Faces of Entrepreneurship: Rina Madhani, Start Lighthouse

2024-02-01T09:21:59-08:00 February 1st, 2024|Developing a Product/Service, Financing Your Business|

Rina Madhani, a literacy advocate and educator, is co-founder and Executive Director of Start Lighthouse, a literacy-focused non-profit. Rina has been instrumental in advancing the organization’s mission since its inception during the pandemic. Start Lighthouse is dedicated to empowering students and their families through the power of reading. Under Rina’s guidance, Start Lighthouse has seen remarkable growth, extending its services to over eight school sites in NYC, becoming an approved vendor for the NYC Department of Education, and securing significant federal funding for NY-14 and partnerships with organizations including the Home Depot Foundation, Yahoo, Scholastic, L’Oréal Paris, Macmillan, and Penguin Random House. Recognized as a L’Oréal Paris Woman of Worth in 2022, Rina stands out as one of ten nationally acclaimed leaders in community service and education. Her previous roles in AmeriCorps, where she supported a reading intervention program in East Harlem, and as a classroom teacher, have solidified her commitment to literacy and educational equity. Rina completed her BA at New York University and furthered her education with an MSed from the University of Pennsylvania.


What does “entrepreneurship” mean to you?
Rina Madhani: To me, entrepreneurship means challenging and disrupting the status quo, by introducing innovative solutions and new perspectives to existing problems. It’s about dreaming big and having the courage to turn those dreams into reality, despite the risks and uncertainties that come with starting something new.

Tell us about your first experience with entrepreneurship.
RM: My first brush with entrepreneurship was observing my brother, who became a source of inspiration and my role model in this field. Watching him invest his savings to build his own legal tech startup, Alt Legal, opened my eyes to the true essence of being an entrepreneur. It was a revelation to see a family member embrace such a bold venture at an early stage. My understanding of educational entrepreneurship deepened through a life-changing course at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, taught by Amanda Antico. This experience was pivotal in shaping my vision, leading me to conceptualize my own literacy organization, develop a business plan, and learn the nuances of pitching to potential funders.

What is your company’s origin story?
RM: The origin of Start Lighthouse is deeply rooted in a significant shift in my life, which occurred over the past three years. Before the pandemic, as an elementary school teacher, I foresaw the impending academic loss in reading that our students would face. This realization became a calling when a student’s family member reached out for additional resources, leading my co-founder, Brittany Kramer, and me to join forces. We began by packaging brand-new books into literacy kits and distributing them at schools serving as meal distribution sites. As schools reopened, we pivoted our approach based on student, family, and administrator feedback, eventually becoming a vendor with the NYC Department of Education.

What is the biggest reason you started your business?
RM: I launched Start Lighthouse driven by the firm belief that reading is a fundamental human right, a conviction that became more pronounced upon realizing that 70% of students in the Bronx, NYC, are reading below their grade level. This alarming statistic highlighted the stark inequities within our education system, where access to quality reading resources and support is disproportionately limited. My goal was to address this critical gap, providing equitable access to literacy resources and thus empowering students in underserved communities to reach their full academic potential.

What did those early days look like and teach you?
RM: The early days of starting my nonprofit during the pandemic were a masterclass in flexibility and adaptability. This period taught me the importance of being nimble and responsive to rapidly changing circumstances, especially in an unpredictable environment like a global health crisis. It underscored the value of grounding our work in community needs, ensuring that what we did was deeply rooted in and responsive to the people we aimed to serve. This phase was instrumental in shaping our approach to developing and creating solutions with constant feedback and perspectives from our community and peers. It was a time of learning and growth, where understanding the real needs of those affected by the literacy crisis in NYC became the cornerstone of developing effective learning solutions.

What do you wish you knew when you started? Is there anything you would do differently?
RM: Reflecting on starting my nonprofit, I wouldn’t do anything differently. Every step and challenge has led us to where we are today. These experiences, whether they were distributing literacy toolkits at schools operating as meal distribution sites or strengthening ties with our school partners, were crucial learning opportunities that helped solidify and improve our solution. These initial efforts were crucial for us to become a recognized vendor, and we were able to solicit feedback from students and families effectively. This feedback was vital in launching literacy programs across eight school sites and discovering that over 55% of schools in NYC had abandoned or defunct library spaces. Our journey in rehabilitating these spaces to establish literacy hubs was essential; every event unfolded exactly as needed for us to grow and succeed.

