Decision Dialogues
Decision Dialogues

Episode · 1 year ago

Philanthropy as an Occupation - Ep 12


On Episode 12, Mark Willoughby and Victoria Consoles are joined by Deb Shames of Personal Best College Coaching to talk about the decisions she's made in her line of work. From finding a balance between helping as many students as possible and making a living, to how best to serve her families, decision making is at the heart of what Deb does. Get the full show notes and more resources at

Are you paving the way for the life you want facing decisions that may affect you personally and financially? The decision dialogs podcast, brought to you by Modera Wealth Management, presents personal stories about navigating through life's pivotal moments, narratives that we hope will inspire you as you create your own story. You'll learn what influence their next steps and gain insights that could help you with your own critical choices. Welcome to decision dialogs. Thanks for joining us on decision dialogs. Were throws to have you along. My name is mark will be and I'm a principal wealth manager and the Chief Operating Officer of Madera Wealth Management Llc. Today, my colleague, Victoria Consolis, who is a senior financial planning associate at Madera Wealth Management, and I will be chatting with Dev shames dead, is the founder and owner of Personal Best College coaching, based in northern New Jersey. Since two thousand and two her firm has been providing independent college counseling assistance to families in the New York City trystate area, as well as throughout the United States. Welcome everyone to the show and I'll hand it over to Victoria. Thanks, mark, and Hi Dab. Thanks so much for joining us today. My pleasure for our listeners. Dab is not only a college coach and business owner, but a mom of three and someone who still manage just to find time to use her skills to help the community. So, Dev I'd like to kind of just jump right in, if you don't mind. I want you to be able to share with listeners a little bit about your Your Business and how you got started. Okay, so I have been doing this for the past eighteen or so years. I started when I was pregnant with my third child. Before that I was a school counselor and basically decided to branch out on my own because I didn't think that I could realistically be at a desk at thirty having dropped three kids at three different locations. So I had been pursuing this for a few friends and family just free of charge on the side, and my husband said, hey, why don't you see if you can actually turn this into a business? And it was. At the beginning, it really was small. I think my first year I had six seniors that I worked with and I was doing presentations at churches and libraries and that sort of thing. And I was a solo practitioner at that point and over the years I've been really fortunate that I've been able to grow my business, which for me is super important because it's for me. It's about being able to help as many students as I can and families as I can. So I now have a business that has five counselors, including myself, and I have five writing coaches who work with with us, helping students Polish their essays and brainstorm ideas and get their voice to come across and that sort of thing. So so this has been just a really incredible journey and I'm excited to talk about it during the podcast today. That's fantastic. So you said you started with six clients. Was it? Did you initially have expectations for the business? Where you nervous to start? What do you think was the market that you were headed into? I think I definitely was nervous to start out because I was not, I'm not a business oriented person. I'm a counselor. That was what my training was in and and I'm fortunate to have a husband who's got an MBA in finance, and so he's really the the business end of it and handles all my back office stuff. And you know, when I am helping me sort of map out how we could do this and what it would look like logistically. And also at the time when we started, my kids were very young. I was pregnant with my last one and then I had a three year old in the five year old, and so trying to manage all that and he used to take the kids before I had an office space. He would just take the kids and leave the house because otherwise they would be all over us as we'd be having meetings...

