Dr. Gena Lester pursued a career in the fashion industry, but she discovered that she hated the work and felt like her love of education and entrepreneurial spirit were falling by the wayside. She decided to start a private school, had 80 students enrolled within two weeks, and spent the next 15 years as its leader. However, when her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, she needed to be able to show up for him at the end of his life.
Now, at Accepted Academy, Gena helps teens get into great schools and provides parents with the support they need to show up for their kids along the way. Through membership groups for both kids and parents, she provides the guidance they need to get the results they’ve always dreamed of. She’s also launching a new membership, Edpreneur Accelerator, to help fellow educators build businesses of their own.
Today, Gena joins the podcast to share the story of how she turned her educational experience into a thriving membership business, how she tripled her revenue in 2020, and the beauty of closing your eyes and jumping.
- How Gena took what she learned from running a successful private school as she built her first membership site.
- Why Gena’s revenue increased dramatically in 2020 as many of her peers struggled.
- Why it’s okay not to have all the answers.
- How Gena built multiple B2B and B2C memberships to satisfy several different audiences with different goals, including her fellow educators.
- How Gena built an all-virtual team to support her businesses.
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- “There are hard moments about it, obviously with any job, you’re working for somebody or you’re working for yourself, but when you’re doing what you love, those hard moments are easy within the heart.” – Dr. Gena Lester
- “Sometimes you get confidence by doing the thing so start afraid.” – Shelli Varela
TranscriptRead The Transcript
Shelli Varela: Dr. Gena Lester, welcome to the It’s a TRIBE Thing Podcast. It is my absolute pleasure to have you. How are you doing?
Dr. Gena Lester: I’m great. And thank you for having me.
Shelli Varela: it’s our honor. I know that your story is one that people are going to find super inspiring for a number of reasons. So, with that said, would you mind sharing with us who you are before you became this incredible woman who has a number of master’s degrees and an incredible membership site?
Dr. Gena Lester: Yes. So, I think just to give a background a little bit, I do have an education background currently and that’s where my memberships lie but that’s not where my journey started. My journey started back when I was a very young girl in high school. And when I came out of high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My grandmother was a teacher. And I knew I wanted to go to college. I knew college was an important thing. I just didn’t know what to do. And a friend of mine said, “Oh, I’m going to major in fashion merchandising,” so I decided, “Hey, okay, that sounds like fun.” So, I went to school, got a degree in fashion merchandising, design, all of those things. I learned to sew my own children’s clothes but beyond that, there was nothing fulfilling or passionate in my life for that. I worked a little bit in the industry and I just really hated it. It was not where I was supposed to be. I didn’t have any direction in that and I just thought this is what I’m supposed to do so I did it. I got married, began having children, and I’m the mom that was sitting there with my infants, teaching them, and educating them. I was the kid that played Barbie dolls and lined them up and taught them when I was a little kid.
So, education is something that’s always inside of me. I just didn’t know that’s what it was. I’m also very entrepreneurial. I was the kid that like in Girl Scouts sold more cookies than anybody and all of those types of things. So, I knew as a young adult that those were things that were within me. I just needed to figure out how to do that. And so, as my youngest daughter or my oldest daughter, I’m sorry, became school age, I thought, “Okay. Well, I want to teach.” And so, I literally went out and started a school, a private school. It was back in the 80s. I went to a local church that I was attending at the time and said, “Hey, I really think we should have a private school. This is how I think it should be done. We created it differently from a lot of other models that were out there.” And they were like, “Sure, go for it.” And so, I literally put it out in the paper and signed up 80 kids in the first two weeks.
Shelli Varela: What?
Dr. Gena Lester: Yeah. Now even like a building. So, I also thought I was pregnant with my third child right after I did that. So, here I am pregnant, I’m doing all these things, but it was literally so light. It was exactly what I was supposed to do, when I was supposed to be doing it, and it was just completely my passion. And the school was successful and ran for over 15 years. Before I stepped out, I was in that position for 15 years, and never was there a day that I regretted doing it. I went back to school as an adult, got my degrees in education, and psychology, and business, and all of those things as an adult only because I love learning and I wanted to learn and wanted to grow and wanted to add more validity to what I was doing. But I just stepped out and did what I knew I was called to do from the beginning and it was amazing. It’s led all the way to my current business, to my memberships, to everything I’m doing. And every day I get up excited that I get to do what I want to do.
