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Thrive founder Theresa Harris
Thrive founder Theresa Harris

Nearly every day we hear about the importance of STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. But what about the power of art?

Theresa Harris, the 40-year-old founder of Thrive, wants to make sure that art isn’t forgotten when it comes to the educational system.

After all, in her view, nothing better prepares a person for an innovative and creative career than art.

“My love of art is closely linked with its potential for confidence building and empowerment,” says Harris, a former fourth grade teacher with Seattle Public Schools.

We caught up with Harris — who initially started Thrive as a brick-and-mortar art school in 2000 and has since added a new online component — for this installment of Startup Spotlight.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Art Classes for kids on iPads, tablets and laptops.”

Inspiration hit us when: “Watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk — Schools Kill Creativity — was a call to action for me. Sir Robinson argues that schools are educating people out of their creative capacity while at the same time school art programs are underfunded or being cut altogether. Creativity is teachable and is equally important as math and science. We’ve been teaching creativity through art in our brick and mortar schools in Seattle for over 12 years. I wanted to package our program into an online format and launch a new business that could bring what we do to kids all over the world.”

A Thrive lesson page
A Thrive lesson page

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “There’s another important option today: crowd funding. We reached out to parents on Kickstarter and raised over $30,000 in pre-sales of the product without needing to print a single t-shirt! The experience of crowd funding is intense – aside from raising some cash – it’s an opportunity to build a much deeper connection with your tribe. Finding that core group of supporters and having them join you on your journey is exhilarating – they take huge ownership in your success. It’s more intense than a product launch – because you’re on a deadline – and it’s all-or-nothing. You can’t buy that experience with a check from an investor.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “We’re not just providing art classes for kids, we’re helping parents raise innovators. One of the key traits of any entrepreneur is their ability to embrace failure and go through the highs and lows of the creative process. Learning to draw is a perfect medium to teach this. We teach kids to draw with a permanent pen instead of pencil. They draw lines they don’t like and that’s part of the experience. We work on that and they begin to see their ‘mistakes’ in a different light and integrate them into the drawing to produce an outcome that they are happy with. Our technique works – and we’ve helped thousands of Seattle-area kids learn to draw and boost their creative self-confidence over the last decade.” 

The smartest move we’ve made so far:  “Including parents in the equation. In our art schools teachers go through a long training program on how to teach kids to be problem solvers. At home, we can’t be there – so we partner with parents to make the lessons a success. We built a video library of parent tips on how to support kids through challenges that may come up. As parents, it’s hard to watch our kids struggle. When they feel frustrated – we often want to step-in and “fix it”. It’s counter-intuitive, but letting them wrestle with those challenges and come out the other end retains their ownership and gives them a huge boost in confidence.”

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We ran our Kickstarter campaign long before we were ready. I had no idea how to market something or reach out to press to drive attention to the campaign, so we made many mistakes. Our $30,000 goal stalled out at a mere $6,000 going into the holidays. It was humbling to stare eminent failure so squarely in the face. At my lowest point, my husband reminded me that I was experiencing what kids in my art classes experience – they start to doubt themselves and believe that they cannot draw- and perhaps I should follow my own advice and stay the course. It was just the reminder I needed, and I started the new year with renewed vigor to give it my all. With less than a week left of my Kickstarter campaign, we shifted tactics, and a large group of fans came out to support us.  The love started to spread around Facebook, my phone dinged constantly with new pledges and we rocketed up $24,000 in the last 4 days to meet out goal.”

Sir Kenneth Robinson (Photo via Wikipedia)
Sir Kenneth Robinson (Photo via Wikipedia)

Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Any of them would be amazing, but if I had my pick – I’d rather have Sir Ken Robinson. His passion and life-work is about raising innovative and creative kids. He understands that we need to re-invent education so that the next generations of kids are more inspired than ever before. I can’t imagine a more qualified person than that in my corner.”

Our world domination strategy starts when: “When we start translating our program into different languages. I’d really like to see us have a huge global reach. I want kids in small farming towns in the US to be able to share their art with kids in Thailand, for example, enhancing their creativity by taking inspiration from others across the globe.”

mylessonsRivals should fear us because: “I’d rather our rivals love us than fear us. I’d love see more creative businesses develop online programs for kids to even the playing field and provide access to all. It’s important – and there are so many ways to accomplish it. I welcome competition when kids are the benefactors and the world becomes a more creative place.”

We are truly unique because:  “Online art class is the perfect marriage of tech and touch. Not every subject translates well to a tablet format, and at first glance, art doesn’t seem a good candidate. The status-quo today for “art apps” on a tablet is limited to digital-art. Art is a very kinesthetic experience – hand-eye coordination and fine-motor skills are developed much more with physical art tools than repetitive gestures on glass. I believe that an instruct-on-screen yet draw-on-paper approach gives the best of both worlds.”

The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “Honestly the hardest part of all of this has been putting myself out there. I’ve been teaching in our schools for over 12 years, but it’s different in a small school setting – I’m confident in the classroom, but I’m somewhat of an introvert outside of it. Getting in front of a camera and then on the Internet is a very scary thing for an introvert to do. It’s been a big growth area for me. Getting continuous feedback from families taking our classes, seeing the amazing artwork and the little gems that kids say is just the reinforcement I need to keep pushing ahead and launch our program.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “The future is unknowable – just take one step at a time.”

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