...and I was going to clients homes carrying a suitcase full of all my college books and you know that kind of stuff. So yeah, I was definitely nervous in terms of could I make it work, what would it look like? What was the the pricing structure that would make sense? Would people want to hire me? How would I find my clients? You know, all that kind of stuff I think that any business owner probably struggles with, I would think. And then who also, who's my competition? And you know, how do you where? Where do you have that balance between competition and colleague? And it's nice because now I really feel like I've crossed that. You know now, as I've gotten more established, I have these really nice cleo relationships with counselors, you know, in the area nationally, so that's been really awesome. And how long did it take you from starting out to really feel like you knew what you were doing and you were able to get out there and start building your business, because I know your business has grown quite a bit. You started, you said, you started as a solo practitioner and it's grown to you know, you have staff working for you now. So what did that look like in the process? I think there was definitely a learning curve in terms of just the transitioning from being a school counselor to being an independent educational consultant, and ice is what it's called in the business, because there are just different responsibilities that you have to do and as an ic we go much, much more into depth than a school counselor would ever have time to do. And in fact, as hell families, I do everything that are really good school counselor would do if they didn't have the case loads, they had the other responsibilities that they had and worked evenings week in Summers and holidays. You know. So I think that having the opportunity to go visit more colleges was a huge piece of it for me, having to figure out which things you know to do, is I could take care of myself versus needing assistance to do which things I wanted to make sure that students were empowered to do as far as managing their own journey, and I sort of, you know, say that I'm the GPS and there the driver. So I'm going to teach them what they need to know, but they've got it. They've got to drive the bus. They've got to make sure that they are following through and really owning the process. So I think that that was a learning curve for me to understand how much I should be helping them versus empowering them to help themselves along the way. I'm sure there are. There were some hard decisions and some easy one. So could you kind of share for our listeners you know, what's one difficult decision you had to make in the business and then what's something that you may find easy to make in either your day to day or overall business decisions? I think for me the hardest thing was trying to figure out what the what my price point was going to be. And you know, my mentality is always wanting to help as many people as I can. I do pro Bonos. I Pro Bono students I take on every year. I work for a nonprofit that helps low income black and Latinos community college students transfer to four year schools. So I really have this sort of philanthropic bent to how I approached my life and how I approach my business. But I also realize it's a business and I have to earn a living. So it was trying to figure out how to not undervalue and under sell myself, which I did initially. I had a family. I remember when I first started out, I had a family who called me and said, well, I don't understand. You're saying that you only cost this much money and I have these other people I've interviewed you that are like six to ten times as much as you are. I was like Whoa, okay Um. And then once I started working, I think part of figuring out that pricing structure also was how much work was actually involved, and so that was also a tremendous learning curve because I figured out the first you know, when I had those first six clients. I think I was earning about as much as I would have earned it a minimum wage job. Yeah, because I just didn't realize that the amount of work that was was going to be required. And so that was definitely a challenge and I've raised prices as I've gone up, but I don't want to price myself away, you...

...know, out of families being able to afford me. So I have to find that balance. So I've now offer different pricing structures depending on what a family needs and what they feel that they can afford, and I try to, you know, I really do try to meet their meet their needs. So I have hourly rates, I have a mini package rate and then I have a comprehensive package rate and we play with that, as you know, as needed to try to fill the needs that families come to me with. And I would say as far as easy decisions, Um, I think it was a pretty easy decision to realize that I had to expand once I realized I couldn't help the number of people who wanted help without getting additional staff. And then, you know, finding the staff ended up being easier than I thought. I had one good lead and that person led to multiple other good leads and I had one person who had replaced me, the first person I brought one with someone who would replace me when I had my now soon to be twenty four year old for maternity leave replacement, and she's now been working with me for several years. And then bringing in writing coaches was the other challenge, because I knew that I could not do all of the you know, the editing and the brainstorming and all of that with every student to the level that I wanted to without some extra help. And there were a lot of late nights and and I think the other thing that was really helpful, and this was hard for me and easier for my husband, was automating certain things. Okay, having technology help us. I am not a tech person at all, and so even he had to push me to set up calidly. I will tell you was the greatest thing I ever did. Smartest thing I just now just send a link and I say pick something that works and it's great because I don't know all that back and forth that I used to have. So, you know, certain decisions that automating stuff, certain things was definitely easier for me. But I'm all, I'm still not a techy person, and I was talking to a colleague who's thirty and she sent me a list of all the APPS that she uses. The U. No, no, that's Kenneth. Can I drove down on one of those difficult decisions? Yeah, dead sure. You're obviously a very generous, phototropic person who is a passion for helping people. HMM, so I just think of you as you're embarking in your business, working for a minimum wage, right. Yeah, how long did it take you before you had to make the difficult decision to start raising your rates, and what did that look like for you, considering your generosity and your kind of trophy feature? Well, I think that part of it is also that I'm a very trusting person, so I would tend to believe people at face value. So somebody says they can't afford me, I'm not like, show me your tax return. I think that I started to after that call where that guy said to me, I don't understand you know why you're charging so little? My price is doubled overnight because I realized literally they double because I said I guess I'm not charging enough here, and then I started talking to colleagues and finding out what the market was in our area. I think I'm still I'm about at where most of my colleagues are a little bit higher than some lower than certainly several. Push for you was from what the market was telling you. It was external. Me Was it was extract I think the push for me was the market. But there are people, I mean I had a family that I worked with and when they came to the first meeting, I didn't understand that there was a fight. They've been referred by somebody and I didn't understand what the financial situation was. And at the end of the meeting, when I told her what the bill was for the hour of time, she looked aghast and she's like, Oh, I didn't realize that. Can I just write you a check for like a quarter of that amount and I'll send you a check like every month, and I'm like, Oh boy, I said, you know what, it's fine, just, you know, pay me twenty five whatever it was, and she ended up sending me a check and I ended up sending the ripped up the check and I sent it back to her and I said I ended up right. I think I deposited and I sent back to them when the the Sun was going off to college and I said go buy a...

