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A Woman's Entrepreneurial Journey: Creative Kids Learning Center

On the first day of kindergarten, a future foreseen

Group of school children

Carol Levins is the founder of Creative Kids Learning Center, a company focused on early childhood education. After 37 years as owner, Carol sold Creative Kids to the Learning Care Group Inc., in January 2017.

Carol’s family immigrated to the United States from England after World War II. She grew up in Southern California, the youngest of four daughters. Her father, a real estate developer, always urged Carol to make her own destiny. As a result, she says, “It never occurred to me to just marry and stay at home.”

When she was five years old, Carol says, she knew that she “wanted to be a kindergarten teacher and create environments where children could reach their full potential.” As she grew, the dream expanded, and she thought of becoming a principal and, later, building her own school. She knew that she would deeply enjoy seeing a child thrive in an imaginative preschool environment, an insight bolstered by later studies showing that children benefit greatly from a wide range of stimuli in the early years.

With a clear goal in mind, Carol planned her next steps. At age 16, she volunteered as an intern in her nephew’s preschool, working there until she went to college, where she earned a degree in early childhood education. After graduating, she found a full-time teaching job, and shortly thereafter, at age 21, became a school director, with her father stressing that if she truly wanted to own a school, she should first discover if she enjoyed being in charge. With owners who lived elsewhere, Carol says, she essentially had full autonomy, and was able to test her theories on creating a highly effective preschool environment. When she started at the school, fifty kids enrolled. Two years later, when she left, there were 200 enrolled, with more on the waiting list.

While working for others, Carol constantly imagined how she could improve every facet of schooling. “I even designed the ideal preschool in my head,” she says. Most preschools at that time were housed in old buildings originally designed for other purposes. Carol wanted to design and build her own school from the ground up.

"Build your plans to reflect you and your most important values."

The Dream Comes True

As it happened, several years later, after she followed her parents to Las Vegas, her father gave her some land and the financial resources to build a house. Once it was completed, Carol took out a home equity line of credit, using it to purchase land on which to build her dream preschool. She then needed a construction loan. With an introduction from her father, she met with one of his bankers and was offered a loan—with an interest rate of 22%.

That seemingly high rate, though perhaps not unusual for the middle of a building boom in Vegas, might have stopped many young entrepreneurs in their tracks. Carol’s response was to think of the bank as her partner and “work on the numbers, to figure out how many students I’d need to put me in the black,” she says. “Then I said to myself, ‘What is the worst thing that can happen to me?’” She figured it would be to lose her home. On the plus side, she knew that with her college degree she could always get work teaching. She also knew that if “I don’t do this, I will never be able to say that I went for my dream.” She took the loan and later refinanced at a lower rate. To this day, Carol says, “I take pride in not letting a 22% rate stop me.”

Although her father had concerns that she had used his gift as leverage to build her first preschool, and even though he was not entirely familiar with the concept of early education, “he nevertheless supported me,” she says. At the time, Carol herself did not appreciate how well timed her choice was. For starters, it was the early 1980s, and Vegas was booming. Women were going to work in ever greater numbers, two-income families were becoming the norm, “and many of them needed good child care,” she says.

As a consequence of her fortuitous circumstances, Carol believes that “to be successful, an entrepreneur needs overflowing passion, hard work and determination but also good timing and a little luck.”

While her first school was under construction, she went door to door with flyers and showed families drawings of the facility and samples of the curriculum. On the day she opened the doors, all 150 slots were filled, and more children were on a waiting list. Carol turned a profit in her first year.

What Carol had done, in her ardent search for a better way, was create “a purpose-built school,” she says, with all blind spots eliminated in the playground and classrooms. Each classroom even had its own bathroom so a child never had to leave the teacher’s supervision.

To ensure continued enrollment, the center had to deliver a quality program. This demanded “trained teachers and attention to every detail, particularly those guaranteeing cleanliness and safety,” she says. The school was open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and offered pre- and after- school programs, as well as pickup and drop-off for nearby elementary school students. The center also ran a day camp during school breaks. “I quickly became very successful,” she says.

