It’s no exaggeration to say that Julia Pimsleur Levine is changing the way that future generations of children in the United States will learn languages. Her company, Little Pim, develops videos that allow parents of all income brackets to seize upon a child’s opportunity to learn up to three languages before the age of six. To date, her company has sold over 1.2 million products. As it grows, Little Pim will continue to change the educational landscape, providing young children with the tools they need to become more competitive in an increasingly international job market.
We sat down with Julia Pimsleur Levine, who was has had successful careers as both a film producer and a non-profit fundraiser, to discuss how her life experiences led her to found Little Pim.
When did you start your career, and how has it evolved?
I went to Yale for my undergraduate degree, and studied film and women’s studies. I was always interested in how media can be a positive force for social change. After I graduated, I moved to Paris for seven years, where I went to the French National Film School and made social issue documentaries. After I got my M.F.A degree, I spent three years making films in Paris, and then realized I wanted to start my own company. In order to do so, I felt I had to return to New York, where there were more opportunities for the kinds of films I wanted to make.
What did you do when you returned to New York?
I recruited my best friend from college and together we started a film production company called Big Mouth Productions with about $3,000. For a few months, we lived on our friends’ couches! But it was also an exhilarating time. All the films we made were cinema verité, about real people whose stories illustrated pressing social issues like race, class and opportunity in America. After we made the films – completely independently financed – we would sell them to channels like Cinemax and HBO. The company was called Big Mouth Productions in honor of all the loud-mouthed women on our staff and crews!
Why did you decide to leave documentary filmmaking?
At the time, I was in my early thirties, and as I looked out at my future, it seemed to me that being a filmmaker was not very conducive to family life. There were dozens of film festivals to attend, like Sundance and Cannes, if you wanted to keep up your momentum. It was all very exciting, but it didn’t leave a lot of room for a personal life. So I stepped away from the company after five years, and became a full-time fundraiser for non-profits. It was around that time, perhaps not coincidentally, that I met my husband.
In essence, that became your second career. How did you transition to your third, which was becoming the founder of Little Pim?
I fundraised for four years, but media was always my first love and my passion. My husband and I had our first child in 2004, Emmett. When I was at home on maternity leave, I came up with the idea for Little Pim. My entire life, I had felt that speaking French (which I learned as as child) gave me huge advantages, professionally and personally. I wanted my son to speak too, and I started by singing him French lullabies and speaking to him in French, but I quickly noticed how much he loved watching videos. It occurred to me that I could use the time he was enraptured by educational DVDs to teach him French. I tried to find a great series that could entertain and teach him at the same time, but soon realized there was nothing high quality and effective on the market. That’s when I had the idea to combine my three passions – film, language and children – to form Little Pim.
You are the daughter of Dr. Paul Pimsleur, who developed the Pimsleur language learning system, a method that still proves to be one of the most effective tools for teaching a foreign language. Did that influence your decision to start Little Pim?
Yes, I am very proud of my father’s method and wanted to create a similar high quality teaching method just for children. The method I created combined what I had learned from his method with my experiences as a filmmaker, teacher and mother. The result was our proprietary Entertainment Immersion Method® which was specially designed for very young learners.
There is a lot of research that shows that before children turn 6, they are hardwired to learn up to three languages. After the age of 6, we become neurally committed to English. The brain no longer has the ability to easily recognize and retain sounds that aren’t familiar. So if you miss that window, you’re missing a big chance to teach a child a language when it’s easiest for them to learn.
How is Little Pim changing the way that American children learn languages?
We are trying to make it possible for new generations of young children to become global citizens. If you want your child to take part in our global economy where foreign language skills are increasingly in demand, you don’t have to hire a nanny, or pay for a language classes. You don’t have to wait for you child’s school to start teaching them at the age of 12, when the learning window has already closed. You don’t have to speak the language yourself. You can help your kids learn just by having them watch Little Pim DVDs and practicing the vocabulary with them. We hope this will get kids started on a lifelong journey of second language learning.
In 21 of the 25 industrial countries, kids begin the study of second languages in grades K-5, while the majority of U.S. students begin studying a second language at age 14. That really puts our children behind on the world stage, and prevents them from being competitive in the global marketplace.
How many products have you sold?
We’ve sold about 1.2 million products over the last three years, with a minimal spend on marketing. Most of our sales have come from word-of-mouth or Mommy bloggers, which is an incredibly powerful community. We’ve been very conservative with our marketing spend, but we’re gearing up to change that and increase our visibility exponentially in 2012 and beyond.
Have you had any bumps in the road as you’ve grown Little Pim?
After we developed the product, back in 2007, I raised enough to produce the series, but not enough to work on the company full time. So I was working on Little Pim on top of my regular job, managing Little Pim on my Blackberry before and after work and on my lunch break. I also had a young baby at home…. That was exhausting! But the traction that we got that year showed me there was potential. After that first tough year, I was able to raise seed capital – a million dollars – and hire a staff.
Statistics prove that women have a harder time raising venture capital money than men. Did you face any challenges during your capital gain stage?
I had to raise money in both careers before Little Pim—filmmaking and fundraising—so I had a good base. But only a very small percentage of women starting businesses actually get funded. Every time I look at the staff of venture capital firms, it’s wall-to-wall guys. Where are the women VCs?. There is a largely male culture in the investment world that might make it harder for women to access that critical funding to grow their businesses.
When you were a filmmaker, you worked closely with other women. Does that equip you to mentor women today?
I absolutely want to mentor other women, because mentoring I received was critical to my own development. When I came up with the idea for Little Pim, I met with 5 or 10 successful female entrepreneurs who had built businesses in the kids products space. They were so forthcoming and generous. I would ask them: “What would you do if you were me to get started? What do you wish you had known? What are the top three things you have to prioritize in the early days of a business?” The answers they gave me saved me so many months of missteps. I have found women to be very generous in sharing their experiences, and I’ve made a personal commitment to be that way too.
What qualities have made you so successful at growing a business?
Well, there have been a lot of trip-ups along the way! A lot of trial and error, shall we say. But one of the things that I think I’ve done right is to surround myself with advisors and a very active board members right from the beginning. That’s a big key to success, and it’s one area in which women have a big advantage. We sometimes don’t dream big enough, but we do often have humility. If you can admit that you’re good at some things, but not good at others, and find people you trust to bolster your weaknesses, you have the recipe for success.
What advice do you have for young women starting their careers?
Don’t be afraid to engage other people in your dreams. Be prepared to make changes, and don’t become too attached to your initial idea, it may have to change a bit in order to thrive. Evolve or die. Don’t create anything duplicative, be sure to scan your field before you start your company. When you’re sure of your idea, aim high, and surround yourself with good advisors.
And finally, seek ongoing professional development. If you aren’t secure about something, especially on the financial side of a business, take courses that fill in your knowledge gaps. Don’t be afraid to be open to new ideas, and don’t be discouraged if you have to learn some tough lessons, it’s all part of growing a business from scratch.