Since the company was founded, Lightbridge Academy has embraced female leadership. The early childhood education centers were founded by a husband and wife duo, Guy and Julia Falzarano.
Now, twenty years later, that female leadership has been carried out through leaders of all ages, at all centers, and the franchise system’s home office.
“At Lightbridge Academy, we consider everyone to be a leader,” said Gigi Schweikert, President and COO of the company. “As an industry, we have a predominantly female employee base, and within our organization, we have many women leaders. Our teachers are leading children every day, influencing who they are and how they're learning.”
At Lightbridge Academy, the company offers careers that are an excellent opportunity for women to hone their leadership skills. In addition, the programs for children include a major focus on teaching children leadership from a young age.
“There's great opportunity at Lightbridge Academy for every type of leader,” said Schweikert. “We typically see leadership as a vertical progression, and it is, but it is also horizontal progression. We have teachers who want to remain in the classroom and become master teachers. The majority of our senior staff in the home office started their careers by working at child care centers.”
And that applies to Schweikert, herself. She began as preschool teacher. And so did the VP of Operations, Jaclyn Falzarano. Many of the executives at the home office began as teachers or in centers including CMO Brenda Febbo’s story. She was a former franchise owner of a center before transitioning her way into home office.
A current example of a female leader in the system working her way up is Maria Dimeo, the Center Director at the Iselin, New Jersey location. After finishing a summer camp position at the YMCA over a decade ago, she applied to Lightbridge Academy for a part time teacher position in Woodbridge. She held a variety of positions including being a teacher’s assistant, summer camp counselor, helping close the office, and more. She was then given the opportunity to be an administrative assistant in a new center in Piscataway, where she worked for about five years. Then, the position for her current role in Iselin was put out to the entire company, and it wasn’t only to handle the general Center Director role, but she would also be in charge of training, as this is the home office center where franchisees and their staff train prior to opening. Because Dimeo lives in Iselin, that was a motivating factor to apply for the job. And nearly 12 years later since joining the Lightbridge family, her career continues to flourish with the company.
As a Center Director, Dimeo wears many hats. Center management is a main focus, making sure classrooms are the right ratio of teachers to children, offering “wow” customer service to parents, and leading by example.
“To be a leader to the staff in the building and enforcing policies and procedures, and managing staff as part of the home office building is a main part of my job,” said Dimeo. “I lead by helping during training weeks and being a franchisee contact. I have franchisee directors come in and observe me, and they can contact me with questions about anything from payroll management to running day-to-day activities, planning for parent and teacher appreciation, and local marketing. I also lead them through accreditation, holding up licensing standards, explaining fire drill and lockdown procedures, and more.”
Dimeo is responsible for giving franchisees and their staffs the lay of the land from teaching them how to run efficient operations to how to coach teachers. She holds herself to high standards, setting an example for the franchisees and their staffs. If anything is ‘off,’ then she knows that can negatively affect the way they run their location, which is why she has to be ‘on’ all the time. As a hard worker, she embraces this role and understands the value she is providing to the entire system.
“I love working for Lightbridge Academy, it’s my second family,” Dimeo said. “I have plenty of women who are my role models within the system. Gigi is one – I used to attend trainings by Gigi before she was at Lightbridge Academy. Lightbridge Academy has always given me opportunities to grow and take my career to another level. This is the highest level at a location to be a Center Director, so they’re helping me to eventually move up to another position at home office. I truly live and breathe Lightbridge Academy’s values and mission every day.”
Female franchisees also have a strong presence within the system. Vita Rizzo has been a franchisee since 2015 when her center opened. She embraces her role as a female leader not only to other franchisees, but also at her center.
“I think having a female figure in the building as an owner makes for a nice rapport with the parents,” said Rizzo. “My background has been in education for 30 years and I’ve always loved being around children. I think that being a motherly figure is great. I’m 62, so sometimes I come off like grandma more, and parents will sometimes come over and ask for advice. They ask ‘How do I do this with potty training,’ ‘What if they’re not sleeping?’ I’ve been there and I think I just provide comfort knowing there is a motherly figure in the building. I think the parents really gravitate toward it.”
Rizzo goes on to discuss that even though she is a female leader in the system as a franchisee, she has learned a lot from Schweikert. When they first met, Schweikert told Rizzo that she’d be so perfect to join the Lightbridge family with her background in education and experience as a mother because she understands what teachers are going through and what moms are going through.
“Women bring to a leadership role compassion and empathy,” said Schweikert. “Our female leaders in the system understand what it is like to really be in that role everyday to become a very empowered teacher in the classroom or female leader at a corporate or local level, always striving to be great examples and role models for leaders of tomorrow.”