Shelli Varela: Wow. That’s a lot to unpack and I’m going to do exactly that but can you talk a little bit more about the transition from brick-and-mortar to what was it originally about an online program or membership site or a course or online coaching that first piqued your interest? Because for many of our listeners, some of them are TRIBErs and have membership sites and are looking to start them or looking to build and grow them but many of our listeners are hearing about memberships for the first time and they’re like, “What?” Like, you can do the thing you love and have it be a successful business that fills you up, that fills your cup that serves people. So, can you talk about that transition because I know in this day and age, we’ve got a foot in two camps. One is the industrialized way of thinking where you grow up, you get an education, you get a job, you do the job, you retire. And then the online space has kind of thrown a wrench into things. So, people are sort of straddling the line between the possibility of what that can look like. So, what did that look like for you?
Dr. Gena Lester: Yeah. Absolutely. So, as I mentioned, I ran this school for a really long time and the reason I stepped out and kind of went into my own business was because my husband had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was at the end of his life. And so, for me, I wanted to be there for him and be able to focus. So, I started my education business where I work and help students that are in the college process walk through that. I had already built an audience from kids that I had worked with and families I’ve been working with in the education space but it was brick-and-mortar. So, it gave me a lot of flexibility, and then I could work my schedule around being there for my husband, seeing him, those types of things but also I was tied to an office, tied to a place where they had to come. And my husband at the time, now deceased, did pass away, and I, a few years ago, remarried an amazing man who is also a widower. And so, one of the things that we talked about was how short life is. When you’re a young widower, which both of us were, you don’t know what tomorrow holds. You don’t know where life is going to take you. Our kids grow up so fast, and all of a sudden, we turn around and they’re adults.
And so, we want to be able to not look back and feel like we’ve spent all of this time just pouring into a business and not into our lives. So, for us, it was that balance. And so, I began hearing about the online space and kept thinking, “How do I do this? I’m in education. I work with these kids independently. How am I going to turn that into an online business? So, I started out just saying to my clients, “Would you like to meet online versus in person? This is a great option and the kids loved it.” And I was like, “We can try it. Do every other time.” And within six months, every one of my students had gone online and to this day they are, and love it. And they prefer not driving across town or dealing with traffic to see me. So, that was kind of my first baby step into the online world. But then I was like, “Okay. I want to grow my business but I don’t want to have a bunch of employees.” Again, that was going to be tying me down. So, how do I reach more people? How do I make a bigger impact? And how do I grow my own business with looking at not being a traditional space?
And so, in 2019, somebody introduced me to Stu and TRIBE and all of that stuff and so I went through the TRIBE course, and I was like, “I can do this. I can do this.” It was great. There was a little bit of a learning shift for me because I’m marketing to parents who were buying stuff for their kids. So, that’s a little different but through all of this stuff in TRIBE, I figured it out. A lot of people in my industry said, “You can’t do this.” And I’m like, “I can do this.” And I just kept going, figured it out, have been a TRIBEr. I’d say I’m a TRIBEr for life without a doubt but it was the thing that really transitioned me into that online space. And then when COVID hit, all of my counterparts, so many of them, their businesses struggle, they didn’t know what to do, they were floundering. I didn’t miss a beat. My business tripled in 2020 from having a membership. And so, it’s been life-changing and it does give me the flexibility. My husband and I are talking about getting an RV and going out and traveling and I can work from the RV. I can meet my kids. I don’t have to be tied down. I see kids all over the United States now where when I started, I was just seeing kids in my local area. So, it definitely has totally transitioned my life without a doubt.
Shelli Varela: I don’t even know where to start. Actually, there’s just a lot to unpack. This is amazing. So, one of the things that I love that you said early on that I picked up on was when you talked about going from high school, you said everybody was taking fashion and you’re like, “Well, that sounds fun.” So, you kind of did it because it was fun but immediately what I heard you say was it didn’t feel like a full-on yes in your body. And many of our listeners are in a position where they’re hearing about membership sites and they’re like, “What? Is that possible? Is that possible for me?” So, can you talk to what that felt like to you, the difference between doing fashion, which for you was a hard no, and then finding that thing that lights you up, what that felt like and what it felt like following it when you didn’t have all of the answers?
