SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – For nearly a decade, Smartycat Kids, LLC has been providing hands-on, STEM-based educational enrichment programs to preschool and elementary age students throughout central New Jersey. Now, following a successful appearance on CNBC’s West Texas Inventors Club (WTIC), Smartycat Kids may soon by on the way to becoming a franchised national company.
Owned and run by South Plainfield natives Michelle Oppelt and Samantha Corveleyn, Smartycat Kids was established in 2007. Frustrated by the lack of science programs available to her own preschool-age son, Oppelt, who has a degree in biological science from Rutgers, took matters into her own hands and created a Junior Scientists curriculum for preschool and elementary age students. She then rented out a small room at a Westfield church and passed out fliers for her classes.
The goal, said Oppelt, was to ‘teach fun, hands-on science classes’ and interest in the program grew quickly. Within a few weeks of holding her first class, Oppelt was asked to offer her Junior Scientists programs at the Westfield Recreation Center located next door to the church. Soon other recreation departments were also requesting classes and, in 2012, Corveleyn, a former Smartycat instructor and program manager, joined the company as a 50/50 partner.
Since that time, class offerings have been expanded to include not just Junior Scientists but other STEM-based programs. In the fall, LEGO Tech Plus will join such programs as Intro to Robotics, Fun with Physics, Cool Chemistry, and Junior Engineers. There are also technology and engineering workshops as well as art and hobby based classes such as Creative Art Lab, Comic Book Creation, and Storytelling and Illustration.
“We offer fully hands-on educational enrichment programs –after-school classes, summer programs, and special events – that are designed to be stimulating and challenging, encourage team-building, and, most importantly, are fun,” said Oppelt.
Smartycat Kids programs are geared toward parents/guardians who want to give their child the opportunity to immerse themselves in hands-on learning. The programs, said Oppelt, enable children to able to build upon subjects that they are learning in school in a way that is fun and exciting. Additionally, all programs are designed to give children a chance to socialize and work with peers in a productive way that fosters friendships, and focuses on team building and the importance of working together.
Together, Corveleyn and Oppelt create the Smartycat Kids curriculum and a staff of roughly 12 instructors travel to various schools, recreation departments and community centers throughout the Garden State to deliver the programs to preschool and elementary age students (up to grade six). Currently, programs are held in Berkley Heights, Clark, Colonia, Cranford, East Brunswick, Fanwood, Millburn Township, Mt. Olive, Pine Brook, Scotch Plains, Springfield, Summit, Washington Township, Westfield and at Raritan Valley Community College.
In 2012, Oppelt moved out of South Plainfield to start the second branch of Smartycat Kids in the Memphis, TN, area while Corveleyn continues to live in the borough and run the company’s New Jersey operations.
The overall goal, said Oppelt, is to franchise Smartycat Kids so that other students throughout the country can benefit and, with its success on WTIC last month, the company now has some of the necessary funds to do so.
Oppelt went onto the show seeking a $50,000 investment in exchange for 15-percent equity in Smartycat Kids. “We were asking for the capital in order to franchise the company [and] ended up being the first company on the show to receive the full amount we were seeking. They agreed on the full $50,000 investment…” said Oppelt.
Last year, Smartycat Kids was one of the final contestants for ABC’s Shark Tank but, despite being one of 100 out of 40,000 companies selected, they were cut just prior to heading to California to film. Smartycat Kids, however, got a second chance when one of Shark Tank’s casting directors passed along the company’s information to WTIC and they were asked to apply for the cable network show’s second season.
Oppelt said they jumped at the opportunity to pitch the company. Unlike Shark Tank in which entrepreneurs get just a few hours (only a few minutes actually air) before the panel of investors to present their company, product or ideas, WTIC investors spend a week getting to know the company and its owners. The final decision of whether or not to invest is based upon not only a company’s financials and profitability, but also on one’s character, morals and mission.
“That is what truly drew us to this show and make us excited for the opportunity,” said Oppelt. “Our company has always been about our students and providing them with unique learning opportunities that we truly believe with benefit their lives, not about the profit.”
As part of the show’s criteria, each company that appears is given a challenge to perform for investors Wayne ‘Butch’ Gilliam and Rooster McConaughey. Oppelt’s challenge was to teach Gilliam and McConaughey, both self-made millionaires, how to instruct a Smartycat Kids program. Oppelt and the investors went to McConaughey’s son’s school and there she showed them how to teach a lesson to a group of 30 fourth and fifth graders.
“The kids had a great time, and the investors got to see first hand what our programs and our company is all about,” Oppelt said, adding that the program resonated with Gilliam, who was discouraged in school as a child and dropped out at a young age. “After teaching our class, he said that if he would have had fun and engaging programs with positive and encouraging teachers like ours, he would have loved going to school and never dropped out.”
She continued, “The investors really validated everything that we stand for, and made it clear that they believed in our company and in our mission to enrich students' lives.”
At this time, Smartycat Kids is working on expanding its programs into other states across the nation, including Oppelt and Corveleyn’s hometown.
“We have been talking with various members of the South Plainfield school board and are hoping to be able to make enrichment programs available soon,” said Oppelt, noting that communities such as North Plainfield, Green Brook and Watchung are also areas she’d love to see Smartycat Kids offered in the future.
“We want to see Smartycat Kids become a national, or even international, company - reaching as many children as possible each year, and making a positive impact on their lives,” Oppelt said.
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