This Entrepreneur Fund client feature was written and published by our partner Cnote.
Aunty’s Child Care | Duluth, MN
If April Westman was going to start a small business anywhere in the world, it was always going to be in Duluth, Minnesota: the city on Lake Superior where she grew up. Of course, she didn’t always know that.
After high school, April followed her dreams to be a banker in Southern California, but a couple of years later, she was back in Duluth, where she knows every street and every neighborhood, and where everyone says “hi” to each other. It’s that close-knit community of neighbors and family members that propelled April to get into child care.
It was the summer of 2009, and her partner’s sister was not happy with the daycare provider taking care of her child; however, their options were limited. April agreed to watch the child for the summer until the little girl’s parents found another daycare. Summer came and went, and with fall approaching, April asked the girl’s mom if she’d found a new daycare. “She said ‘no, and we don’t want to. We love her with you. And we’re pregnant,’” April laughed. ‘“Will you take the baby too?’”
This didn’t fit into April’s plans. She thought she was going to continue to make sea glass jewelry to sell at art and craft shows. April sought advice from her best friend, who not only encouraged her to provide care for her niece and her future niece or nephew but to also watch her child.
Given that April had always loved children and that she had plenty of friends and family members offering their children to her to watch, she shifted gears. April started the process of becoming a licensed child care provider in Minnesota, and instead of moving forward with buying a house for herself, she bought a duplex that was suitable for daycare. In February of 2010, she opened Aunty’s Child Care.
A Hand To Hold
It’s been nearly 10 years since April opened her first eco-healthy child care facility. In that time, she’s gone from taking baby steps to taking some pretty impressive strides as a business owner. Today, April has two subcontractors running child care operations at her duplex location, and on September 26, 2019, she opened a new 6,000 square-foot child care center in a remodeled church that will house 13 employees and serve 56 children.
Expanding her business hasn’t been without its fair share of growing pains. Despite a need for child care in the community, April couldn’t find a bank that would give her a small business loan to fund renovations to Aunty’s Child Care’s new building. She was rejected five times and told she didn’t have enough experience. “I was really frustrated,” April said. “If you can believe it, my plan was to just pay what I could afford to pay and do little tiny chunks of the project at a time. It would have taken probably five years to get the building open.”
Instead, April found The Entrepreneur Fund, a Duluth-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). CNote partners with CDFIs like Entrepreneur Fund in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses and empowering local entrepreneurs like April. Entrepreneur Fund stepped in to help April open her new building so that she could serve more children faster, helping to alleviate the local child care shortage.
Entrepreneur Fund not only provided April with two loans for her business, but the organization has repeatedly offered her advice, support, and resources, including help setting up a commercial kitchen. “They’ll just reach out and ask me if there’s anything else I want to learn about as a business owner,” she said. Currently, The Entrepreneur Fund is helping April to learn QuickBooks and to get additional human resources training.
Perhaps the biggest thing Entrepreneur Fund has provided April with, however, is encouragement. “At one point, I called Mike Lattery, my contact at Entrepreneur Fund, and said ‘this is a lot of money, and we’re spending a ton,’” April recalled. “He told me: ‘You got this. You’re doing a good thing, and we believe in your business and what you’re doing.’”
Community, Not Competition
It’s not surprising that as someone with an affinity for teaching and a joy for watching kids grow and learn, April is also a fount of encouragement for those around her. For example, when one of her former employees approached her earlier this year and expressed an interest in opening her own daycare, April helped her to become licensed and to set up her own program, just a few blocks away from Aunty’s Child Care’s new building. The two have even worked out an arrangement where infants and toddlers who age out of Joyful Noise Child Care’s program get funneled into Aunty’s Child Care.
That camaraderie wasn’t always the norm. According to April, when she first started 10 years ago, she was warned that other child care providers in the area weren’t typically friends, and that the local industry — however meager — was cutthroat. She didn’t buy into it. Instead, she created a Facebook group to bring people together, and a fellow provider named Summer started a once a month get together through the page., April loves to go out to dinner with other child care providers! “It’s been really great to encourage each other instead of to cut each other down,” she said.
With support from her loyal parents and her community of fellow child care providers, April has her eyes on the future. Not surprisingly, her dueling five-year plans are both aimed at tackling Duluth’s child care crisis. According to her, as of this past spring, the city was short about 1,100 child care spaces, leaving parents without choices of where to send their kids for quality care. At any point in time, April’s waitlist is at least a year long. “Parents can’t tour two or three places and pick their favorite,” she said. “They have to find one with an opening and scoop it up. That’s not right. People should be able to pick the child care place that goes along with their personal beliefs of how they want their child raised.”
In the next five years, April would either like to set up an after-school and summer program for older children, or she’d like to open a nonprofit infant and toddler facility that would qualify her for grants she otherwise wouldn’t be eligible to receive. If she goes down the latter road, she’d transfer children out of her nonprofit care center to her existing for-profit building, which she hopes to one day turn into a preschool.
April is building a community to support the children of Duluth. As she mentioned time and again, it is her commitment to that community that serves as her north star, “It is a circle, and people need to understand that quality child care is the start of a healthy, happy, well-educated community that we are all a part of,” she added, “my reward is knowing I’m helping children and families in my community.”