It goes without saying that raising a kid in Canada is an increasingly costly proposition: Monthly child care fees now exceed $1,750 in some urban centres, and for parents with two children under the age of five (or, gasp, twins), expenses can run you a crippling $40,000 per year—and that’s if you can secure a spot.
It was Victoria Sopik’s vested interest in addressing that exact quandary that got the present-day Kids & Company CEO into the child care game 35 years ago. “I was pregnant with my son in 1984, and I didn’t know what to do with him,” says the Richmond Hill–based mother of eight now-grown children. “There was very little [help] in Toronto back then.” Entrepreneurial in spirit—Sopik founded and ran a day camp Toronto as a teenager—she balanced career ambitions with tending to her own large brood by opening a daycare, by herself and for herself.
The first iteration of Kids & Company, community-based and housed in Toronto schools, was a far cry from today’s operations. In 1996, in need of help crunching numbers, Sopik started working with Jennifer Nashmi, a chartered accountant. By 2002, the two moms had crafted an initial plan to specialize in backup child care, but infiltrating the corporate world—with its ongoing need to boost recruitment and retention—seemed to Sopik and Nashmi to be a much better value proposition. They opened their first location at Commerce Court in Toronto, smack dab in the middle of Toronto’s Financial District.
By 2008, Kids & Company had landed on the Profit 100 as the nation’s fastest-growing company, with an electrifying growth rate of 12,639%. Another 10 years later, Sopik’s firm (2019 Growth 500: No. 428) now boasts a five-year growth rate of 137%, 4,000 workers and more than 220 commercial partners—hospitals, banks, universities, law firms and marquee brands like Lululemon. It’s also the country’s only corporate child, elder and home care provider.
The strength of Sopik’s corporate-caregiving model is her intuitive understanding of how to satisfy a number of key demographics—employers, to start. For companies desperate to retain good talent, Kids & Company is like rain for a parched desert. For a bargain $5,000–$10,000 per year, businesses sign on to receive a guaranteed number of spaces in a child care centre, typically located in office buildings and mixed-use developments, and dedicated exclusively to their workers.
Kids & Company’s offerings are also a serious boon for parents in dual-income households: like a pay-as-you-go plan, where parents can create their own schedule. Need auxiliary care one day a week? Sure thing. Three, four, five? They’ll accommodate, including with backup care and half-day schedules. According to Sopik, feedback from parents steers the company’s practices. If, for example, parents request their local centre to open half an hour earlier, they’ll consider it. “We’re still very entrepreneurial at our core,” Sopik says. Other bonuses: no late fees, guaranteed spots within six months of registration and, unlike many child care providers, there’s no charge once you’re on the waiting list. With Kids & Company centres numbering 125 and counting across Canada and now the United States, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to stop.
Sopik’s set-up provides an expedient child care solution as the wider conversation grinds on at the government level. Currently, some provinces (like British Columbia) have committed to universal child care, while others (like Ontario) are still waffling between threatening to cut spaces and taking tentative steps toward various pilot projects. “Early childhood education and care advocates have worked for decades to convince provincial and federal governments to establish the universal, accessible, affordable and quality child care provision,” says Dasha Shalimo, professor of early childhood leadership at Oakville’s Sheridan College. “Right now, businesses like Kids & Company satisfy the demand, and serve their market.”
Another demographic Sopik connects with is the child care workers themselves, which, in many ways, makes her uniquely suited to solve the industry’s retention problem. According to a recent OECD study, child care positions average turnover rates around 40% annually and offer “relatively low” rates of pay—a perplexing issue given the mountains of research that correlates sufficient early childhood care with improved outcomes later in life. To stop the bleed, Kids & Company encourages its employees to be involved in new centre openings, and even provides financial support for relocation.
Kids & Company also offers a bonus to any employees who refer friends to apply. Internal advancement is a priority, too: promotions are common, with staff being invited to submit for postings at head office or to open new centres. Assistants are also encouraged and sponsored to acquire their Early Childhood Education (ECE) degrees.
Franchise expansion has allowed for Kids & Company to make up for any losses it incurs from enabling parents’ schedules, which can be tricky to staff. “It’s very difficult to make money in this business without scale,” Nashmi says. “Because we have corporate clients, we’re able to subsidize some of those big retail leases. Continuing to expand in the way we’re doing it—by offering flexibility, but getting corporate Canada to stump up a bit to help out—is the way to go.”
Now 17 years out from their proto–daycare days, Sopik and Nashmi are venturing south of the border, wise enough to anticipate some speed bumps but confident in their ability to cater to parents and corporate entities alike. “Times have changed and, more often than not, parents are back to work after a year at home,” Sopik says. “Regardless, we want them to feel confident that their child receives the best possible care.”