Building Bennett Day School: An Interview with CEO Cameron Smith

Cameron & rendering
After the birth of his first son in 2010, Bennett Day School Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, Cameron Smith, came face-to-face with the shortage of options for progressive, independent schooling in Chicago. Though his heartfelt reasons as to “why” he founded the school are well-documented, we sat down with Cameron to discuss the “how” behind his motivational journey in creating a Chicago school like no other—Bennett Day School.

Q: When you first started the process of building the school, you had a passionate idea but also a great deal of legal and financial considerations in making it a reality. Many schools are non-profit institutions, so why did you ultimately decide to create Bennett Day School as a social enterprise? 

When we had our first son, I had a vision for a progressive, project-based school that didn’t yet exist in Chicago. I thought about how we could build the school of the size and scale that I wanted and as soon as possible. I was on the board of a charter school for four years, and I saw that even though it was supposed to be a more innovative educational model with more freedom, funding sources were still tied to the same bureaucratic sources in the public domain that are very hard to navigate. I too often saw some of the strongest educators and administrators I’ve ever met incredibly frustrated because of state, local, or federal programs with various strings attached that were incredibly burdensome. After four years of that experience, I found quickly that I did not want this to be a public school with a charter mission. Likewise, nonprofit status was difficult to accomplish—I had an idea for a school, but I didn’t have a hundred years’ worth of donors to try to raise the capital.

What I came to realize is that I could take advantage of my background in private equity and understanding of how resources and capital are raised privately. Then, I looked at tax-paying social enterprise schools, which are responsible for ensuring their expenses do not exceed their revenue. I believe that whether you’re a nonprofit or a for-profit institution, your organization should be sustainable. I was attracted to that model. I also wanted to be able to generate additional resources for the school for reinvestment and to reward people longer-term who took an early chance on us.

The more that I visited other long-standing schools who could take advantage of decades of donor giving, I didn’t like the confusion that created between how they might treat a student’s education and how much money a family or an organization gave to the school. That isn’t equitable, and that really validated for me that families could come to Bennett Day and there would be no confusion between the financial obligation to the school and the education that their children receive.

Q: How did you go about raising capital to build Bennett Day as quickly as you did?

When speaking with my network of investors, I recognized that building a school from the ground-up would take a lot of time, so I only went to individuals. I broke all the rules and did the things one is told never to do! I mortgaged my house and put it up with the bank; I took all of my life savings and invested it in the school; and I raised money from close friends and family. You’re not supposed to do any of that in the early days because, what if it goes wrong? You can’t be at the holiday dinner table going, ‘I love you! By the way, I lost all your money.’ I had very frank conversations with people up-front and told them, ‘I have a dream. I want to start this school, and we’re going to change education for the better. It will be a place where students and teachers create learning together. I would love to have your support, but please don’t invest any more money than you could possibly live without if it was gone tomorrow. You have to assume that it’ll never come back. I believe there will be a reward down the road, but it could be a very long time.’

I made sure they understood that we always need to prioritize reinvesting back into the school and having a superior educational experience. And over 80 people and families got the message. This all feels like ancient history, as it was now long ago, but this is how we got started.

Q: You mentioned generating additional resources for the school. How does social enterprise status allow for more innovation within Bennett Day School?

We generate resources in innovative ways. Instead of having fundraisers or social gatherings where there’s pressure on community members to demonstrate wealth, we created a research and development arm of the school, called Bennett Innovations. We partnered with Northwestern University as a unique lab school partner, and we commercialize K-12 products and services that furthers our own learning. We’ve worked with game designers, with Northwestern, local tech companies, and more, to bring our visions to life. If there are things we can do that are mission-driven that advance creativity and innovation within our four walls, we want to share those with the world. We’ve created a deck of cards called Story Dealer to help kids learn to tell a story; written children’s books; and we are developing educational software apps. We work on projects that are born out of need at school. Our own children and teachers are then co-designers, and it is very exciting to see them innovate in an authentic way. Here is a link for an interview with more on my vision for us. 

In many institutions, innovative ideas die on the vine because they may lack the time, support, and focus, whether a nonprofit or for-profit institution. Instead, we can use the creativity within our community to give back to the school and its many stakeholders. Our grant and scholarship program is already more than double that of our peer schools as a percentage of our budget, and Bennett Innovations helps us make our school accessible to more families than would otherwise be possible.

Q: How does Bennett Day School relate to the community and surrounding public schools?

I believe that everyone has the right to a great education. My mother and sister were public school teachers, and I grew up helping them set up their classrooms. I believe in supporting our public schools, but we also need to innovate and break the mold of outdated educational models. We need choices for our families. I’d love to impact the way things are done in public education for the better, but we had to build Bennett Day in a different way. We needed an environment where we had as few strings attached as possible in order to be to accomplish what we have in such a short timeframe.

