Linda Mason '80 on Building a Mission-Driven Enterprise

"Our culture is our most important business asset," Linda Mason '80, the co-founder and chair of the childcare organization Bright Horizons, told students on January 30. "We don't produce widgets. We produce care and love and education for young children."

Mason was a guest speaker in Leadership, Organization, and Human Resources in Mission-Driven Enterprises, a course taught by James Baron, the William S. Beinecke Professor of Management. Mason and her husband, Roger Brown '82, founded Bright Horizons in 1986. The company now operates 775 daycare centers with more than 20,000 employees.

"I didn't have a grand plan when I was sitting in your seats," Mason told students. After studying art history and piano as an undergraduate, she said, she originally planned to go into arts management, but at Yale SOM both she and Brown developed an interest in international humanitarian relief work. The couple spent 1980 and 1981 working in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border under the direction of CARE and UNICEF.

After leaving Thailand, Mason and Brown worked for management consulting firms, but in 1984, she said, they had the opportunity to help Save the Children launch a famine relief program in the Sudan. They stayed there for two years, raising $15 million and building a national organization. "It was an incredible entrepreneurial experience for us," Mason said.

Back in the U.S. in 1986, Mason said, she and Brown decided to start their own business. "We were really bitten by the entrepreneurial bug," she said. "And we wanted to start something that would make a social difference." Drawn to the children's field after their work with children in Africa, Mason said, they quickly identified a new opportunity.

"We realized we were witnessing a major sociological shift in the United States as more moms of young children were going into the workforce," she said. The lack of quality childcare had become a topic of national discussion.

Mason and Brown drafted a business plan based on a novel concept: employer-supported childcare centers located at the workplace. They approached the new enterprise, which would become Bright Horizons, with the same mission-driven, fiscally sound principles that had guided their entrepreneurial work in the Sudan, Mason said.

In the Sudan, they had planned for a 5-10 percent cushion at the end of the year; in the Bright Horizons model, this cushion became the company's profit. And the new company developed a mission statement that placed children and their families at the center. Its guiding values included respect, nurturance, trust, an openness to change, balance, and sustainability.

"Commitment to quality is important to us," Mason said. The company only hires individuals whom it believes will support its culture, she said, and offers employees ample opportunity for advancement. "We hire for attitude and train for skill," Mason said.

"It was a long, hard start-up," Mason said. "It took us five years to get on solid ground." Bright Horizons went public in 1997.

After 16 years leading the company, she said, she and Brown realized that it was time to change direction again. Brown took on the presidency of Berklee College of Music; Mason continues to serve as chair of Bright Horizons, but she is no longer involved in daily operations. She is now back in the humanitarian field, serving as chair of Mercy Corps, an international relief and development agency.

Baron says that Mason was an ideal guest speaker for the course because she has founded, grown, and overseen mission-driven organizations in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.

"Linda's career is a model of what we strive to enable at SOM," Baron says. "She gave students concrete examples of how her work in the social sector raised her credibility when seeking private equity and how her work in the for-profit sector has facilitated nonprofit initiatives. Linda accomplished all of this while building a family, and she provided marvelous advice and inspiration for students who wish to emulate her success in combining career and family."