Liz Perelstein, AM’80, was a seasoned educator, mother of two, and just reelected to the school board in Westchester, NY, when her husband received a job offer that moved her family to London. Next came the challenge of finding a school for her children—then in 4th and 6th grades—and Perelstein was at a loss.
“I was a deer in the headlights,” she recalls. “I realized if it was hard for me to figure out their schooling, it would be hard for anybody else.”
The realization led Perelstein to start an international school consulting business in 1997, to help companies find the best education for the children of transient families like hers when they move abroad. More than a decade later School Choice International has grown to more than 90 consultants in more than 25 countries worldwide.
In 2006, Perelstein was recognized by the Make Mine a Million $ Business program and provided the support network and business tools that enabled her to grow her company past $1 million in revenue within the year. In 2010, Perelstein was named one of Fortune magazine’s 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs.
More than 200 million people around the world are living outside of their home countries. According to some estimates, expatriates and migrants now account for almost 10 percent of the total population in many developing countries, making them an attractive market for many industries, especially when their children’s education is at stake. “They’re worried,” she says of these parents. “They want to know that their child will be OK, and this is a service they grasp onto.”
Perelstein holds two master’s degrees from the University of Chicago—one in educational administration and the other from Chicago Harris, where she says she developed the fiscal discipline and cost-benefit analysis tools that helped get School Choice off the ground and through two recessions.
The rest of those early years were founded on sheer work ethic. Perelstein visited schools in London, meeting their administrators and learning their admission procedures. She developed a brochure and got an article published about her fledgling company in an expatriate journal. Her first client, a major investment bank, hired her on a one-off basis. That firm, which Perelstein can’t name for legal reasons, still works with School Choice today. “Our philosophy is about finding the right fit,” she says. “We don’t try to push children into schools where they’re not going to thrive.”
A lot of that work involves helping families compare curriculum between local schools in the host country and their current home school to figure out what would make for the smoothest transition and, eventually, for repatriation, she says. Recommendations spread by word of mouth, and whenever a company called asking if she could help, she’d expand her global reach to fit their needs. “I would say yes,” she explains. “Then I’d fly out to Frankfurt or Seattle to interview people and visit schools.” School Choice International has since built strong relationships with school administrators across the globe—some now call her company whenever they have vacancies to fill.
After about seven years, Perelstein decided it was time for School Choice to expand more aggressively. She had since moved back to the United States and, in 2006, successfully started and sold another business - a British curriculum school in New York City with the needs of British expatriates in mind. It was during the fundraising process for the school that Perelstein first heard about the Make Mine a Million $ Business program, which was started by American Express and Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a not-for-profit organization that supports women business leaders.
She applied and was one of 38 women nationwide to receive a combination of coaching, financing, and marketing tools to help grow their companies. With this support, School Choice has doubled its staff and almost tripled its revenue since 2006, making Perelstein one of the only 2.6 percent of women whose businesses have reached the million-dollar milestone.
She is now a member of the Women Presidents Organization, a peer-to-peer mentoring group for multi-million dollar women business owners, and mentors young women entering the Make Mine a Million program.
Perelstein admits that moving to London was one of the most difficult transitions in her life. But that experience is what makes School Choice thrive. She understands the needs of her clients and empathizes with their struggles because she knows what it’s like to leave family and friends behind to start anew in a foreign land.
She also credits those challenges as the first source of her success. “I’d never been an entrepreneur before,” she says. “When you’re overseas, you’re much more comfortable taking risks than you would have been at home. You have nothing to lose.”