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Hands-on program is headed for India

October 13, 2012 12:10 am


A group of boys attending a recent birthday party at Engineering for Kids cheers as they watch the Lego robots they built battle each other. bz1013franchisePC1.jpg

New Delhi residents Aparna (left) and Siddharth Todi watch as Engineering for Kids corporate trainer Tyler Burdett assembles pieces of track during a training session at the company's offices in Stafford.


A New Delhi couple were searching online for after-school programs they could offer in India.

They wanted something different to satisfy the demands of the growing number of dual-income parents who don't want their children parked in front of the TV or a computer for hours.

Siddarth and Aparna Todi found what they were looking for at Engineering for Kids, a Stafford County company that teaches engineering basics in fun, hands-on classes. They recently purchased its first international franchise, and have been at its corporate headquarters this week for training.

"This program is not taught [in India] right now," said Aparna Todi. "There is robotics there, but not the other programs that Engineering for Kids is offering. We thought it would be unique."

After-school programs such as the ones Engineering for Kids offers are expected to be a billion-dollar industry in India, where 540 million people are under the age of 25.

"It's a very big market, and a very growing market," said Siddarth Todi. "People want to have the best education, and there's a lot more awareness of the need [for after-school programs]."

Dori Roberts, who used to teach technology engineering at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford, started Engineering for Kids in 2007. Her inspiration was her son Matthew, then a 3-year-old, who came along to watch her high school team compete in a Virginia Technology Student Association competition.

He loved seeing all the animatronic devices, rubber-band-powered model aircraft and other things that teams from across the state had created. She decided to simplify the projects she'd been doing with her students so 6- to 12-year-olds could do them.

Roberts offered her first class as an after-school program for elementary school students, then as a weeklong summer camp at the Courthouse Community Center in Stafford.

Today she oversees the corporate learning center in Aquia Park Shopping Center off U.S. 1, has a new corporate office at 100 Riverside Parkway and has sold 15 franchises. Besides New Delhi, they are in nine states from Virginia to California.

"I was thinking that in the first year we'd sell 12 [franchises]," Roberts said. "We just hit a year, so we're above our goal."

The Engineering for Kids concept appeals both because the classes are fun--kids get to build robotic alligators and use a laptop to operate them, for example--and because they provide the kind of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, education that is in demand today.

"Everyone sees STEM as something that's needed," Roberts said. "The problem is that a lot of schools get their funding cut and they can't keep up. What we are doing is reinforcing what the schools are teaching as an after-school program in a hands-on, very applied way."

To buy an Engineering for Kids franchise, people pay an initial fee of $14,500, do the paperwork for starting a business, and then come to the corporate office for four days of training.

"Most of the children's concepts go for $19,000 to $30,000," Roberts said. "We strategically priced it at $14,500 to really kind of open the doors for us in the beginning. Getting the first 10 franchises is the toughest because you don't have a track record yet."

Many of the people who have bought them so far were looking for this type of program in their own communities, and discovered Engineering for Kids while searching online, she said. Others, like the Todis, wanted to go into business and were looking at children's concepts.

Franchisees in the United States--and eventually Canada and Puerto Rico--get territories that cover 100 elementary schools. International franchisees buy a master franchise and can then sell sub-franchises.

The Todis, for example, bought the master franchise for the National Capital Territory of Delhi. They plan to open their first center in New Delhi in mid-December, then begin expanding into its satellite cities.

"We would like to sub-franchise, but it depends on the business model," Siddarth Todi said. "It may be more beneficial to me if I open more of my centers."

Selling franchises has enabled Roberts to open her corporate office, hire a staff of four to help franchisees with marketing and human resources, and develop new classes. These include creating Lego robots that could fix pipelines buried under the ocean and those that could perform tasks on Mars.

"We've been very fortunate that we've been able to sell the first 10 franchises very quickly," she said. "I would say that by the end of 2013 we will have 50 franchises and will continue to grow internationally as well."

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407

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