What does “success” look like for you? We’d love to hear your biggest, boldest dream. What do you think will help you achieve it?
RM: Success for me is envisioning Start Lighthouse as a widespread national entity, with chapters in every corner of the United States dedicated to nurturing lifelong readers. My most ambitious dream is to see our literacy empowerment programs benefiting students of all backgrounds across the nation. To achieve this, we must meticulously codify our systems and processes, ensuring our model is scalable and adaptable for various regions. Building a coalition of stakeholders at city, state, and federal levels is also crucial, as it will provide the necessary support and partnerships for nationwide expansion.

What is your superpower as an entrepreneur? What is your proudest and darkest moment so far? Share a key high and a key low from your journey if you can.
RM: My superpower as an entrepreneur lies in my ability to connect with others. My authenticity and passion for the work have allowed me to build and mobilize a diverse coalition of stakeholders and supporters, contributing significantly to my organization’s dramatic expansion in just three years since its inception during the pandemic.

My proudest moment, securing federal funding to establish my second full-time literacy hub within the Bronx, is a remarkable achievement. Being recognized as one of the youngest and most grassroots organizations selected by the federal government is a testament to the impact and importance of our innovative approach toward literacy.

Regarding a key low, it’s not uncommon for entrepreneurs to face challenges and setbacks on their journey. One significant low point in my entrepreneurial journey was the uncertainty of funding and sustainability during the initial stages, especially when starting my organization during the pandemic. This period was marked by financial challenges, logistical hurdles, and the complexity of navigating a rapidly changing educational landscape. However, I used this low point as a catalyst for positive change. Since then, I have been actively working to diversify our revenue streams and strengthen the financial stability of my organization, turning those early obstacles into valuable lessons that have propelled us toward success.

What are your personal driving principles, your top values?
RM: My personal driving principles and top values include never compromising quality for quantity, surrounding myself with individuals who challenge and expand my thinking, emphasizing lifelong learning, and acknowledging that I may not have all the answers but am always willing to seek them out.

How have your personal principles and values shaped your company’s values and principles? Give us some examples.
RM: My personal principles and values have significantly influenced the core values of my company. At Start Lighthouse, we prioritize quality over quantity, ensuring that every initiative and resource we provide maintains a high standard. Surrounding ourselves with a team of diverse and intellectually stimulating individuals mirrors my commitment to personal growth and learning, fostering an environment of innovation and continuous improvement. As an entrepreneur, I’ve instilled the principle of humility and a willingness to seek answers within our organization, promoting a culture of adaptability and curiosity. These values guide our decision-making and have played a vital role in our success, enabling us to make a lasting impact in education accessibility.

What’s it like to work alone or with your partners?
RM: I particularly value the opportunity to collaborate with a women-led team, which has added a unique and diverse perspective to our work. Deborah Rose, our Director of Programming, has brought a wealth of experience, having served as a curriculum developer, teacher, and school administrator, further enriching our team. This collaborative environment is the driving force behind the impact of our work at Start Lighthouse. Additionally, our dedicated team, including our two site coordinators who deliver our literacy programming daily, plays a crucial role in achieving our mission.

Do you have a mentor? Tell us about what makes them valuable to you and your business.
RM: Yes, I have been fortunate to have several mentors within the education space, as well as experts in fundraising and marketing. Their invaluable support lies in their ability to challenge and expand my thinking, fostering personal and professional growth. Their thought partnership has been instrumental in shaping our strategies and approaches at Start Lighthouse. What makes them particularly valuable is the trust and openness in our relationship; I can be candid and vulnerable, discussing both what I know and what I’m still learning, leading to impactful guidance and insights that drive our mission forward.

What role does mentorship play in your world (as a mentor or mentee)?
RM: Mentorship is a cornerstone of Start Lighthouse’s success. As an organization dedicated to education accessibility, mentorship plays a pivotal role in shaping our impact. We foster a culture of learning and growth, where our team members, both as mentors and mentees, continuously develop their skills and knowledge. Mentorship extends beyond our organization, as we collaborate with partners and experts who guide us in our mission to provide quality education resources to underserved communities. This collaborative mentorship ecosystem is instrumental in driving innovation and ensuring that we effectively address the educational needs of the communities we serve.

