After school program

Houston entrepreneur expands her passion project to international franchise business

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi was looking for a way to engage her children in after school education. After failing to find anything that existed, she started brainstorming a new, engaging education model.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

Qureshi turned her passion project into IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. She opened 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Now the company has locations across the United States and around the world.

The passion she had at Idea Lab's start has become an essential part of each franchise location, and Qureshi is seeking out franchise partners just as passionate to "take our idea far and wide," she says

"We are educating the future innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow," Qureshi says.

Front of class
Idea Lab locations around the country are engaging children from pre-k through high school in hands-on projects that reflect their own interests. Qureshi's goal is to take learning beyond the classroom.

"Anytime kids are out of school, Idea Lab is in session," says Qureshi.

Qureshi recalls that when fidget spinners were dubbed a distraction in traditional schools, children in Idea Labs were studying how the toy's motor operates, and were actually creating their own spinners using 3-D printers.

"Idea Lab picks up the slack in areas that traditional schools are unequipped to excel," explains Qureshi.

Small class sizes, and an array of technology and materials give children attending their after-school programs, weekend workshops, summer camps, or birthday parties the opportunity to use technologies that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

"You'll never see our kids just listening to lectures; it's all project-based," she says. "We are training them for the skills they will need for their jobs in the next 5, 10, 15 years."

Getting the ball rolling
Qureshi began Idea Lab in Houston seven years ago, inspired by the challenge of raising her own children with quality STEAM education.

"My background is in IT," she explains, "but I felt like I was really missing out on being part of my children's lives, so I decided to leave corporate life. I put my energy into my kids and finding the best educational opportunities for them. But I realized there was a void."

With the need to build and create inherent in her personality, Qureshi quickly saw her new company begin to grow.

Qureshi's oldest son, now headed for college, is a big part of her personal success story with her Idea Lab program. She saw his creativity and motivation for learning blossom throughout his years of Idea Lab classes such as coding movie production, or robotics. Qureshi is excited that Idea Lab still provides the same educational boost to thousands of children that she saw so profoundly impact her son.

Especially after her experience in starting her own business, Qureshi wants to encourage future entrepreneurs through Idea Lab's entrepreneurship program. Projects that children develop within this program embody all aspects of the blended learning STEAM model, plus a good measure of critical thinking and creativity. Children may build their own restaurant, and as founders, managers, and chefs, they must create menus and pricing, recipes with units of measure, 3-D printed objects such as spoons, and navigate other realities of owning a small business. Equally as important, children must learn to collaborate toward common goals, and utilize each other's strengths.

Ready for graduation
The company is actively looking for expansion opportunities and prospective franchisees.

"The ideal franchisee," Qureshi says, "is someone who 'gets' the void in the education, understands the education industry, or has kids for whom they haven't been able to find great programs for."

Thus far, Idea Lab has 52 assigned territories in the United States, six in Canada, one opening soon in Ecuador, and talks are beginning with other country partners. Although for Qureshi, founding Idea Lab from the ground up required countless hours of dedication.,

"When you buy a franchise, everything is all worked out for you, all the hardship has been taken out of it, as someone has already done the trial and error," Qureshi says.

Idea Lab provides materials and models for everything from tested and vetted curriculum to implementation of their programs, making it as easy as possible to hit the ground running.

As Idea Lab keeps its finger on the pulse of the next wave of innovation to motivate children, and grow their business, they are looking for partners who are interested in helping to provide a creative education to the community.

As Qureshi always tells parents, "with a little bit of a push, you'll be surprised by how many new things kids can learn through their own exploration, if given the opportunity."

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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