...cope, you need you know, and and that to me was a super easy decision. That, that, to me, is not a hard decision to make it all. And I when I have students that reach out to me and I can tell from either their story or just the conversation that it's a challenge. It's a non issue for me, and so that that. That to me, is an easy decision to make. Deb You mentioned some of the pro bono work and some of the communities you work with, so I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about that and sort of where you find balance between working for your you know, Your Business, and then working for a nonprofit and for some of the pro bono work you do as well. Yeah, so, Um, so I started working for the capital and Educational Foundation. This is my thirteen year and it was just a fluke thing that I happened to be on a national councilor list serve on a summer day and it popped up as a job thing and I applied, having had some experience working with low income in First Gen and minority students, and so I applied and got that job, and so that is you know, that to me is like my passion project. That one I'm I get paid, but I'm not in it for the money. The work is way more than the money would ever be, but the reward is also way more than any payment could ever be as well. My goal and working with those students, and I do a lot of pro bono work with their younger siblings who are high school students going to college. They're all community to college transfers, but my goal with that is really at college access and there are so many hoops and so many barriers that low income students have to face that if I can make that just a smidge easier, that to me is a no brainer and I wish that there were. There are lots and lots of counselors out there doing similar things. There are definitely programs that are similar to hours, although most most of them are at the high school level, not at the community college transfer level. Yeah, I think that having the opportunity to serve them, I I'm okay taking on fewer students and part of bringing in more staff on my team has allowed me to keep that job while still wanting to serve students in the private sector. That's fantastic. I love hearing about you know, the work that you you're doing, and then even talking about your students as well. You seem so passionate about everything you're doing. So what's the most rewarding part of either running a business or some of the other work that you're doing here? I think I think the rewarding part about running a business is seeing that you know that I have made a choice that is bringing an income that supports our help support our family, so it makes certain things easier for us to have. It's it's a second income, but it's a significant second income. But I think that I think the most rewarding part of the work that I do is the relation ships that I am able to develop with students and, in particular, helping students find schools that maybe weren't on their radar screen, that are these hidden gems that they've never heard of, and then having them attend those schools and saying, Oh my God, this changed my life, or working with my capital scholars or the pro Bono students that I work with and having them say, I never even considered that I could look at a school like that and helping them achieve that goal and then knowing that they're also going to pay it forward to somebody else. I think that you know that whole concept of paying it forward is huge for me. That's great. I love that. And then so I want to go back to starting a business, because you talked about this being the second income and I know starting a business is scary right. It's kind of you're entering unchartered territory there. So is there anything you wish you knew when you when you were starting out with the business? Um, I wish I knew I was as much of a workaholic as I have turned out to be, because I definitely I have a hard time walking away from it at the end of the day. And part of that is that I work in my house and so when you have an office in your house, you're not leaving the office to go home. So my laptop can come to me to sit on the couch...

