CEO of Tigers Childcare, Karen Clince has spent close to two decades growing the business into one of Ireland’s biggest childcare providers – with 13 centres in Dublin and 1 over in London. Always striving to empower other women to achieve their best, she’s passionate about providing quality childcare and better pay for childcare workers. Here she shares more about her entrepreneurial journey.
Did you always want to work in childcare?
I’ve always had a passion for working with children and spent much of my young life babysitting and looking after younger cousins. This is where I felt at home and I knew I was good at it. However, I also had a want and a need to do something financially secure that would give me a good salary so this impacted my college choice and initial career path.
In college, I studied… I initially studied marketing at college, so a far cry from what I ended up doing.
My most formative work experience was… I think my most formative experience has been learning to swim in the deep end. Being brave enough to throw yourself into something that you aren’t fully competent in and to learn as you go is a great skill – it has impacted so much of my life and career because you are always striving to learn more. There are only two modes; things you know and things you don’t know yet.
My first real job was… in a software firm called eSpatial where I worked on the marketing team. While I was being paid very well at a very young age, I felt very little job satisfaction. I quickly learned that I shouldn’t work in something just because it pays really well; that I needed to do something I was passionate about. I love what I now do in early years education. I love the impact of my role and I pinch myself every day that I get to do something that doesn’t feel like a job (or at least most days it doesn’t!).
The most invaluable thing I learned early on in my career was… how much a company’s culture and treating people well can massively impact on your success. I believe a positive, respectful and appreciative company culture is everything. People want and deserve to feel valued and respected. Treating my colleagues well has a knock-on effect on service provision. Likewise how we treat our children and their parents affects occupancy levels, customer satisfaction, and referral business. Culture is an unseen thing and something that is hard to score and evaluate, but it is the lifeblood of my business.
A common misconception about what I do is… that childcare is just a step up from babysitting. Early years childcare has been undervalued for a very long time, but caring for and educating children in those formative years is one of the most important roles in society. Their experiences then have a crucial impact on their future and on society as whole. I think attitudes towards childcare are changing, however, and I welcome this. I work with extremely dedicated and professional practitioners and I see how every day they go above and beyond their role for the children they care for, so it is wonderful to see the long-held misconceptions change.
My main responsibility in work is to… my main role is as CEO, to lead the company and hold firm on our values and culture as we grow, while also lobbying for better support at government level. I also deal with our executive team and investors in relation to our strategic direction and finances. I like to get involved at ground level when I can as this gives me an insight into everyday operational issues and challenges, helping me to be a better leader.
Do you have a career mentor or someone you look up to/seek advice from?
I am very lucky to count Louise Phelan as one of my best friends and mentors. Louise is an incredible Irish businesswoman. She has taught me so much over the years, not just in a business sense but in a sense of leading with integrity and doing things the right way. She has taught me the importance of morals and values in business. It is not only important to be successful, but to do so in such a way that you can hold your head high, and know you have done right by people. My mother has also given me great advice and direction down through the years. Like myself she was a single mother and has taught me to always give 100% to everything I do. She instilled in me that I could be anything I wanted to be.
The biggest risk I have taken in my career so far is… I think as an entrepreneur I have had to take so many risks. Our acquisition of the Bright Horizons services in 2015 was a big risk. They had very low occupancies and the business was haemorrhaging money. However, I was able to see past this and knew that it had the potential to do well and, with our experience and drive, we could turn it around. It took us 12 months of blood, sweat and tears to get there but we doubled revenues in that period. Expanding Tigers Childcare into the UK was also a massive risk. We won a very competitive tender that we did not expect to win, meaning I had to quickly raise funds and call on the kindness of friends and family to help get it off the ground. I have also had risks that didn’t pay off and these are important to acknowledge. Back in the 2008 recession, we came to a crunch point where it looked like we wouldn’t be able to make our wage payments over the Christmas period. However, with the help of a good bank and loans from family and friends we were able to. The important thing was to learn from our mistakes. We had overextended ourselves – a mistake I would never make again.
I wake at… 6am. I am generally either on a school drop-off, or trying to get in a walk with my three dogs or work out before starting work. Admittedly of late, I have been missing my workouts and not managing my time as well as I should. I think it is important to be strict with your time and make time for yourself before launching into work. I’m not great at refusing an 8am meeting, which often means missing my exercise time. However, when I get my workout in I find I am better set up for the day.
I travel to work by… car and plane depending on the location. I work between Dublin and London. In Dublin, I work one day a week on-site, one day in the head office and three days from home. In London, I work four days on-site, travelling over by plane on a Monday.
