids excited about STEM, and the Montclair-based vegan restaurant her family calls their “go-to.” (featured image: Melissa Spector Photography)
Tell us a little bit about your family and background. My husband, Marc, and I have been married for 12 years and have three children, ages 11, 9, and 4. We moved from Manhattan to Llewellyn Park in West Orange in 2015. It has a diverse community, a beautiful natural setting, and is close to the city—all things important to us.
Why did you launch Genius Gems? As a young family living in an NYC apartment with two very active boys, we were always searching for things to do that focused on play and intellect. We also knew we had to be very selective in what we brought in so our house wouldn’t be too cluttered. Magnetic tiles always made the list because the boys (and my husband!) loved them and could “play”‘ with them for hours. Marc had this dream of a business related to magnetic tiles, and with my educational background, we brainstormed and came up with the idea of a hybrid of a magnetic tiles wonderland mixed with STEM. Initially, we thought we’d open in the city, but after we moved to West Orange, we recalibrated the idea to work for New Jersey and opened our Millburn space in 2018. Soon after opening, we launched our first product, Robot Tracks. We continued to roll out others, including glitter and candy tiles, slime kits, and dreidel kits, to appeal to a broader audience. Our business has been so well received that our second location (in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood) should be open by the end of 2022.
Was there anything in your career background that’s proven helpful in this business? I’m an educator through training and experience. I taught middle school in NYC’s public school system and got my principal certification from Columbia University. The “real world” teaching experience taught me classroom management and conflict resolution, both critical in running this business and crucial to creating a safe and calm learning environment. Also, I ensure our teachers are excited about STEM and can foster that passion in all who come to Genius Gems.
How do you and your husband split up the responsibilities? Marc is a lawyer by trade and had been working at Goldman Sachs, but he left his job this year to work on this together. Though there are things we do collaboratively, in general, we each work on aspects that speak to our strengths to split up the responsibilities. I do a lot of the hiring and staff training and oversee the educational planning and daily Millburn operations. Marc leads the behind-the-scenes works like creating products and projects and designing new experiences. He’s also doing some of the Chelsea location hires. And Genius Gems Chelsea will be a joint effort–we’ll both be helping out initially to get it off the ground and running smoothly.
What makes Genius Gems special? We work hard to create a space of interest to all ages, not just young kids–it’s not uncommon to see a four-year-old playing side by side with their older siblings and their grandparents who are enjoying themselves, too. Another difference is that Genius Gems is open-ended and offers a different experience each visit, which is why our average members are here 7 or 8 times a month. Also, diversity is very important to us, whether through our staff or the activities that can be done. When people see their heritage and culture represented, they feel comfortable and seen and can build a connection with our space. And lastly, magnetic tiles can be very social. For example, many people can gather to build a massive castle or other large structures. Having children with their friends and families working together to create something special is very social and rewarding on many levels.
What can you recommend you do at home with kids to encourage STEM learning? I recommend you purchase inexpensive pipettes to set up a little chemistry lab at home for science experiments. Baking soda experiments are another great way to learn about chemical reactions when you mix simple ingredients, and you can find many of them online. Another thing you can do is to take the kids outside for a nature walk and collect items like acorns and leaves that can be studied. Generally speaking, you want kids to ask questions and wonder about the world and then turn those questions into experiments that can be done whenever and wherever.
What do you hope your children learn from seeing you run your own business? I hope they know to always treat others with respect. I believe you cannot run a successful business without treating everyone (your team and the customers) with consideration for each person. I also hope they learn that success often comes with some form of sacrifice–if you want to be successful, you have to be willing to work on the weekends and give up vacations, if necessary. And finally, I hope they learn that you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. When we first launched the business, we had no product knowledge, but we stepped up to make things happen, and now we have patented products.
What are some of your favorite NJ businesses? We enjoy Oh! Canary, which is an art studio in South Orange with art classes and different programs for kids of all ages. A friend of mine owns it, and I really admire her work. Veggie Heaven, a vegan restaurant in Montclair, is our go-to take-out place. We all love the “chicken” skewers there. My husband has been vegan for nearly 30 years, and the rest of us are pescatarians.
Please share some places in NJ that you and your family enjoy. We live in beautiful Llewellyn Park in West Orange, which makes it easy to take advantage of all the hiking trails nearby. South Mountain Reservation is a favorite, where we’ll go on the Fairy Trail and the Regatta playground, too. Also, my daughter recently started lessons at Verona Ballet and is hooked.
What’s your best piece of advice for an NJ Mompreneur just starting? Start small. If you have an idea, test it out first. We went to every local library and asked to do events there. We also did Maplewoodstock and other events to test our idea and get feedback before officially launching.