What sets successful entrepreneurs apart? Whether they’re Richard Branson or Oprah Winfrey, they tend to share several traits. They have the persistence to face obstacles to achieve their goals. They believe in themselves and do the research to back up their convictions. They have a sense of vision and act on it rather than simply follow the pack. And most important of all, they have a sense of passion for what they do. Most successful entrepreneurs want to improve people’s lives, and they’ll tell you that it’s this—not the promise of fortune or fame—that drives them on.
That’s what inspires Jing Zhao Cesarone to improve early childhood learning in her homeland of China. As founder and CEO of ChildWise, she’s responding to a pressing need. “At the present time, there are nearly 50 million children under age three,” she says, “but only 5 percent of the children will have the chance to attend an early childhood center. And this ratio will only grow because China announced a three-child policy last June. To meet the demand, we’ll need over 3 million early childhood teachers and a scalable system to certify and train them.” The Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential can bridge the gap, as she explains, between what now exists and what the Chinese market needs.
Cesarone became skilled at building bridges as CEO of ChinaWise, a Chicago-based consulting firm she founded in 2001 to help Chinese and North American companies do business together. In this role, she led a wide range of global projects, including the distribution of educational video programs, marketing of children’s retail brands and entrepreneurship training, to name just a few. She was helping an au pair agency set up their Chinese recruitment plan when she first heard about the CDA® and realized how much it could change the early childhood field in China.
“I wanted to learn more about the CDA,” she recalls, “so in October 2016 I went to the Early Educators Leadership Conference held by the Council for Professional Recognition. I could see right away that this was a passionate, devoted group of people, and that December I submitted a plan for bringing the CDA to China. After the Council’s board of directors approved the plan, I put my consulting business aside, founded ChildWise, and in 2017 we launched a pilot project in Wuhan.”
ChildWise went on to hire a team of experts to develop a bilingual CDA program, Cesarone explains. In 2018, she went on to launch an onsite pilot program in Shanghai. In 2019, ChildWise successfully completed three more pilot projects that reached 200 Chinese- and English-speaking teachers in Shanghai and Beijing. Feedback from these teachers, along with a lot of solid research and case studies, helped ChildWise come up with a final curriculum for their program. “We translated everything into Chinese,” Cesarone says, “and in January 2020 we finally launched our bilingual online course with subtitles in both Chinese and English.”
That year ChildWise also partnered with Penn Literacy Network at University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education to launch a bilingual credit course program for students in the U.S. and China. Today, ChildWise has a team of 20 people and has given over 1,000 teachers the training they need to be effective in the early childhood classroom.
The CDA fills an important need in a changing China, Cesarone explains. “In the past, grandparents often took care of the children, but this new generation of grandparents aren’t yet retired. And parents aren’t happy having their children cared for by babysitters without an education. Families want their children to have more chances to learn, and moms want more chances to work. Women have become a major part of the workforce in China over the past few years and without more child care centers, it’s hard for them to hold jobs.”
Work-life balance is especially tricky for them to achieve, as Cesarone saw while watching her mom strive to do double duty. “When I was growing up in China, my mom was a leader of the local chapter of the China Women’s Federation for eight years. Yet she managed to give us unconditional love and support. That made her my role model for being a working mother.” And Cesarone became one, too, after coming to the U.S., getting married, building her business and having three children. “My mom came to stay with me while my children were small and helped out as much as she could,” Cesarone says. “But I still spent a lot of time with my children, an experience that showed me the value of early learning in raising young children right.”
She also had some new insights into herself as she took parenting classes and got very involved in her children’s schooling. “I was surprised when I became a mother,” she recalls, “and realized that success really does mean balance. I had always been so ambitious, always on the run, always doing the work. But during the ten years that my children were young, my priorities changed, and I set boundaries for my business. I didn’t travel as much, and I only worked part-time. But I still managed to achieve a great deal by being more efficient, and that’s something I now try to share with other people.”
She has also shared her company’s expertise because she’s done a lot of charity work, especially in the less developed areas of China, including those in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. “Early childhood teachers there have practical knowledge they’ve learned from their grandmothers and moms, but they have zero chances for formal training,” Cesarone explains. “I wanted to give them the opportunities they need, so last year I didn’t charge about 30 percent of our students for training, and I’m still doing a lot of fundraising to keep supporting early learning in the rural parts of the country.”
Cesarone has the knowledge and connections to put her plans in action because she’s also CEO of the Global CSR Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to empowering corporations, organizations and individuals to join in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. “I’ve done a lot of work with the UN to promote education and empower women,” she says. “That’s why I was invited last year to organize and host the 25th Anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the World Women Organization, where we’re now launching a program called Happy Mama.”
It’s a natural fit for her, as Cesarone goes on to point out. “Moms are the primary caregivers of children, and the early childhood field is primarily made up of women. That’s why I have such a strong connection with this great group of women leaders. I want to keep exploring this network of collective mothers who are devoted to early childhood education, so this year we’re planning a program called Happy ECE Mama. We’re going to engage ECE moms in sharing the stories of their lives, and I’ll be addressing work-life balance by showing them how to be both an educator and a mother.”
Based on her experiences as a working mom, Cesarone is convinced that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” These words have been her mantra since high school, and they guide her now as she faces some challenges of her own. Getting enough qualified PD Specialists to observe candidates has made it harder to expand her CDA training business, despite the Council’s great efforts to help train and qualify the PD Specialists China needs. Testing is also an issue since many students, even those in major Chinese cities like Beijing, need to travel great distances to take their CDA exam. In addition, COVID-19 has forced many early childhood centers to close and caused her business to slow down, as it has here in the U.S.
“Last year, we thought things were going to return to normal,” she says, “and now we don’t know when it’s going to end. It feels like uncharted territory, so we just have to adjust and find new strategies to forge ahead. We’re using the downtime to expand our training into a successful consulting program that provides total solutions to clients who want to start a child care center. We help them set up their classrooms, build their curriculum and design their daily schedules. We’re also doing a lot of free workshops and we’ve had more time to mentor our team of 20 people in China.” They’re her “feet on the ground,” she says, and she missed seeing them last year when she had to cancel her trips to China because of COVID.
Cesarone takes this setback in stride because the CDA program overall has made huge progress in China after five years of hard work. Sure, “the challenges are constant,” she admits. But like all the best entrepreneurs, she has persistence and a clear sense of vision. “No matter how trying a situation is, I can work through it if I think clearly, plan strategically and act realistically” she says. And her keen sense of commitment also makes a difference, especially now that she’s moved away from business consulting to pour herself into her own mission.
“As a consultant,” she says, “you do everything based on the particular task you’re assigned while being an entrepreneur demands more patience and more personal input. As an entrepreneur, you are responsible for everything—whether coming up with strategies or hiring staff—so you need to go above and beyond the call the duty.” That’s what Cesarone is doing now, and she’s never felt more fulfilled. “I’m pouring all the resources, experiences and connections I’ve built over time into the CDA program.” As an entrepreneur in the early childhood field, Cesarone is pursuing her passion.