01/06/2014 07:48 am ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Gail Johnson, CEO of Rainbow Station

Rainbow Station is America's premier provider of early education, school age recreation, emergency backup care and leadership development. Established by Gail Johnson in 1989, Rainbow Station not only provides the world-class, proprietary PLAYWORKS® curriculum-based learning for children from birth through kindergarten, but also delivers the industry's most unique and differentiated wellness element: the Get Well Place, a haven for mildly ill children whose care needs otherwise would necessitate a missed day of work for mom or dad.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
It started when I was a little girl. I am the oldest of five children. My life changed dramatically when my mother suddenly had three more children when I was eight, nine and 10. I took on the role of baby sitter and was deemed my mother's assistant in order to keep order in the household. Because of this, I had many responsibilities at a young age. For years I thought it wasn't fair but then I realized that out of that experience, and with so much responsibility as a small child, I was able to develop the skill sets that I have today.

My mother and father always believed that I could do anything. Through their parenting and my own experiences, I have learned that regardless of the issue or problem at hand, I can always get to the other side.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as CEO of Rainbow Station?
Everything I've done in my career has shaped me to become the CEO that I am today. Not everyone can get to the end of their career and feel that everything they've accomplished prior fed the end result. I feel as though my career has been master-mined toward Rainbow Station, my capstone career project. Each step has aided me toward reaching the position I now hold today.

Further, I've always done something involving mothers, children and families. My Master's thesis was about promoting families as support systems for their children during hospital stays. Immediately prior to this venture I was on the faculty at the VCU School of Nursing. There, I learned how to deliver presentations effectively to students, who truly are your worst critics. Managing students' experiences was perfect training ground for my position as CEO of Rainbow Station.

Even though I didn't go to business school, I think that if you step back and think about it, being a CEO is really just about managing people and motivating people to get something done, which is my background. In hindsight, I was very prepared for this role. Having a nursing background is a great way to get into business because it's about juggling many jobs and dealing with life threatening crises, which is similar to running a company. However, nothing in business rises to the level of life threatening, albeit stressful. Because of this, I feel very prepared.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My dad taught me to work hard and play hard. I have a very strong work ethic; it feels like it's genetic. Not everyone has this ability to turn it [work] off, which I got from him. I can work harder than everyone else and then I can say "I'm done", and I can flip the switch and let go. A lot of people can't sleep because they're worrying about work, or they constantly have their email open. I'm always aware of what's going on and even when I'm in play mode I still know, but I also realize that a lot of things in life can wait a few hours.

Our family has found that we can get total rest when we leave town. We try to leave town on a monthly basis to take a break, which has helped us maintain a great balance of work and relaxation.

The problem with turning off and on work and play is that there's a certain level of pride in our culture. If you're turning it off, you feel like you're doing something wrong because our society is always connected via technology. The older I get, the more I've realized that the world will continue turning on an axis. If something doesn't happen right at this moment, the sun will still rise in the morning and everything will be fine. That being said, this thinking came with age and perspective.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Rainbow Station?
I just feel so blessed. It feels like I've been running down a path and getting through every major hurdle that has come my way. You know the feeling of approaching a series of stop lights and they are all turning green as you get closer and you feel great? That's what growing and running this company is like - I see a roadblock and I keep moving and doing what I think is right and then the roadblock disappears.

When I first opened Rainbow Station, I started with several obstacles. At the same time, I launched the concept with the thinking that I couldn't fail. I had three children (two in college), a husband and a mortgage. We couldn't fail, and we didn't fail.

We did have some real challenges in the beginning. Right before starting the company, my husband's company was doing very well and developing. In the back of my mind, I knew that if I ran into trouble he could help me out. That same year, when I opened our first school, my husband's company failed. All of a sudden, I went from having capital to having zero capital, which was a challenge. To get by, I cashed in my daughter's wedding fund, which I had collected for 10 years. I felt like the worst mother in the world.

