A Harvard-educated teacher with a Montessori certification becomes a mom.  The result? Monti Kids, a Montessori-based toy subscription service that has redesigned the entire infant-toddler Montessori curriculum to be accessible to parents and safety certified for babies.  Founder Zahra Kassam has created a program that gives parents access to a Montessori-based curriculum they can do at home, during the first 1,000 days of life—the most critical time of brain development. After a recent Shark Tank appearance (that resulted in deal!), we were lucky to snag a few minutes of Zahra’s time to chat about the mission of Monti Kids and what life is like as a mom to two boys (Musa, age 6, Zayd, age 1) and CEO to a start-up hitting the gas…hard. 

What led you to start Monti Kids? Was it a void in the space, solving a problem, purely passion? Growing up, it was always my dream to be a teacher. In the 6th grade, I was assigned a 1st-grade reading buddy, and I’ve been teaching ever since! I studied child psychology at Harvard College, received my Master’s from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and became an internationally certified Montessori teacher for children from birth to age six. I thought I would spend my career in the classroom. Then I became a mother. When my son Musa was born, the school where I was teaching started at age three (like most preschools around the world). I knew that I could not wait that long to give my baby a rich learning environment.  So I hacked together a version of Monti Kids at home and struggled to stay on top of his development at every turn. While on maternity leave, I was also teaching “Baby and Me” classes at a local parenting center. The parents in my classes were anxious; they understood how important the early years were, but they had so many questions about how to meet their baby’s developmental needs. Researchers know that 85% of the brain is formed by age 3 and that this is the foundation for all future learning. And yet, children start school later and parents are left guessing how to support their baby’s development. This education gap is the problem that drives me and that led me to create Monti Kids. 

You were recently on Shark Tank—and got a deal!  What was that like? Any exciting news for the future you can share? Shark Tank was the most terrifying and stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life! I was warned that it would not be like a true business pitch and that there would come a moment where they would criticize me harshly, but I was still not prepared for it. I was in the tank for an hour and a half and they edited it down to 10 minutes of pure drama for the episode airing. In the end, I was so thrilled to get a deal! Kevin O’Leary has been such a valuable partner for us and has brought all sorts of new opportunities our way. Getting through Shark Tank was kind of like getting through childbirth: afterward, I felt like I could tackle any challenge that came my way! 

What’s something you want the world to know about Monti Kids that might not come across in marketing and/or on social media? The Montessori curriculum has been proven for 100 years in schools around the world and has amazing outcomes for the children who experience it. Parents are amazed at what their children are capable of when provided with the right tools: a 3-month-old can concentrate for 30 minutes on a mobile, and a 2-year-old can spend 45 minutes baking bread and complete the whole activity independently if it’s set up in the right way. I often hear parents ask “When should I start Montessori?” And the answer is: right from birth! There is such an incredible opportunity to help your baby develop in this critical window, and to set them up to be confident, creative, and independent learners for years to come. Another piece I like to share is that although Monti Kids is in a subscription format, the toys don’t lose their developmental value when your next level comes in the mail! Many of the materials can be used for years and will become some of your baby’s favorites. Finally, Montessori is backed by research in the top scientific journals like Science and Nature. And some of the most innovative thinkers have gone to Montessori schools, like the founders of Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia, Beyonce, and more!

Your absolute favorite product from your own brand: My favorite Monti Kids product is the Dancers mobile for newborn babies. It is incredible to watch a newborn concentrate on it for long stretches – often for 30 minutes. In my Montessori teacher training, we learned that concentration is like a flower:  if you nurture it from birth, it will bloom. As a mother and as a teacher, I have observed that children who use Montessori mobiles as infants develop an incredible capacity to concentrate, And this capacity stays with them throughout their educations. Not all parents realize that they can give their newborn baby a rich learning environment from birth and help build a foundation for lifelong learning. Our infant mobile series gives babies this valuable experience and gives us the opportunity to help parents understand how to meet their child’s developmental needs right from birth – that is so exciting to me.

Your absolute favorite (baby/kid) product from not your brand: My favorite product outside of Monti Kids is the Inglesina eating chair that attaches onto our dining table or kitchen bar. I prefer it over a high chair because the Inglesina chair allows Zayd to eat at the table with us. This strengthens our relationships and deepens his sense of belonging to the family. It also makes it easier for us to model good eating habits; when a baby is included in family life, they are more likely to follow family norms. We have worked hard to develop a habit of eating dinner together as a family so it can be a time when we really talk, listen, and laugh together. Family dinners are the highlight of my day and I love that the Inglesina chair makes it easier. 

What’s your best piece of advice for a mom with an idea: First, whenever someone tells me they have a business idea I always ask if they’re really passionate about it. A startup can take over your life. If you have kids and a start-up, you will have time for very little else. So I think it’s worth it only if you’re working on something that you believe in deeply and that feels like a mission, not just a business. That sense of purpose will help to get you through the hard times. 

My second piece of advice would be to test the idea before jumping into development. Talk to friends and strangers about it to understand whether there’s a need for it. If people get excited to talk about it, then test a small version of it to see whether people will actually pay for it. I tested Monti Kids by visiting families and offering the types of advice and recommendations that are in our service today. In the startup world, they describe  this as testing for a “minimal viable product.” If those initial tests go well, you have insight into the problem you are working on and how you can solve it. It also gives you tremendous confidence to charge ahead and develop your business.

What are the most important elements in your life that allow you to create boundaries and balance (example: no checking email after 4, a hobby, weekly date nights, etc.) as both a mother and CEO? Between running a startup and raising two young children, it can feel overwhelming and almost impossible to achieve balance. It helps me to remember that I am blessed with an abundance of good things, and to cultivate that positive state of mind. When my thoughts and emotions are positive, I have more energy, more clarity, and time seems to expand. Getting enough sleep, making time to play with my kids, and my dance workouts all help. But the practice that makes the biggest impact is keeping a gratitude journal. Every night, I write down three things that I’m grateful for and three reasons why I’m grateful for each item on the list. Research shows that delving into the reasons why we are grateful helps to ground us in our positive emotions – and it works. When I put Musa to bed, we each share one thing we’re grateful for and why. It is a habit we have developed together, which makes it even more meaningful. 

About Monti Kids: Monti Kids is the only Montessori subscription for children ages 0-3 that gives parents access to an authentic Montessori education, proven in schools for over 100 years. From a series of mobiles that develop a range of visual skills in newborns, to rattles that are lighter than any on the market to develop grasping skills, to puzzles that systematically build mathematical understanding as they progress in difficulty, Monti Kids has redesigned the entire infant-toddler Montessori curriculum to be accessible to parents and safety certified (ASTM & CPSC) for babies. The program includes 8 levels, delivered to subscribers every three months, along with support to meet their child’s developmental needs. Parents receive short videos in their inbox every week that guide them through when and how to introduce each toy to maximize learning, how to set up their play area at each stage and distill the most relevant child development research. Subscribers also get access to personalized support through a private online community moderated by Montessori experts. All materials are made with sustainably-sourced wood, non-toxic ink, and food-grade silicone. Created by a Montessori certified teacher, Monti Kids is a comprehensive program that focuses on the whole child, addressing their cognitive, physical, linguistic, social, and emotional development. 85% of the brain is formed by age 3, and parents are a child’s first teachers. Monti Kids empowers them to give their children a strong foundation for future learning.