Many entrepreneurs continue to perfect their daily routines to support their work and greater vision; would you mind sharing your morning routine or a regular ritual that grounds your work each day?
RM: I believe in the power of a well-structured morning routine to set a positive tone for the day. My mornings typically begin with a moment of reflection and gratitude. I take time to appreciate the opportunities I have to make a positive impact through Start Lighthouse. Next, I dedicate some time to reading and staying informed about current events and industry trends. This helps me stay inspired and informed, which is crucial for guiding our organization effectively. Overall, my morning routine is designed to foster a positive mindset and ensure that I start each day with a sense of purpose and focus on our mission.

What are you reading or have read?
RM: Currently, I’m reading “The Midnight Library” as well. It’s a thought-provoking book that explores the concept of parallel lives and the choices we make. I find it intriguing how it delves into the idea of exploring different paths and finding meaning in our decisions.

Where do you go for inspiration?
RM: I find inspiration in a variety of places and experiences. Firstly, visiting our literacy hubs and witnessing the impact of our work on the children we serve is a constant source of inspiration. Their enthusiasm for learning and reading fuels my dedication to our mission. Additionally, I seek inspiration in nature, often taking walks or hikes to clear my mind and gain fresh perspectives. Conversations with our dedicated team and the students and families we work with also provide valuable insights and inspiration. Lastly, I’m inspired by stories of resilience and perseverance, whether in books, documentaries, or personal narratives, as they remind me of the power of determination in overcoming challenges.

Do you have a favorite quote, mantra, or words of wisdom to get through the tough days?
RM: Absolutely, one of my favorite mantras that helps me navigate challenging days is: “Progress, not perfection.” This reminder encourages me to focus on the incremental steps we’re taking toward our goals and not get discouraged by setbacks or imperfections along the way. It reinforces the idea that as long as we keep moving forward, we’re making meaningful progress toward our mission, even on the toughest days.

What is a problem that keeps you up at night?
RM: One problem that consistently keeps me up at night is the urgent need to ensure that every child achieves reading proficiency by the 4th grade. It’s especially concerning to acknowledge that in the Bronx, 70% of students are currently not meeting this crucial milestone. This issue represents a significant educational disparity, and it drives our mission at Start Lighthouse to address and overcome this challenge. We’re deeply committed to narrowing this gap and providing quality education resources to underserved communities to make a positive impact on these children’s lives.

How do you think about helping others through your work?
RM: Literacy is the cornerstone of education and personal development. It empowers individuals with the ability to read, write, and comprehend, opening doors to a world of knowledge, opportunity, and self-expression. At Start Lighthouse, we recognize the profound impact that literacy has on a person’s life and future prospects.

Our mission is deeply rooted in promoting literacy, especially among underserved communities where access to quality educational resources may be limited. We believe that by fostering a love for reading and providing access to books, we can help bridge educational disparities and empower individuals to reach their full potential.

Literacy is not just about acquiring basic skills; it’s about equipping individuals with the tools to think critically, communicate effectively, and participate actively in their communities. It’s the foundation upon which individuals build their education, careers, and personal growth. By promoting literacy, we aim to create a brighter future for the children and families we serve, ensuring that they have the skills and knowledge to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

What advice do you have for fellow (and aspiring) entrepreneurs building and leading teams?
RM: Encourage open communication and collaboration within your team. Create a safe space for sharing ideas and feedback. Be a role model for the values and work ethic you expect from your team, inspiring commitment and dedication. Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth and instill a culture of continuous learning and adaptability. Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from experienced entrepreneurs. Their insights can be invaluable in navigating the entrepreneurial journey and building a successful team.

What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be known as – as in, what do you want your legacy to be?
RM: I aspire to be known as an entrepreneur who left a lasting legacy in the realm of education accessibility. My ultimate goal is to ensure that every child, regardless of their background or circumstances, has equal access to quality educational resources and opportunities. I want my legacy to reflect a world where the educational disparities that exist today have significantly narrowed, if not been eradicated.

I hope to be remembered as an entrepreneur who was unwavering in the pursuit of social impact, someone who combined innovation with empathy to create positive change. This legacy would be defined by the tangible improvements in the lives of countless individuals and communities, as well as the continued dedication of my organization to the mission of providing educational equity.

Ultimately, I want my legacy to inspire future generations of entrepreneurs to lead with purpose, drive, and a commitment to making a meaningful difference in the world, just as I’ve strived to do through Start Lighthouse.



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