Dr. Gena Lester: Yeah. Definitely going through school, I mean, you enjoy your college experience, and that’s great but it was a struggle, like everything I did was not a class that I enjoyed or I loved or the ones that I enjoyed were, honestly, like the business classes where we were learning about business in that area. And so, going to work, it was a dread. I mean, it was literally so difficult to want to get up and to go to work every day. It was like, “Okay. I’m doing this just to put food on the table, so to speak, or just to provide for those bills.” And I knew I’ve always been a very passionate person and I’m like I know this is not what we’re meant to be. We’re not meant to just sit and go through life doing something we don’t enjoy. I know it’s more difficult when you’re older, whether that’s in your 20s or 30s or 40s or 50s, to jump into something new. And so, for me, obviously, I had two of those moments in my life. The first, when I decided, “Okay. I’m going to jump out. I’m going to go into education.” And I knew that when I was sitting there with my little one and teaching her how much joy it brought, not just because she’s my little girl but because I was doing what I loved.
When I transitioned into education and doing something that I really loved, it was a complete difference. I couldn’t wait to get up. I was excited. I had vision. I was constantly thinking of new things and new innovations and ways to make it interesting and fun. And so, every day, I don’t look back at that time of my life and feel like, “Oh, I wasted all those years. I look back and think this was like the most amazing thing for me in my life.” And every step has led to where I’m at today. And then obviously transitioning from going in a paycheck, having the paycheck that was a stable everyday pay, every week paycheck, to go on, “Okay. I’m stepping out. I don’t know what this is going to look like. I’ve got to be able to support myself. My husband isn’t going to be here.” He was an engineer and he obviously wasn’t working so all of that changed. So, it was a big, scary thing to say I’m going from a paycheck into a business that there’s not a paycheck. And stepping into this new area, I feel the same thing. It’s just I’m so passionate about it. It’s exciting. I get up. I get thrilled every morning. And then I’m doing what I love in the education space at the same time and seeing these kids’ faces light up and all of those things just is amazing.
You know, there are hard moments about it, obviously with any job, you’re working for somebody or you’re working for yourself, but when you’re doing what you love, those hard moments are easy within the heart, if that makes sense.
Shelli Varela: Totally. Totally makes sense. Can you talk a little bit about your membership site and who it serves and how?
Dr. Gena Lester: Yeah. So, I now have two memberships. So, I have the B2B, B to business, and B2C, B to customers. So, I’ll start about that because that’s where I started was my business to other parents. And so, it’s called Accepted Academy and there are two legs inside Accepted Academy so to speak. There’s one, which is Purposeful Parents, and that’s a monthly fee that parents come, they pay, and every month they get new content, new information. Parents come in as early as seventh and eighth grade and will stay with me through up to their kid being a senior in high school. So, that’s a fairly new membership. So, I started out with The Valedictorian and have kind of grown and added from there. The Valedictorian is for students that are rising seniors, so current juniors in their spring year all the way to seniors. And it is really if you think of a mastermind type program, it’s very similar to that except for that the students are in there and they’re walking through actually getting their applications completed, submitted, standing out in the process, parents learning how to pay, everything that’s all-encompassing college applications. That’s that particular side and they have to be juniors of their spring year, rising seniors before they go into that. So, I have one membership that kind of feeds into the other.
And then the new membership that is just launching which I’m super excited about is called Edpreneur Accelerator and that’s for anybody who’s in the education space. So, what I found was that and the reason everybody told me that my site having a membership wasn’t going to work and having an online business is because they don’t know and understand how to sell to parents for their kids. And it is different. There is a different approach that we have to take in that and we have to look at it and know. And so, when you go through traditional marketing and traditional things, we get a lot of great information but you have to be able in your mind to shift, and a lot of educators are stuck right there. And so, now I’m starting a membership to help anybody who does any kind of kid education-type program really understand how to market, set up their businesses, create courses, memberships, all of those things for parents. So, I’m super excited about that one, too.