...and watch Netflix while I'm just deleting some emails. Or in this job you have to work evenings and weekends. You know, it's just it goes with the territory because that's when families are available. So, you know, one of the things that we've chosen to do now is I do not schedule clients on Saturday's. Okay, so we can have a day where we just can run errands and we can, you know, hang out and do family stuff, if you know if anybody's into doing family stuff. But the kids are teenagers and twenty some things and Post College at this point. So, but just being able to have a little bit of downtime, I think is is finding that balance is super important, which I haven't necessarily done so well yet. I do, I send webinars. I'm actually reading a great book called Atomic Habits. I think it's by James Clear. Great Book, but I have to now put those things into place, you know, to find that balance. Yeah, well, I mean it sounds like you were able to find some sort of balance too, because you started out right wanting to be able to have kids and work a business, and the maybe the the job as a school counselor wasn't really working out at the time compatible with your lifestyle. Do you think you could have started your own business if you didn't have the support of your husband along the way? Oh God, no, you'd get mad, even if I thought that that was a thing. No, I really truly could not, because we really compliment each other in terms of how we approach things. You know, for example, I had written a curriculum that I wanted to put out there and so every family gets. We have now finally put it on paper, virtual paper. It's a seventy page book called the coaches playbook, and an outlines everything that we cover, and we do cover it all, but this way a family can go and refer back to it. I had it on my computer all the ideas and I really struggle with seeing how do I get that onto paper in an organized way by chapters and whatnot, and he's able to do that. He's a finance manager. He does decks and all this kind of stuff all the time. So with his help I was able to do that. I would never been able to do that without his support in managing the kids and taking car pools and going and covering things when I have to work on the weekends, whether it was sports practice or karate or other errands that needed to be done, cooking, you know, if I had client meetings all day on Sunday, you know, I can walk out of my client meeting it thirty and there's lunch ready you know. So I'm very lucky that I've that I have his support in terms of making this business work. You know, we're in the middle of a pandemic right now. So I want to hear, I'm not sure if you realize, but I want to hear how things have changed for you along the way. You mentioned technology not being your strongest suit, but it sounds like a lot of what you do is from inside your home and I want to hear how that's either, you know, Change Your Business or challenge your business along the way. I think actually, for me I've been pretty lucky. I feel almost a little guilty that I haven't had to pivot as much during the pandemic. I was already doing skype meetings before I knew that zoom was a thing, or facetime meetings with my students, and so oftentimes, like I have families in New York City, I have families in other parts of New Jersey and in Westchester and I'm in northern New Jersey and so you know, it wouldn't necessarily be the easiest thing in the world to have a seven thirty or eight o'clock at night meeting when somebody has to get in a car and slip a half an hour, an hour. So I was already doing that with families instead, you know, after the initial meetings and there were some families that, because of distance or lack of access to a car if they were in the city, that I never actually met in person. But so this just sort of step that up. But it was a pretty easy pivot. And then we run assay workshops for our students and we had always done them in my house and it was, you know, we do like a four and a half hour workshop. We'd feed students so they still like us and and we it was very chill and very relaxed. And we had to pivot to online this year and it actually ended up being...

...really good because we shifted how we're formatting it and instead of doing one long chunk on a day, we're doing it over the course of three days in shorter burse and the students were able to retain more and get more out of it and we were able to be our respective way of teaching them. Yeah, really was. It was really a much more effective way of teaching. So and there were certain things, there were certain workshops that I was able to run online that, you know, I wouldn't have done online prior to this. Yeah, so I think it's been it's been really good. And I think the other thing in the past I've had families who have said to me, you know, I think you're just too far away. I don't know, Susie does better with somebody sitting right there with her. And now I think everybody understands that you can do stuff virtually and it's not necessarily worse. And so does most of your new business generation come from current clients, former student clients, or do you do you spend a lot of do invest in different marketing techniques? I actually don't do any marketing whatsoever. I mean I have a I have a facebook page, I Have Personal Best College coaching has a facebook page, I have an instagram and but I don't I don't really know how to post. So I need really get someone to post for me. Again, it's an age thing, but I would say probably eighty to ninety percent of my business comes from word of mouth referrals. So it's previous clients, current clients, former students, and a lot of it'll come through like various town facebook pages when, if I have somebody will post. You know, do you know anyone who does college counseling and then somebody recommend me that way? Yeah, I mean I can only imagine, you know, parents being out of sporting event or something like that and not coming up in conversation as the college decision is so important as they enter those later years of high school. Yeah, yeah, for sure, for sure. So I want to pivot here as we're coming up on the last few minutes, but I'm curious have you have you had a failure in the business that you kind of look back at and think you wish you had done something differently, maybe something that you learned from along the way? Um, I think going back to, you know, when we were talking about fees and stuff like that, just understanding how to position myself within the market that I was doing so that I could reach the Maxim amount of families while not pricing myself out of them, you know, out of the market for some and not undervaluing myself to others. Yeah, you know, and there's definitely a range even within families that I have, where they've got a comprehensive package. Some kids are super independent and they're talking to me on their own and some I'm talking more with mom and Dad and trying to engage the kid with great difficulty. I think they're always failures in terms of, you know, an outcome that you wish had been different for a family or for a student that you had no control over. I can't think of anything that was a major failure, except how I was initially structuring my pricing. Okay. Also, I think I'm getting to the point, but not necessarily, where if I have a family that I don't feel will be the right fit for me and I won't be the right fit for them, then I'm at the point where I can say to somebody, you know what, I don't know that we're the best match for each other. Yeah, was there's a really hard place to get to and I don't do it often, but, you know, I think sometimes you have to realize that it's not going to be the right like that it's just not going to work. Yeah, it's going to be more draining and more taxing than it's worth to have that client when you can tell from the get go that it's you're just not the right person for that family or they're not the right family for you. Yeah, I know that that makes sense. I mean I can't imagine that being an easy conversation to have, but I'm sure you've learned along the way what makes sense for students, because it sounds like you want, you have everyone's best interest in mind along the way. Yeah, and I think the the the hardest thing, you know, one of the hardest things, and I don't think it's a function of me, but like trying to you know, when I have a family who's only all wrapped up in like college rankings and that kind of thing. That's not what I'm about. I'm about let's find the right fit for the student.

