Managing the friction between one’s home and work lives is a balance many working moms struggle to strike. Not Nicole Itani, though.
As Regional Director of the Northeast at KinderCare Education, Itani’s identities as a mother and a mission-motivated leader are not only in sync, but they each serve to strengthen the other. That’s because, here, the professional is decidedly personal — dropping her own daughter off at KinderCare is how Itani starts each work day.
“One of the best parts of this job is that I never have to compromise being a mom; I’m not alone, as my kids are part of this experience,” she said. “Having the ability to not only be a better leader but also a better mom at the same time means so much to me… and it is an honor to be able to influence the lives of other families and children, not just my own.”
It was exactly this sense of impact that Itani realized was missing from her previous career path in retail. After 15 years in the same industry, she’d become an expert in her field, and she worried that making a drastic career change at this point would mean a greater loss in security than it was worth. And yet, something continued to tug at her.
“I knew I wanted more purpose in my career. I felt like I was beginning to treat each day in a transactional way and not impacting people and lives as much as I wanted to,” she recalled. “I was losing a part of myself. Leading teams to deliver a mission was familiar to me. But delivering with a purpose was what inspired and motivated me.”
Three years and one promotion, from District Leader to Regional Director, later, and Itani is not only inspired and motivated by her work each day. She also calls it the “hardest, most rewarding job I have ever had.” But wherever there’s a challenge to encounter, there’s also support to be found. Itani already knew from the interview process that KinderCare prides itself on valuing relationships and people, but she says that seeing that in practice is pretty special: “I cannot think of a time that I have asked a question and regretted it or asked for support and did not receive it.”
Recently, she spoke with us about what KinderCare’s culture of support looks like day-to-day, her advice to fellow aspiring career changers and her favorite career mistake (it has to do with receiving feedback).
Pivoting career paths can feel overwhelming. Why did you want to make this change, and what ultimately helped you do it?
After becoming a mom and then losing my own mother shortly after, my story began to change. Internally, I was searching for more. Externally, my output didn’t change, but I started to talk less and listen more. I wasn’t thinking of leaving my job, but I was searching for something. Maybe I was afraid of leaving something I knew so well — after 15 years in retail, I assumed a career outside of the industry was impossible.
I can remember the day I received a call from the recruiter Raquel at KinderCare. I had already spoken to her a few months prior about possible career opportunities and had always wondered if our paths would cross again. During the hiatus between our calls, I continued to remain curious about what a role at KinderCare would be like. I never imagined I would pivot from retail into early education. I was being leveraged and developed where I was. I was happy and engaged. I had become an industry expert. This time, regardless of what or where the opportunity was, I was confident I needed to explore it more. Perhaps this was a sign from my mom. The more and more people I began to meet and interact with helped validate the thoughts in my head. I was inspired and intrigued. I became a little less nervous about a potential transition as conversations evolved.
Three years since joining KinderCare, I can say the journey has been so rewarding. Yes, it was scary. I’ve fallen down a few times. But I’ve always gotten back up and learned, with each and every fall. I’ve built this new community and found lifelong friends at KinderCare. I sometimes look at the person I was when I started this journey and who I am today and surprise myself. I am honored to be a part of the KinderCare family.
Tell me a bit about your current role. What are your priorities, and what about it excites you most?
Currently, I oversee seven District Leaders covering the North East United States. This includes about 95 learning centers. My priority is to support and lead the District Leaders. During center visits, I’m there to observe and teach the District Leader as much as the Center Director. My goal is to help the team overcome obstacles, see the center through an objective lens, and help ensure that each school is providing a safe, nurturing environment to all families in the community. I don’t just teach during visits — I love that I also learn so much from the team. Each center and community is so different and has its own uniqueness. I’m inspired by each of my leaders on a different level. I’ve always been one to move fast and talk fast. Through proper feedback and self-reflection, it’s always top of mind.
What about this company stood out to you and made you want to join? What’s been your favorite aspect since joining?
Everything we do is built around relationships. From the moment a family chooses to inquire at our center, or a teacher applies for a job, it’s the start of a new relationship. Having the ability to not only be a better leader but also a better mom at the same time means so much to me. My eldest daughter was in care at a local learning center prior to me joining KinderCare. I got to see the other side through the eyes of a mom. To be able to provide them the best care and version of myself was so inspiring. And it is an honor to be able to influence the lives of other families and children, not just my own.
Tell me a bit about your first week. What kinds of things, whether formal onboarding programs or casual interactions, made you feel comfortable?
My first week was spent side-by-side with another District Leader, Shane. He made me feel so comfortable right from the beginning. It was great because he had also transitioned from working in retail to working at KinderCare. We spent the week going through training materials and just getting to know one another. Throughout my interview process, I was told how much KinderCare valued relationships and people. Shane validated this for me. He took the time to get to know me and my family. He took the time to build a relationship with me above all else. He was not afraid to share with me his own learnings throughout this experience and talk about my concerns or questions.
What’s been your favorite career mistake that you’ve made?
Early on in my career, feedback was not easy for me. When I worked in retail, I remember traveling with some leadership partners and a senior leader gave me advice on how to handle developmental feedback. He challenged me to write it down and not to react quickly. That took me from a place of defense to a place of growing. I learned how important it is to self-reflect and find something in each instance that I can learn and grow from. I am thankful for this lesson and it’s one of my favorite ones to share.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
Always take a partner. Building relationships has always been important to me. Coming from retail, I knew partnerships in this role would be critical. There were so many moments in my first year and even today where I have to pick up the phone to call either a peer, district leader or support partner. I love that everyone is so willing to help and support one another. I have often heard “there is no I in team.” At KinderCare, there is no truer statement. I cannot think of a time that I have asked a question and regretted it or asked for support and did not receive it.
What advice would you give to other women interested in making a major career change?
This is easy – I just recently talked to a former retail peer who is now a Senior District Leader for KinderCare. After her first week, she sent me a text thanking me for the opportunity. She said she had just had the best week in her career and could not be more excited to be a part of our organization. Personally, this is the hardest, most rewarding job I have ever had. The skill set I use daily is a different set of skills than I used in retail. Making a change can be scary. Take the time to talk to a peer, a friend, your family. Find someone you trust, and always believe in yourself.
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