At six months in, with no working capital, I was struggling to make ends meet and told the landlord of the school that I could not afford to pay rent that month. I knew that I could make it work financially if I didn't pay rent for that month. He threatened to evict me but didn't, which gave me the break I needed and allowed me to have enough cash to last until the end of the year.

However, franchising was successful right out of the gate, and then going international has also been extremely successful. When I look back, everything felt and feels right. It was really meant to be.

What advice can you offer young individuals hoping to enter the franchising sector?
Get your ducks in a row.

I came from a nursing background. In nursing if you did not write it down, you didn't do it. When I first got into business, I imagined what I wanted the concept to be - I wrote policies and personnel handbooks. I created a two inch-thick policy manual, which I thought, in my naivety, that every business owner developed.

My advice would be to write everything down, which means documenting more than just a business plan. Write out how you're going to create and operate your business so that you can communicate what your long-term dreams and goals are for the brand. When it came time to franchise, we only had to add some extra details to the existing manual because we already had most of the ideas committed to paper. We started with a strong foundation, which made it easier to communicate to a franchisee what we were going to do and how we were going to be successful.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
You hear so much about men getting better jobs and better pay, and women facing a glass ceiling. Maybe all of that is true. But, you don't have to buy into it. You are who you are and you know your own value.

Women should play the game as if they don't care about the men that surround them. If you enter a room thinking that you're inferior, then you enter the room with a lid on your head. If you enter a room thinking 'I have something to offer, I have a voice,' but understand that there are rules to the game and are willing to learn the rules and play by the rules, you will have a seat at the table and people will listen. However I have learned that if you step away from the table and take too long to return, no one's going to save a seat for you.

As I matured in business it's gotten easier and easier. In the very beginning, I remember walking in the room of the first big board I was on and everyone knew my name because there were only two women in the room. It didn't take long to figure out how the game was played and within a few years I became the Chairman of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce Board because I was perceived to bring value to the position.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I think there's a fine line. You can sit at the table and start pounding your chest but you're not going to get anywhere. You need to learn what the rules are, play by them and then you will gain respect. I support the idea that women should have and can have a seat at the table but I think we gain more respect by playing by the rules. Often men are running the show but I can still join the game and have my voice heard - isn't that the ultimate goal?

I don't want to be heard simply because I am a woman; I want my voice heard because I am a person with something of value to offer. Women need to stop talking about entitlement and talk more about being individuals with something to provide to their company and their sphere of influence. I don't go down the 'I'm a woman' route. I go down the 'I'm a human being with something to offer' route.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorships impacted me profoundly when I started the business. I had two mentors who both gave me the same message but in different words. Both talked about excellence and setting standards high. If you provide a standard of quality, you won't lack business. If you don't cut corners, you'll win the game. As we grow as a company, we have to remember to keep everything tied back toward our company standards. There's a natural tendency over time to find a comfort zone of mediocrity; to be good but not great. It's a struggle to get everyone focused on being great, and not just focused on being good. It takes a lot of work to be excellent.

The Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce has served me well as a business mentor. I made a lot of contacts with not just one, but a series of strong business leaders. The opportunity to be exposed to a variety of business thoughts and ideas while serving in a voluntary position became a very powerful resource for me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I really admire Jackie Kennedy. She was only 32 or 33 years old when she was First Lady and on the world stage. I admire someone who is able to have an extraordinary career and balance that with an extraordinary family. Raising an extraordinary family is important because it impacts future generations. I look up to someone who is able to balance family, life's work AND the challenges that life presents. She had extraordinary leadership, grace under fire, and an incredible impact on women around her.

What are your hopes for the future of Rainbow Station?
Our brand is 24 years old now and we've really grown since our opening day. I feel like we have completed a half marathon and are now on the back stretch of growth. The stars are aligning for dramatic domestic and international growth. We will be the next big thing in the preschool industry. Who knows where we'll be in the next five years.