In the world of franchising, there are a vast number of child enrichment brands. From academic tutoring to cooking classes, all the options enable parents to engage their children in stimulating activities to help them discover new talents and expand their opportunities in life.
One of the biggest categories, however, is around STEM. STEM is a curriculum based on the idea of educating students in four specific disciplines—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in an interdisciplinary and applied approach.
Ruth Agbaji, CEO and co-founder of the Code Wiz franchise, shares why she launched the business, why it shines above the competitors, and why she decided to expand through franchising. Agbaji earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria and her master’s degree in computer science from Tufts University. Previously, she worked as a software engineer at Microsoft, Kronos, and a few start-ups.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) recently named Agbaji the 2020 Woman Small Business Owner of the Year for Massachusetts.
BLACK ENTERPRISE: What made you decide to start Code Wiz?
Agbaji: The need for flexibility. After I earned my master’s degree, I got a job that I hated. I felt I could be doing much more, so I set my sights on Microsoft. I landed a position at Microsoft, but I still was unfulfilled. While those jobs pay well, as a junior engineer, you work on relatively small projects and don’t get to participate in planning or influencing the bigger picture. I’ve always been a big picture person. I wanted to make a bigger impact–something that would change people’s lives. I then decided to start my family, so we moved to the suburbs, which resulted in my commute being 1.5 hours each way. I changed jobs to be closer to home, thinking that would help.
However, I was still unfulfilled. After my son was born, things got even more complicated and I knew I needed to take control of the situation. As part of my journey to graduate school, I taught myself how to code. With that knowledge, I felt I could merge my two worlds–coding and children. I realized that the most impact I could have on the world was to help the current and next generation to learn coding.
In 2017, I started exploring franchise opportunities that involved teaching children to code, and I didn’t feel strongly connected with any of them. then started working with a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) advisor and after talking, she suggested that I consider starting my own.
That’s a pretty incredible journey. I assume that you knew you wanted to franchise from the beginning since you had been looking at franchises?
Not exactly. I had actually planned to open five corporate locations on my own. Remember, I was looking for flexibility so that I could spend time with my family, so I never really imagined franchising. However, people started coming into the center and asking if it was a franchise. The demand really grew, and I received several requests from people in other states about the opportunity to own a center. And, unbelievably, I discovered people copying my curriculum and website! That led me to start to consider franchising so that I was able to better control the brand and provide an opportunity for others to own a center.
Growing and Competing Globally
I noticed you have a United Kingdom phone number on your website. Are you also getting virtual students from the UK?
Great question. Prior to COVID-19, we had no intention of providing online instruction. Well, when it hit, we didn’t really have a choice. Initially, we thought it would just be for a few weeks, but as time went on, we knew we had to fully transition. Turns out, we were doing a really great job with the virtual classes because coding is easy to teach virtually. As a result, we started receiving requests from Switzerland, Canada, and some from Nigeria. At that point, we decided to go international.
Once that happened, Tutor Doctor, which operates in 15 countries across four continents, reached out to us and wanted to offer some of our courses to their clients, and asked if we would be interested in a partnership over the summer. Of course, we said yes! =Their franchise owners in the UK were also interested, so we formed a global partnership, and now we have Tutor Doctor students from Dubai taking our courses.
Something else I saw that was unique to Code Wiz was that you have your students participate in some pretty prestigious robotics competitions. How does that work?
Yes, it’s a lot of fun. We participate in three main competitions. The Robotics competition is a worldwide competition where the students design, build, program, and operate large robots. It’s a great opportunity for kids because parents care a lot about kids learning to work in teams. As a software engineer, you have to be able to work as a team. We saw this as an opportunity to show kids how to work as a team through fun, friendly competition. The Girls Tech competition is also worldwide. It shows girls that they are not the only one who enjoys coding. All the projects must be socially inclined. The third competition is one we created in-house called Code for a Cause. This teaches kids that it’s not just about learning how to code, but how you can use your code to make a difference in the world. From creating a game around recycling to showing kids why they should bully, to saving the earth.
You now have four locations in Massachusetts and one in New Jersey. What is your growth strategy?
We have a few things in the works, but we will be expanding nationwide. Originally, we had planned to expand regionally, but we’re working on something that will enable us to go nationwide very soon.
Becoming a Code Wiz Owner
What do you look for in a Code Wiz owner?
First and foremost, a passion for education and working with kids. An owner needs to be able to see themselves interacting and having fun–and sometimes even thinking like a child. You also need grit. You can’t choose to lay down and die at the first instance of trouble. I also like candidates that consider making an impact on the next generation as part of their return on investment (ROI). You can make good money having a Code Wiz business, but you must be able to see the value in the difference you’re making on children’s futures. That’s one of the things that really keeps me going. I always imagine the next Bill Gates coming out of Code Wiz. Finally, we like to encourage women and people of color to become owners. It’s a great way to be a role model and make a difference in the community.
In addition to the personality criteria, our investment range is between $118,000 and $194,000, which includes the $40,000 franchise fee, and a net worth requirement of $150,000.
What advice do you have for people that have a desire to be business owners?
The biggest thing I hear when speaking with prospective owners is fear. I tell them they won’t know if they’ll be successful if they don’t try. You can’t be afraid to try. If it doesn’t work out, you will have learned something that you can take to your next venture. I had 10 micro-businesses before starting Code Wiz and they all failed. But I learned something for each of them and brought those lessons with me when I created Code Wiz.