Sanjay Gehani's High-Tech Background Is a Perfect Fit for Franchising
I recently had the privilege of attending the first annual Building Kidz franchisee convention in Foster City, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley. While there, I sat down with Building Kidz co-founder and CMO (and Foster City Councilman) Sanjay Gehani. He is obviously popular with his franchisees: everyone who walked by received a personal greeting, and most were eager to take a minute to catch up. In between handshakes, we discussed his background in high-tech, how it prepared him for franchising, and what he's learned from his first years in franchising.
Building Kidz has 26 schools open in 8 states and two countries, with more opening all the time.
Disclosure: Building Kidz is one of my clients, and I count Sanjay Gehani as one of my close friends.
Please share a bit of your pre-franchising background
I am an electrical engineer by education. My time in Corporate America was at Xilinx, a semiconductor company, where I spent 15 years. I started in customer support, but management saw something in me and I was quickly fast-tracked into cross-functional roles. I relocated from the Bay Area to Tokyo where I helped build relationships and drive technical training and implementation for top customers. After a year, I came back to the Bay Area to take on roles in regional sales, business development, and global pricing.
How does one go from overseeing global strategic initiatives to becoming an emerging preschool franchisor?
Like many people in franchising, I fell into it. I was looking for a preschool for my son. Building Kidz was a local preschool chain owned by Vineeta Bhandari, a longtime family friend who has known me since I was 6. I sat down with her to learn more about her business goals. What she told me touched me, and I knew right then that I had to get involved. She'd shared how, in 2002, her daughter's preschool was no longer willing to provide services because they didn't know how to deal with an insulin-dependent child. Vineeta left her career as a financial consultant to start a preschool and be close to her daughter.
Over the next 10 years, she developed a passion for both the business and educational side of preschools - as well as a dream of affecting the lives of 1 million children in her lifetime through her early childhood education work. When I went into Building Kidz in 2013, she had developed a proprietary curriculum and was deploying it at five schools in the area. At first I was strictly an investor and advisor in the development of the growth strategy.
Over the next 14 months, we doubled our footprint, but it became clear that we would not, on our own, touch the lives of 1 million children. That realization was the genesis of both the Building Kidz franchise and Building Futures, our nonprofit organization. Building Kidz dedicates 25% of its profits to help underprivileged children in impoverished areas, both at home and abroad, by providing access to sanitation, education, and nutrition. We also help fund research into diabetes and other childhood diseases.
How did your time in high-tech prepare you to become a franchisor?
When you think about it, silicon is at the base of every process that drives our world. It allows your bank to track your balances in real time, allows you to sit there and type notes as we talk, and silicon is what allowed you to call an Uber from the airport. Manufacturing silicon reprogrammable chips is steeped in processes and procedures. Franchising also is a process-driven world, and my background allows me to think in processes, workflows, and procedures for implementation. Beyond that, developing global alliances allowed me to hone my ability to understand people from various walks of life, cultural backgrounds, and ideals. Quickly identifying if disparate groups of people were ideal "fits" for us from a strategic standpoint prepared me to do the same thing in the franchise space.
When you shifted to franchising what caught you by surprise?
I was on the bleeding edge of tech, so of course I realized the world changes fast. Knowing that, and even seeing the changes in technology coming way before others, is not at all the same as living in the middle of those changes every day. Now I am in the trenches and experiencing how, as an example, mass adoption of cloud computing allows young franchisors to have access to data that, even 5 years ago, only the big boys had. Knowing about change, even helping to implement change, is not the same as experiencing it day-to-day.
What advice do you have for would-be or emerging franchisors?
I still feel like an emerging franchisor! I learn more every single day about franchising and the responsibilities, frustrations, and joys of what we do, as well as the challenges of small business ownership. Advice? Assemble the right team, fast. Make sure they have experience in franchising and in business, and are people you want to break bread with. If you have the right team, they will tell you to document everything, along with a thousand other small pieces of advice, every day, that will keep you on the road to success. This hasn't been easy. It still isn't easy, but we couldn't have made it to where we are without our internal team and external group of advisors.
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