Let's find a place where that they can where they can thrive academically, they can thrive socially and the rest will work itself out. But it's not. If all you're concerned about is the rankings, then we're not going to be the right fit for each other. How long do you think you're gonna keep up with your business for hot what do you it sounds like you your go, go, go and never slowing down, but I'm curious what you see for a future for the business. You know, I don't. I don't see myself giving this up anytime soon. I'm fifty three and I'm going to be an empty Nester soon enough, because my youngest is going off to college in the fall and my middle one is graduating from college next year. She took a gap year during covid this year, and my oldest is living at home but is, you know, is getting ready to start looking for apartments after since he's graduated from college a little over year ago. And I think, you know, I'll keep doing it as long as I as long as it's fun. Eventually, maybe I would pivot completely to doing pro bono work if money was not an issue at all and, you know, just be able to again. It's there's so many people that there are so many people who don't have access and there are things that we just take for granted. You know, when you grow up in certain privilege situations that you don't even realize your privilege and then you're like, oh, nobody, nobody told these other kids this. Yeah, you know so. So I see myself going for many, many more years. I don't know if my husband was thrilled about that or not, but I don't know what else I would I don't know what I would do. I'm not like, I don't have tons except for my Peloton and and taking walks and playing with my dog and hanging out with my husband and friends. Like I don't have. I don't would work, I don't knit, I don't like, I don't do any of that stuff. So I need something to fill my day. I'm not a good cook, so I don't. I need something. Well, I mean, it truly does sound like you love what you do and it sounds like such a rewarding job and experience for you, so I'm not surprised that you don't see an end in sight anytime soon. Absolutely so, Dev before you go, we have one final question. So what is the last non financial decision you had to make? Oh Wow, actually, the last non financial decision I had to make was was making lunch today because, as I said, I'm not a great cook and I kind of everybody in my family. We have one who's Vegan and one who's really a meat eater and my husband, I could go either way, and so figuring out something that I actually made for lunch today, that there were options for all four of us that live in this household right now, was the was the non financial decision I had to make, and I actually prepared it and had it ready when people were ready lunch, which is also a rarity I love. That's great. Well, Dub, thank you so much for your time today. And where could our listeners find your website? Yeah, it was. First of all, was my pleasure and anyone who wants to find me they can reach out are they can find the website. It's wwwers best cc or personal best college coachingcom. It'll come up either way. Thank you, DAB. We appreciate your time and we loved listening to you talk about Your Business. It's fantastic and thanks so much. Thanks so much for having me. So thanks very much to Victoria and today for letting US listening on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives and thank you for tuning in. We hope you'll join US next time on decision dialogs for more stories from successful business owners. So long for that. Thank you for listening to decision dialogs. We hope you found today's stories helpful for your own decisionmaking. If you like to listen to more episodes, you can subscribe on your preferred podcasting APP or visit our website, where you'll also find show notes and important disclosures, wwwollcom, forward slash decision dialogs. This has been a production of twin flames studios.

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