I start my working day at… 9am most days.
The first thing I do at work is… catch up on emails to see if there’s anything I missed since signing off the day before and then organising what needs to be done.
I usually spend the first portion of the day… setting up a daily agenda. I am a great believer in writing things down and making checklists. Anything I don’t get done gets carried forward to the following day’s list. I’m not naturally organised and so I have to make a real effort to do so.
I break for lunch at… I am very bad at stopping for lunch if working from home and generally end up grabbing something at my desk. However, most weeks I end up meeting different stakeholders and inevitably have lunch meetings out, which is a welcome change to a cup of soup in between emails!
The most useful business tool I use every day is… my phone. It keeps me connected at every stage to anyone who needs me, and allows me to always catch emails when travelling. I don’t know what we did prior to mobile technology.
I save time by… travelling outside business hours. I generally travel to the UK very early morning or at weekends to avoid being out of contact during the working day.
I rarely get through my working day without… linking in with my executive team, particularly my operations director, Therese. We constantly joke that we share a brain! This strong link allows me to stay on top of what is going on operationally and the day-to-day running of services.
The best part of my day is… being on site with the children and my colleagues. You can never have a bad day when you link in with the children. I just love spending time with them and learning about them. They are such characters and so honest and open. I also feel so proud of my colleagues when on site and I love seeing what they do and giving them feedback on the impact of their care. Thinking of where I started, and what I have built with these incredible people fills me with a pride I can’t explain.
The most challenging part of my day is… not having enough hours in the day, balancing home life, being a mum, travelling and running a business. As women, I feel we always carry guilt that we are not doing enough. I have learnt to know if I wake up and try my best, that’s all I can ask of myself. I have also learnt that different things have to take priority at different times, and I don’t have to apologise for that. Sometimes home life has to come first, but doing that then allows me to return to work and give it my all. So one impacts the other, and I’m the best judge of what and when each should be prioritised.
I know it’s been a good day if… I have made decisions that sit well with me morally. Making the right decisions and running a business while upholding my values is important to me.
I usually end my day at… there’s no set time. My day is ever-changing and often runs late. I could have dinners or steering groups or out-of-hours work that take up time. I don’t generally mind working late, and somewhat enjoy that no one day is ever the same. Again, work often does not feel like work and as I am in a role that is also my passion, late night working is not an issue for me.
I switch off from work by… socialising with friends and family. I am a people person so I’m seldom alone. My switch-off is meeting up with other people, sharing stories and laughs or watching a movie night with my children and our dogs.
Before I go to bed, I… catch up with the news, which I get little time for during the day.
I often prepare for tomorrow by… carrying over unfinished business from that day’s to-do list to tomorrow’s one. As I said, I can be quite busy so this often does not happen until the morning.
After a long work week, I destress by… spending time with family, enjoying walks with my dogs and taking life a little slower than my usual hectic work days. Whether in the UK or Ireland I love a good Sunday roast and usually meet up with my nearest and dearest every Sunday to catch up over one.
The accomplishment I’m most proud of is… I am so proud to be able to show other women that you can do anything you set your mind to. I am someone who came from adversity. I grew up with a father who suffered with some serious mental health and addiction issues. I was a young mum at 21 and the odds were stacked against me. However, my success has come from having other strong women around me, who told me I could do it. I teach all my colleagues that we never truly know what our children are dealing with. Resilience comes from having key people around you who believe in you, who value you and who help you believe you can get through it. I am so proud of the business I have built. I am so proud of my colleagues and the impact their care has on children’s lives. For me, the journey is what I am most proud of and the financial success comes second to that.
If you want to get into my line of work, my advice is to… have a passion for the children you care for. Place your focus on the quality of what you do. Don’t cut corners. Build a business you can be proud of every day. Understand that you will need to be committed to continually upskilling and learning. It is an industry that is always changing and so you have to be continually reflective in your practice. Find yourself a mentor. Remember you can’t lead from the crowd, you can only ever lead from the front and so sometimes, to be a good leader, you will have to stick your head up from the crowd even if it’s uncomfortable.
I’ve just finished working on… growing our business. We are currently in acquisition mode so funding and integration are the key areas of focus. This means overseeing budgets while focusing on maintaining quality as we integrate new services. This has meant increasing our quality control team and supports to enable growth while maintaining our quality services and values. We have an ambition to be the biggest and best childcare service in Ireland, while continuing to lead the way in advocating for quality childcare provision.