Being an entrepreneur has always been a dream for Debbie Cinquemani, our NJMOMpreneur of the week, but she had a great job as a public high school college counselor that was hard to give up. Still, she wanted to work on her own terms, and when she noticed that the demand for independent college counselors was growing, she had a reason to take a risk. After her first son was born, she left her job, took on her first client, and never looked back. Fifteen years later, Debbie has found not only her stride as the owner of Guide Us Educational Services (she has a team of four) but also the niche of working with students with learning disabilities, an area of college counseling that is greatly underserved. We chatted with Debbie to find out what motivates her to help learning-challenged students, the one thing every parent should do now for college planning and the Bergen County lake spot where she and her family go for a summer escape.
featured image via Lauren Anzevino
You started as a college counselor working at a high school. What made you want to go out on your own?
I really enjoyed my job, I had it since I was 25. But in 2004, when I was pregnant with my son, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur and stay home with him. It was a risk—I was leaving a tenured, salaried full-time school position to be out on my own. Back then, college counseling wasn’t as robust as it now, but there was this feeling that I was on the cusp of something that was going to be big. I connected with a tutor who gave me my first client and it grew from there. Early on, someone wanted me to merge with them and as tempting as it was, I knew I wanted to be my own boss. Guide Us is like my third child—I have watched it grow up just like my two sons. The struggle, in the beginning, was having young children, taking care of them and balancing it all. At one point I was a single mom—I married my second husband five years ago— but my kids are teens now, and my business has really grown. I recently hired four people to work with me in my office in Ramsey and because of my learning disabilities specialty, I work with families from all over. I have client families from London, Massachusetts and New York, to name a few. If we can’t meet face-to-face, we do Skype meetings.
Of course, you should be prepared to work more hours, but the reward is that it’s yours and there are no boundaries about what you can achieve.” —Debbie Cinquenami, Guide Us Educational Services
Tell us about your family life and where you live.
I live in Upper Saddle River with my husband, and two teenagers Ian, 15 and Carson, 12. My husband has three children from his previous marriage who are all teenagers too, so it’s fun when we bring everyone together. I moved to Saddle River when my son was in kindergarten for the school district and have found that it’s a wonderful, strong community. We have an acre of property and a dog, so it’s nice to have the open space.
Your college counseling services are unique in that they help students with learning disabilities navigate the college process. What made you decide to focus your services on these students?
When I was a school counselor, I worked with a lot of kids with LD (learning disabilities), and I also have experience working with kids in a self-contained LD class that had emotional issues. As a parent, my own children have had struggles and the need for extra academic attention. So as both a parent and an educator, it’s my passion to help kids with special needs. Honestly, this came from a place where I truly believe every student can go to college if they want to. I see kids struggling and parents who think their kid won’t go to college, so it’s a great feeling for me to say to them, yes there’s a school for your child, and we can figure it out. When families come to Guide Us, we talk about the best college fit. So many students who never thought they’d find a college say that this approach has changed the course of their lives because they would have never thought of that college. The road is different for every student, whether they have dyslexia, are on the autistic spectrum, have medical issues and even anxiety issues. By law, every college must have accommodations for students but it’s crucial to know that these services vary at each school, and how to access the help for the next four years—I’m here to guide them through that part. So, a big part of my specialty is to meet colleges and find out their support services that will meet the needs of my families. I also guide students through the admission process—students work on their essays and I help with brainstorming, work on the most effective applications with them and also the interviews. If they’re going to visit a school, I have them meet with support services, help with relevant questions they should ask, as well as come up with a plan that gets their needs met so that they can be successful on that campus.
What advice can you offer to parents who are starting the college process?
Take as many tours with your teen as you can so both of you can get a feel for the campus and understand the process. On the tours, ask your teen—can you see yourself here for four years? There are only so many visits you can do, so it’s good to start early. For LD students, it’s important for the student to know their own IEP (individualized education plan) so they can understand why you’re looking at a certain college or narrowing down that list and communicate in the process. You want a place where your child will be successful, so it’s important that they’re aware of their own needs. But there is one thing everyone can do now, even if you just have a baby— start saving now because the cost is becoming very expensive. To put this in perspective, NYU is $85,000 a year, so imagine that with increases in 18 years.
So, tell us—what’s something that no one knows about you?
I’m a geek at heart. I spend a lot of time (when I can’t sleep) either researching different colleges in the country or areas. I am obsessed with knowing the cost of living in different places all over the US.
What are your favorite spots in NJ?
We have a great Christmas tradition that we’ve been doing as a blended family for the last five years. We go to The Melting Pot in Westwood for Christmas Eve lunch when the waitstaff donates all their tips to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. We save all year as a family to bring a huge tip and have a big fondue lunch. The kids look forward to it because it’s really fun and special—they put burners on the tables with cheeses and chocolates and we have a ball dipping in all the yummy bread, cake, fruit and veggies. In the summer, we love Crestwood Lake in Allendale. It has a beach, and the kids swim, there are concerts at night with great NJ bands like The Nerds, a huge fourth of July celebration and movie nights. We really feel like we’re on vacation there and it’s only 10 minutes from our house.
What advice do you have for other mompreneurs just starting out?
If you’re thinking of taking the leap into your own business, I would say do it. I’m a big believer in having role models and mentors in your industry. It’s good to follow people who are doing what you want to do to help you figure it out. As I’ve grown in my business, I’m still learning, but I have a lot of friends in the business and a great support system that boosts my growth. I’m also a proponent of belonging to organizations that connect you to your industry and interests. Of course, you should be prepared to work more hours, but the reward is that it’s yours and there are no boundaries about what you can achieve.