We have a good relationship with our local Alderman, Walter Burnett. He has been working both to try to build a new public high school in his ward and he has also supported our K-12 private school. He recognizes that families need choices, and with the vibrancy of an urban environment like Chicago, that it’s important for them to have multiple reasons and options to live and work close to downtown.

I think in some ways, the city appreciates that Bennett Day School pays well over six-figures in property taxes that are then reinvested into the community and public schools. Some people would say that private schools take resources away from the public schools. And while that might be true of a non-profit private school that does not pay property taxes, we actually invest a large sum every year back into our own neighborhood. These taxes go toward many things, including surrounding schools, traffic lights, police, school-crossings, etc. We are proud to support our community in this way.

Q: How does Bennett Day School work with its board members?

When we started, I wanted to balance the skills that we didn’t have. I knew I could raise money, and that I would be a decent marketer with my MBA training at Kellogg. I knew where to find the resources we needed, but I didn’t know how to run a school. That was my very first order of business to find my Co-Founder and Principal at Bennett Day, our Chief Academic Officer, Kate Cicchelli. Kate and I partnered to build our progressive, Reggio Emilia-inspired academic program. We were mission-aligned and we wanted to fill our board with complementary skill sets that we knew we needed.

We’ve had such incredible voices join us on our board from across the educational and business landscapes. They provide us with guidance on growing a sustainable, mission-focused institution and help us uphold the promise to not let our expenditures exceed revenues. Investment in the school is not a requirement for board membership, but there are some members who have chosen to do so. I remain the largest and controlling shareholder. Kate and I are both school parents as well, and we are here for the long term. While we expect to provide a return on investment to our investors, we will never hold any sort of majority share sale, as the mission of the school should always come first over any sort of profit. Our admissions process does not give any preferential treatment to investors and board members, as we expect all of our families to embrace the mission of the school.

Q: There are a lot of misunderstandings about for-profit social enterprises. What do you sometimes hear and what are your thoughts on them?

Joe Biden once said, “show me your budget, and I’ll show you what you value.” If you listen to the TEDx Talk by Martin Moran, Lead Designer and Director of Bennett Day Upper School, he says, “show me a school’s schedule, and I’ll show you what they value.” A common misconception of social enterprises is that they are merely profit-driven and less concerned about student learning, so I say show me a school budget, and I’ll show you what they value!

For example, we have a grant and scholarship fund that is over twice the national and local average for our peer nonprofit private schools because that’s what we value. Non-profit schools are still corporations as well, but they are not inherently accountable, at least based on their corporate structure, to ensure that expenses do not exceed revenue. That can lead, in some cases, to a heavy institutional reliance to fundraise money when you want to add anything. I believe there needs to be a high bar for budgetary decisions with mission-focused intention.

Early on in our development, we received questions about how we would make decisions, say between purchasing resources for students versus declaring a profit distribution for shareholders. That was years ago now, but I would say that if you look at the credentials of our faculty and our physical space, it should be abundantly clear how we have reinvested into the school to provide the best education possible for our children. Again, I come from a family of public school educators, but there is space in the educational environment for different types of models that are responsive to kids and families in different ways. We shouldn’t be so concerned about the corporate structure of a school, but rather look at how they spend their money and what values those choices reflect.

Q: How does for-profit social enterprise status impact accreditation and educational quality?

There are different accrediting bodies that have different views on corporate structure. We are accredited by two bodies: NIPSA and AdvancED. Like other accredited non-profit schools, we have gone through full underwriting for our accreditations, which includes site visits from the organizations and extensive self study. We are also affiliate members or subscribers with other groups that accredit only non-profit institutions, like ISACS and NAIS. Fortunately, these institutions share access to many of their resources like their research and professional development conferences. I also think our educational quality is reflected in that families stay here—our retention rates have always been over 90%. About half of that is because people move or have a job transfer, so we really retain upwards of 95% of retainable families. That speaks volumes about the school, regardless of our tax structure.

It also speaks volumes that our leadership team has been together since day one of the school and remains one of the longest-standing leadership teams in Chicago’s independent schools. Some other schools around town have had significant turnover in their division and head of school leadership. The senior leaders on our team all have 10 to 30 years of experience in the education sector, and we’ve been together for these last five years with no changes in our leadership. I can’t tell you how impactful that is to the outcome for our school, faculty, and students to have such stable leadership.

I am reminded of Robert Frost. Whether you are a parent or a student making a decision about school, taking the ‘road less traveled,’ can make all the difference for our children and the future that awaits them. That is why Bennett Day exists for our families and for others who feel the same way.



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