Shelli Varela: I think that you are brilliant for countless series of reasons, Dr. Gena, but the thing that I really appreciate about who you are, what you do, and how you pay attention to yourself is when we go right back to the beginning of the story, your ability to know this is a yes, this is a no, this is what I love, this is what I’m good at, and really being self-aware enough to uncover and acknowledge your own gifts. And one of the things that I heard you talk about was your love of education, but also entrepreneurship. And many people have gifts and skills that they would love to have an online business for. And I love that you have taken this combination of two potentially unlike things, education and execution, and melded them together in a package that now allows other people that are wired with the education piece to enjoy what you enjoy, to have an online business, to have a membership of some sort. I think it is absolutely brilliant. And one of the things that I love is the gift that this is about to give to a number of educators that maybe don’t have those two pieces in the same way that you do. And you talked earlier about the importance of time and how important it is to be able to enjoy your time like we only get so much time here in our lives. And to be able to do it, doing something that fulfills us and lifts us up and makes us feel like we’re contributing and serving.
With your membership site and now this brand new membership site that is going to allow freedom for other people, what is the greatest gift that was unexpected when you started?
Dr. Gena Lester: I’m a very connected person. And so, for me, I was worried that I wouldn’t have that connection in an online experience, and that’s absolutely not been the case. I mean, I feel like within my memberships, within what I do, I still get to really know those kids. I’m able to reach more people and definitely the freedom that has given me to do the things that I want to do. I have to go visit so many colleges every year as part of my continued education. So, now, my husband and I are talking about getting an RV so that we can travel and go visit those schools. And I can meet my kids forever. It’s fine. And that’s what’s so amazing. And one thing too I want to share is just to say to the audience because I know we look at this and I’m like when I started my business, I was on a shoestring budget. I stepped out and, believe me, it was like, “How am I going to do this with me being the person doing everything?” But I press through and now I have a team that helps me but they’re all virtual. It’s not that brick-and-mortar that ties you down. And so, I think that’s the other amazing thing is that I do have that team around me helping but they’re able to have flexibility as well.
Shelli Varela: It’s brilliant. Last question. So, for those people who are experiencing a level of hope after hearing your story but are apprehensive to follow the hope, what advice would you give those people?
Dr. Gena Lester: I would say close your eyes and jump. Yeah, really. It’s really easy for us to get caught in our minds about that, “Do I have the experience? Do I really have something that somebody is going to want to hear? What if I do this and I…?” the all the what-ifs, what-ifs, what-ifs. And I feel, I mean, we all experience, I still experience them but the one thing I know is that when I step out, and I trust and I put faith into what I’m doing, then I see the success. It’s, one, you’re not trying to jump over the whole from one side of the mountain to the other and hope that you don’t fall in the valley there. Literally, it’s like you take one step and there’s a level that’s going to catch you, and then the next one. And when you’re doing that, then it’s all going to come together. So, trust yourself. If you really want to be doing this, whatever that passion is inside of you, then go out and do it. Because once you step out and you see the fulfillment that you feel, it makes a huge difference. It just really does. I mean, I can’t imagine going back.
Shelli Varela: Yeah. That’s beautiful advice. And I’ll add to that as well. Sometimes you get confidence by doing the thing so start afraid.
Dr. Gena Lester: Exactly. Yeah. I think everybody has something. You have something that only you know that your secret sauce and people want to know that. We get caught up in that because we know it, we think everybody else does. And they don’t.
Shelli Varela: Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your story. This has been inspiring on a number of levels for myself personally and our audience at large. So, if people are looking for you online, where is the best place they can find you?
Dr. Gena Lester: Well, obviously, I’m on all the social media. My website is Education Prep Centers. I’m just getting the accelerator program up and moving but if you’re in that space and you’re an edpreneur and you want to connect, they can email me at [email protected] and it’s G-E-N-A. That’s my name. I’m on Facebook, I’m on Instagram, all of those places.
Shelli Varela: What’s your handle on Facebook and Instagram?
Dr. Gena Lester: Dr. Gena.
Shelli Varela: Great. Okay. Perfect. Thank you so much for stopping by. We appreciate you and thank you for shining the light for the rest of us.
Dr. Gena Lester: Yeah. You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.
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