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Women in Business: Q&A with Stacy Costa, Founder of School Answers

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Stacy Costa is the founder of School Answers, an all-inclusive educational support facility that meets students where they're at and provides needs such as occupational therapy, GRE prep testing, AP tests and child IQ testing. She has more than 20 years' experience in the Monmouth-Ocean County school districts, most recently as the assistant superintendent overseeing special education for nearly 200 public and private schools. She has experienced firsthand the needs of parents for their students that aren't being met in the school system.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Throughout my life, I have learned that there are leaders and there are followers. There are firsts and there are seconds. Some people are excellent seconds and the world needs good soldiers and good generals. I chose to be a leader. It wasn't something that fell in my lap and it wasn't handed to me - I worked very hard to be the person I am today. I have been the good soldier, the good second in command. I have risen and I have fallen in life, and I never gave up. I have rebuilt. I am a life-long learner. Through setting high goals for myself, I learned that the more I achieved, the more I wanted to become a leader, and I actually began to believe in myself. By default, it made me begin to surround myself with people that I wanted to emulate. I realized that the smarter people I surrounded myself with, the smarter I became. I began to reach higher for the stars. I began to notice I could do more. I could be that person I wanted be. I transitioned from the follower to the leader.

How did your previous employment experience aid with your role at School Answers?
I began my career in education as a teacher. The years I spent teaching helped build the foundation I have today. I continued on my path from teacher to administrator, and had the opportunities to work in such positions as vice principal, which allowed me to work very closely with teachers and parents. From there, I moved to the district level which gave me the opportunity to work, in a broader sense, with a larger group of teachers and have a more far-reaching impact on the education community. As a next step, the county level experiences proved priceless. It allowed me to have a presence in over 200+ schools in 3 counties and visit and work with various staff and implement programs throughout the state of New Jersey. Programs and services varied from direct instruction, virtual instruction, related services such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and counseling. I implemented them, observed them, evaluated them and researched them. Now, all of the services are currently available privately as supplemental services through School Answers, previously unavailable in any educational franchise in the nation.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Balance is always difficult. I don't believe you could be in the profession I was in and am in without having control issues, but I'm learning to delegate. I have a 15 year old son, who is my heart. Everything I do, I do for him. His educational path was most profound for me and in return was part of my incentive for School Answers. I've had my humbling moments in my life, and I try to remember them, and try to remember to take the time to smell the roses. I often forget, but life tends to remind me more often than not.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at School Answers?
There are so many highlights and challenges I almost don't know where to start. I think the biggest highlight has been realizing the dream and seeing it all come together. It's truly been a long and amazing process. As for the biggest challenge, I think it was deciding to leave my career in public education and dedicate myself fully to School Answers. It was almost like jumping off a bridge. I was leaving a tenured, 6-figure job with a pension and benefits for a dream and business that I just innately knew would work. I was also not overly financially secure as I was the only investor in the company. It was a huge challenge and chance. In the end, I did, in essence, jump off the bridge and left that career for School Answers. I believed in it, I knew it was what I wanted to do, but ultimately, I knew it was what was the right thing to do for students and parents alike. I believed in the mission. I believed in the goodness of the company, and that good goes to good, so I just knew everything would be ok. For once I was doing what I loved. I used read about successful business people, and they always said don't do it for the money. I never understood that during my career. I always wanted the higher job, the better title, the better pay; that was until School Answers. I finally was doing what I loved, what I believed in...and it had nothing to do with the money. I finally understood.

What advice can you offer women looking for a career that will make a real difference?
A strong work ethic is paramount - always put in 110 percent, even when you don't love the work. Find work that intrinsically inspires you. Long hours and a mounting to-do list may happen, but if you're passionate about your work, it won't matter.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
There are a myriad of issues that women face in the workplace, the most obvious being the wage gap. I don't feel comfortable speaking for others, but for me, it was difficult to define myself in the workplace. Women who are ambitious and hardworking are thought of as "too intense," but I never believed that. Ultimately, as I said before, a strong work ethic is the best defense and offense, as well as always being a student and making time for professional development, even when not in school.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl's book is inspiring, and very much mirrors my own experiences. She discusses ways women are held back and ways they are to succeed. I believe it inspire women to take those steps to begin following their dreams. I do believe however, it is important for women realize that taking on any challenge like this is scary. You face failure head on. You need to be ok with that and be ok if you fail. Not everyone will succeed. For me, failure itself is success; because I had the determination to try. It becomes a life long learning experience that I can put into play for next challenge and truly grow from.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Throughout my career, I've been blessed to have the opportunity to work with the best administrators and be mentored by some phenomenal educators. Most recently and most prominent in my career was Mr. Timothy P. Nogueira. He was probably the most influential and significant person in my life and career. He was my mentor, my friend, and became the person who believed in me, inspired me, and guided me to pursue my dreams and follow my heart. He served as my confidant and advisor while developing School Answers. Mr. Noguiera motivated me, picked me up when I fell, and made me believe there was nothing I couldn't accomplish. Much of what I know and who I am I today is due to Mr. Nogueira, and for that I always love him and be forever grateful.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I'd have to say the Queen of England. I absolutely admire that woman. She is the epitome of grace, charm and elegance. She has faced both personal and professional tragedy and never once let it show. She always shows her sophistication, her classiness, and is forever a true leader. I also look to strong, visible women in the business sector for inspiration on how to lead and affect people in the best ways possible.

What are your hopes for the future of School Answers?
My hope for the future of School Answers is to see the mission spread. I see School Answers almost like a movement of sorts. We want to make kids smarter. It's what we do inclusively. Smarter kids help our future. It makes the world a better place and improves our future. We educate from K-12 through adult with our partnerships for a smarter tomorrow. I'd also like to see School Answers grow in my community and around the country.