Jen Oleniczak Brown is the Founder of The Engaging Educator, a NYC, NC and CA-based company that helps you improve your speaking, listening and social skills through improv based education. Through EE, she's reached 30,000 students in 5 years, worked with companies like Food Network, Viacom, Time Warner and Etsy and currently is coaching 100 Female Entrepreneurs for 100 Hours.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I’m one of those female entrepreneurs that didn’t want to be a business owner, let my imposter syndrome take over and finally shook myself awake and grabbed my seat at the table. I started off as an actress, working in Chicago and NYC – hated the idea of waitressing on the side, and really took my undergrad advisor’s advice to heart: ‘If you like anything as much as theatre, do that other thing.’ I realized that I wasn’t in love with acting and theatre anymore, and the struggle wasn’t worth it, so I hit reset.
Naturally, I went back for another liberal arts degree – this time in art history, and started working in museums in NYC. I was an educator at the Guggenheim, The Frick Collection, Queens Museum – all big places! It was fun and exciting – it just becomes more of a ‘thing’ that was limiting my creative side. I felt myself sliding into status quo, and repeating some of my lessons with slight variations, not really growing, and realizing I was just ‘fine’. Then – boom! Side hustle transition to business.
What inspired you to start your business?
When my boom! happened, I realized that so many of my museum colleagues struggled with being flexible and in the moment, their presentation skills were great and could totally be better. These were things I never struggled with in teaching. At the same time, I had rejoined my comedy theatre and was performing improv off-Broadway. I realized I wasn’t some super flexible and spontaneous person that could pivot in the moment, it was all of my improv training that made all of this happen. On a quick google search of NYC improv programs, I realized no one was offering classes that were professionals only – they were all mixed with actors and professionals, which I knew caused a weird dynamic. And then, the big BOOM to side hustle.
Where is your business based?
EE started in NYC, and is still based in NYC – we also have programs in Los Angeles, CA and Winston Salem, NC. I divide my time between the three and it’s LOVELY.
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
After I realized that I had an idea that really hadn’t been done before, I decided I was going to try it. So I made a (horrible) website, printed some (awkward) business cards and postcards, and rented a space to hold a class for educators. Looking back, I just did it – I know this isn’t necessarily how a lot of businesses start or run – for me, I needed to do it or not, which is such a big part of how we run the business and help people with initiative – stop talking about it and just do it. The business has evolved SO much since those first steps – from working with just educators to now working with startups and huge established companies like Viacom, Food Network, Intel, Google. The adventure has been the greatest!
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Being a service-based industry, we benefit most with being face to face and experiences – now that might be Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Facetime, Hangouts – or our public classes, blog posts, articles. We LOVE teaching things and getting people to think a bit more about their speaking and conversation skills. For example – you there! Reading this! Unclench your butt. This sounds crazy, keep reading – clench your butt and say hello out loud. Now, unclench your butt and say hello out loud – hear the difference? It’s kind of amazing because we carry so much tension in our butts (and bodies). That tension gets projected on your audience and who you are talking to – if you are super tense talking to someone, they are going to feel tense, and it probably won’t be the best conversation.
That’s how we raise awareness – by doing what we do!
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
Imposter Syndrome and Being Reactionary versus Proactive. I didn’t want to run a business, I just wanted to teach people to improve – it was fun! I enjoyed helping people! I responded to people that were interested and did what I needed to do – and then moved on. The problem with that, you never really build up a business, you just react to things that happen to you, so if things stop happening, then what?
At the same time, my imposter syndrome/inner critic/asshole voice in my head kept telling me I had no business being a business. It got so bad I turned down a publisher – TWICE – when they asked me to write a business book on improv!
In 2017, something clicked. I think it was post-election and post ridiculous situation of the dumpster fire we were living in – I just decided to take action and take my place. I self-published my book, altered the course of EE to work with more women, started my 100 Female Entrepreneurs in 100 Hours project and hired a branding agency and website designer to rebrand and level up EE.
I’m seeing my imposter syndrome as a waste of time – I could use that worry time to actually DO things, and that’s how I’ve been starting to overcome even more blocks.
How do you stay focused?
I have a huge canvas in my office with ideas and goals, as well as micro goals and small actions to accomplish those goals. When I’m feeling unfocused, or distracted, I grab one of those post-its and start working on that. I made sure to create (and to update!) the board when I’m motivated and focused – that way they are real tasks I can make progress on.
Every morning before I open my computer I look at my Passion Planner (SO IN LOVE WITH IT!) and my Moleskin (addiction). I can’t keep digital notes, they just don’t work, so I ground myself before the emails kick in, and then I know what I want to focus on for the day.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
While I don’t worry about my competition, I do make sure we are doing the best job we can, and I am aware of the competition. We customize our programming – making it very very specific to our client’s needs. We also are sure to be involved in feedback every step of the way – from checking in and collaboration to sending a follow up ‘how you can keep learning even without us!’
The thing that does make us special – we tie improv into LIFE. We aren’t teaching performers, we aren’t ALSO running a theatre – we are thinking about your every day and how you can be your best self. We’ve developed a glossary of terms, translating the goodness that is improv to real life – no one cares about your scene partner, we do care about significant others and coworkers!
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
Get people to experience us! Whether that be through a class, workshop, article, coaching session – our style is SO giving and is very much US – and not for everyone. We won’t fix people, practice won’t make you perfect and we aren’t a miracle cure. We do empower people to get on that path, cheer them along the way and give them action items and tools that are specific to their life and goals. Between working with people and referrals, we run a pretty exciting ship.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
Take your time and take some risks! Don’t hide behind a safety blanket forever – there is also nothing wrong with being safe at times and taking calculated risks. Please remember, though – if you are constantly trying not to fail, you’ll never succeed.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
App: TWITTER! I love the conversations and interactions!
Blog (Podcast Actually, similar!) She Did It Her Way – I didn’t come to entrepreneurship with an MBA or a traditional path – I love hearing other women and their stories!
Book: Right now, You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero – so many moments of OMG YOU ARE TALKING TO ME! And motivation.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Meet Edgar is my Shero right now – Social Media is a lot of effort and time. We’re in a place of transition for 2018, so having a tool that we can plug content into a schedule AND interact in real time versus brainstorming for hours on days we’re too busy? Gold. Absolute gold.
Who is your business role model? Why?
Between Sophia Amoruso of Girlboss and Barbara Corcoran. Both went through a lot of fails and negative moments with business, life and guys – and both are badass women doing their thing and dancing like no one is watching. It’s so inspiring!
What do you have planned for the next six months?
We’re moving into being women-centric! We have new classes like UnHumble: How to Stop Playing Small, Networking for Women and Women Rising, Leadership for Women – we’re also making our best classes like Three-Week Improv and Presentation Skills women-centric. I’m about 1/3 of a way through my 100 hours of coaching, and think I might have assigned most of the spots already (and will do this again in the late summer!!) My book is coming out shortly, Improv(e) Using Improv to Find Your Voice, Style, and Self and we are partnering with a few women-centric and women empowerment organization focusing in on helping progressive women candidates get elected to office and start businesses! 2018: Year of the Woman for EE!
How can our readers connect with you?
I love getting email and hearing from folks! Never feel like you’re bothering us or me, we LOVE it!
Twitter: @TheEngagingEd or @JenOleniczak (my personal handle full of snark and spunk)