After three years, she built a second building on the property, doubling capacity, and a few years later she bought another property. Eventually, she had 13 schools in the Las Vegas area. Her method was to create a limited liability company, Sandcastle Enterprises LLC, to buy land with cash, arrange a construction loan and then secure financing after the build-out so that she could get her cash back. Creative Kids functioned debt-free and leased the real estate from Sandcastle. Over time, as the local neighborhoods aged and the need for child care declined, she transferred the remaining children to a nearby school, closed three facilities and sold the real estate.

". . . to be successful, an entrepreneur needs overflowing passion, hard work and determination but also good timing and a little luck"

As she opened new locations in up-and-coming neighborhoods, Creative Kids grew to 350 employees, all of whom were required to have clean background checks. In addition to child development, Carol says, she also believes in human development. Creative Kids trained its teachers and offered a nationally recognized Child Development Associates Credential. Most of her employees were young mothers when they first joined the company. Creative Kids offered them work, training and free tuition for their children. Many employees were with the company for over 25 years, and Carol credits much of her company’s success to their hard work and dedication.

Carol believes that her success stemmed not just from excelling at education but also from her skill with numbers and in designing systems that guaranteed quality and safety. She has done very well financially, she says, “but I strongly believe that growing entrepreneurs cannot be driven only by money. One must be driven by purpose and passion.”

Sale and Post Exit

In 2006, Carol received a serious offer for the purchase of the company, prompting her to learn Creative Kids’ market worth and to understand the due diligence process. The offer seemed fair, she says, “but ultimately the prospect of a sale back then felt like I was cutting my arm off. It was not what I wanted to do. I wasn’t yet finished with my purposeful endeavor.”

Ten years later, the Learning Care Group, one of the largest chains of child care providers in the country, called out of the blue. Carol agreed to a meeting, which led to many months of negotiations. During that time she drew on what she had learned at seminars on selling a business and the knowledge she gained when considering expansion through franchising. Eventually, an offer was negotiated and, this time, she found it difficult to refuse. In January 2017, she sold the 10 remaining schools to the Learning Care Group and Sandcastle Real Estate to a real estate investment trust.

Carol has read that many entrepreneurs have a difficult time emotionally after a profitable exit. By contrast, she has found her post-sale experience to be happy and productive, she says, and believes that with a balanced life, one can transition smoothly. She was consumed with Creative Kids, but she also raised six children of her own and has six grandchildren. Her first husband of 20 years owned a stake in Creative Kids, and after their divorce, Carol bought him out. She remarried 15 years ago to a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police detective who is now retired. Over the years, in addition to her child care venture, she has also designed and sold custom homes, something she has been doing more of since the sale.

She also feels relief at having shed the responsibility. “I wanted to enjoy the fruit of my labors without having to worry about the business,” she says. And now she has a slightly different responsibility: investing the cash garnered from these sales. Currently she is focused on investing in real estate and learning about other asset classes. She also sits on the board of the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and takes a particular interest in their programs for high-risk kids.

Carol’s years spent running her business have had an impact on her six children. “They would often come to work with me,” she says. “They all had an age-appropriate job. One might read stories to the three-year-olds. Another might hand out snacks.” She wanted them exposed to her centers, “not to follow in my footsteps,” she says, “but rather to build a work ethic.” It seems to have been a good choice: All of her children have launched their own businesses.

"I know that I had a very rewarding experience and I can help others to have similar experiences."

As part of the sale agreement, Carol signed a noncompete contract, but it covers only the Las Vegas valley. She consults with other child care providers to help them achieve high-quality programs and environments. She also collaborates with her son, who has an information technology company, on lead and sales management software for child care services. She explains her reasoning this way: “I know that I had a very rewarding experience and I can help others to have similar experiences.”

Carol’s closing advice is this: “No matter what industry one chooses, lasting success requires contagious excitement and enthusiasm. Only these traits can create a lasting bond with employees and customers. One should attend to finances but zero in on the details of operating the business.” She believes that when a business is making money, the founders should enjoy the fruits of their labors, as she did, but also be careful not to think that all the cash flow is theirs and theirs alone. “In a way,” she says, “the money also belongs to the business—to the business and its customers.”

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