The ABC’s of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a labor of love for Karyn Burns-Gerling; a mother of three, incredibly hard working, and an inspiration to all who meet her. She began working on this business venture when she was expecting her children. Burns-Gerling would make posters called the ABC’s of wherever she imagined they would one day visit (the ABC’s of Cape Cod or the ABC’s of Nantucket).
Years later, when she went through her divorce, she decided it was time to sell these posters.
Burns-Gerling stated, “While I originally did the artwork as gifts for my three children, I found myself a few years later in the midst of a big life change looking for something to occupy my time. With those struggles and trying to find my footing, I was wisely advised to find a SMART goal. With some help from one of my MACNY (Manufacturers Association of Central New York) members, I printed out a handful of copies of the poster I created for my son and tried to sell them to stores. In my first try, I sold one hundred prints. From there my goals got loftier, and about a year later I found myself with new lines, new accounts, and even some collegiate licenses.” Pretty soon she was selling these pieces to New England gift shops and some of the collegiate campus bookstores.
The ideas kept coming, and during a typical week night another product line was conceived. “My newest product line is something I call my true labor: The ABC’s of STEM Student of the Week classroom program. As a lobbyist to manufacturers, I had firsthand knowledge of their growing workforce concerns.” Burns-Gerling recalls how she “was already in the process of creating an ABC’s of STEM poster and placemat to add to my ever-growing line of products when my middle son, Charlie, came home from school as ‘Star Student of the Week’. Though his week of special activities seemed trivial (and to be honest, a little inconvenient at the time), we read books, and even made cookies from scratch, on a Thursday! He returned to school with a poster he created about his week and I was able to witness firsthand how implementing family project-based learning was treasured by Charlie, and to be honest, me as well.”
She took this experience, thought about all the challenges that she would hear about STEM and early engagement, and decided that it was time to do something about it. She thought, why not develop a program where STEM takes the center stage? “I fused the two concepts together,” said Burns-Gerling “and after two years of research and input from industry and academia, I launched a soup-to-nuts Student of the Week program that teachers can implement in their classrooms. And get this: at no cost to the teacher, or the district.”
As part of this program, Karyn Burns-Gerling ABC’s partners with community supporting businesses that want to help encourage STEM education in any way they can. With these partners, The ABC’s of STEM is bringing STEM directly into children’s classrooms and into the homes of the students and their families.
“I built the business with essentially little to no business knowledge, and while I was surrounded and supported by some of the most brilliant business leaders in the area (thanks to my MACNY relationships) I found myself hitting a ceiling with my own business. I had ideas about pursuing government contracts and the direction I wanted to go for the business but had no clue where to start. One day I was chatting with a MACNY colleague about some of my challenges and she suggested I contact the folks at SBDC.” Karyn met with an Advisor at the Onondaga Small Business Development Center and received assistance with government contracting.
She had already obtained her NYS Women Business Enterprise Certification (WBE) but her work as a lobbyist helped her understand the value of networking and connecting with all those that could be helpful in expanding and growing her business. At the Onondaga SBDC, Advisor Melissa Zomro Davis was able to connect her with Empire State Development’s Economic Development Program Specialist 2 Ryan Smith, as well as LaMont Mitchell from the City of Syracuse. Both Smith and Mitchell work directly with government opportunities for the state and the City of Syracuse. Burns-Gerling, says, “The SBDC is truly an extended arm of my business, basically anytime I email them with a question they are there to help me out, or even better in the rare events they didn’t know how best to help me, they have found someone though their networking and resources who can”.
Networking and relationship building are the only reasons Karyn feels her business has grown to where it is today. While she has had her experiences as a MACNY lobbyist to thank for that skill set and strategy that she uses today for the business, she feels networking was a major part of her growth. People often describe a lobbyists role as an “intermediary”, in her case, between industry and government. The lobbyist’s role is to create that bridge of communication, bring everyone to the table (literally or figuratively) and come to agreements and compromises in order to achieve progress or goals. Karyn says, “I use this same model in my business, now with ‘The ABC’s of STEM’ programming.”
Since the COVID-19 shutdown, Burns-Gerling has pivoted her business plan by reflecting on her early years when her focus was on small goals and little. “As a start, I took time during this pandemic to focus on my business to address and tackle areas of my business that needed my attention, but I had been putting off. Curriculum improvement and automation of systems were two big focus areas of mine,” Karyn said. At this point she called her SBDC Advisor Melissa Zomro Davis to review what other certifications she was eligible for and what those could do to help expand her business. After speaking with Zomro Davis, she took the time to complete certifications for additional government contracting and supplier diversity programs. She is now expanding her geographic footprint by working with companies throughout the United States.
Karyn Burns-Gerling has also improved the STEM programming and worked to prepare her business for further pandemic related shutdowns. She has created alternative online programming for virtual learning. “While of course not ideal, we need to be able to provide our students, teachers and families with resources that can be used for continuation of learning and supporting health and safety measures for all” Burns-Gerling said.
Every business in these uncertain times needs to stop, regroup, and refresh their plan. Using her networking skills, Karyn Burns-Gerling was able to do this seamlessly. “One networking advantage that I have, thanks to my opportunity at MACNY is the abundance of experts, knowledge and resources in my network. I wanted to create posters, I called one of my members and sure enough, within days they were printed and ready to go. I needed help on pricing my product, the former Chairman of my Board sat with me and helped me price out all my materials and labor. Another instance I was explaining to my box manufacture that I was overwhelmed with assembling all the kits myself, he connected me with the Madison County ARC Director. Today they house, assemble, customize and ship all my products out right from their facility. Another time I was working out my first national contact, and the President of one of our MACNY member companies happily advised me over a phone call after I gave him a trial run pitch,” said Burns-Gerling.
Karyn still contracts with MACNY, but as of January 2019 she knew it was time to take the leap and leave her position to continue to work on this business and give it her all. When asked if she would do all this again, she stated “Yes! Although the beginning of my business was started as a result of trying to get through the toughest time in my life, clearly that was what was needed in order for me to take the leap.”
Article published in the 'The Central New York Business Journal' on November 6, 2020
Melissa Zomro Davis is a NYS Advanced Certified Business Advisor at the Small Business Development Center located at Onondaga Community College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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