Beth Gaskill is the CEO and founder of the education company Big City Readers. The former teacher has become a digital marketing powerhouse with nearly one million followers on social media. She sat down with Jessica Abo to talk about her company, her plans for the future, and her advice for anyone looking to take a leap in their career but are afraid to do so.
Jessica Abo: Beth, before we get into your current company, let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us about your elementary school days.
When I was in elementary school, I hated school. I hated reading, which made me hate everything. I was not good at reading, and I even saw a reading specialist. And that is when I started having anxiety about going to school. I felt ashamed and embarrassed as a seven-year-old. I knew that other kids were better than me at reading, and I was so embarrassed. It didn’t feel like a safe space where I could just be curious and be learning more. It felt like the worst thing in the world. I did not want to go to school, and I cried about it every single day. So I did go to school to be a teacher, and I did go on to study literacy, and that’s when I started to realize that the way that teachers are taught to teach kids how to read, it’s so wrong, and I have to change this. I can’t have other seven-year-olds feeling the same feelings that I did when I was in school.
So what did you do next?
I’m in my late 20s, I’m teaching, and I have no plan, but I quit my job. I was tutoring kids, and then I decided to do these park parties to try and get more people that I would tutor. So I did these free story times in parks, and I thought maybe actually this isn’t the way to meet people for me to say, “I’m a tutor.” Maybe there’s something here. So I started going to church basements and parks and anywhere that I could have a reading party. I was calling them reading parties, where I could read to kids and start sharing tips with parents. Bars, I even read on the stage at Lollapalooza and have gone on tour in other cities all across the United States.
But then I realize there has to be something different. There has to be something I’m missing because this many kids shouldn’t need a reading tutor. So I was analyzing my notes. I would teach 12 hours a day, and I would get home in my bed, I would eat a handful of Skittles, and be like looking over my notes of different students. And I realized the same problem was happening over and over. And this tutoring is a Band-Aid, but there’s a solution, and it’s preventative.
What was your vision for what teaching reading should look like?
So my vision for what teaching reading should look like is definitely fun. It does not have to be sitting still. It does not have to be quiet. It does not have to be serious. We should always be having fun. So then my vision shifted a little bit and went a little bit away from teaching kids how to read and more towards working with parents. So then I started teaching parent classes for babies and toddlers and preschoolers before they even got close to reading.
So I wrote this preschool baby toddler curriculum that was the foundation of language and reading skills that parents could know. They could come and make a friend. We call it big city BFFs. They could have a place where they’re not so alone. They could know that they’re giving their child all of the resources that they need. They could feel just like someone has their back. It’s much more than a product. It became a community. And that’s when I realized that your community matters so much more than your product ever will.
You went on to create Big City Readers. Who is it for, and how does the company work?
I wanted to build a place where parents could come and make their big city BFFs. Kids could feel connected with their teachers, and make friends with their peers. And so I built Big City Readers out of this 3000-square-foot disgusting gym in Chicago, and it became this magical place where everyone did want to come to learn how to read. Then of course the pandemic hit, and I didn’t know what to do. So I went back to my roots. Why did I build this company? I wanted people to feel connection and belonging. I wanted reading to be fun and like a party.
So I went to social media every day in those first couple of months of the pandemic, every single day, seven days a week, at 10:00 a.m., I went on Instagram live, and I did story times, and I connected with families all over the world. Books can help us solve our emotions. Books can help us feel safe. We had this community even when the world was so uncertain, and that led me to create a virtual digital community of Big City Readers families. And we now work with half a million families all over the world. I’m telling Entrepreneur here first, we’re going exclusively digital this year.
What’s the next step for you?
I am going to create digital courses, resources, and maybe even children’s books. This is the logical next step. I’m so proud of the company that I’ve built; and, even if it feels tricky and hard, just like we say to kids, tricky things are how we grow. We can do tricky things. It might not feel great, but that means we’re growing. So it just feels like the logical next step is for me to write children’s books, get to train and work with more and more teachers and more schools, and offer more digital courses worldwide to our growing Big City Readers community.
Clearly, it’s all worked out for you, Beth. What advice can you share with someone afraid to leap in their career?
Figure out what you want. What are you here for? I had to learn I’m not here to be small, quiet, and make people happy by just following the rules. I want to step outside the lines. I want to shake things up. I want to do things differently because I know that the way we were doing them isn’t working. And remember it’s okay to change your mind. Not everybody supported me. I had very few supporters when I said I was going to create this company because it hadn’t been done before. Just start doing it. You don’t have to have it all planned out, because you will see exactly what you need to do and who you need to be there for. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would be helping half a million families every day, but here we are.