From the outside looking in, Kyle Smitley's life seemed perfect. The law school student launched barley & birch, an organic children's clothing company that donated half of its profits to charities and different organizations to help kids. Her business turned into a multimillion-dollar gig, and Smitley was an entrepreneur under 30 – living in San Francisco and mingling with movers and shakers.
"I found (the parties) wonderfully thrilling, but also just still missing that supreme validation that people tell you (you'll feel) when you have cocktails with Warren Buffett," Smitley says. "You're supposed to feel like you have made it."
But that wasn't the case. Smitley's days in Cali left her feeling empty. She knew she wanted more from her life, but it wasn't until a trip to Chicago when she realized her path. After visiting a charter school her company had donated to, Smitley realized she wanted to move back to the Midwest and find a school similar to that one – in Detroit.
When she didn't find what she was looking for, Smitley decided to create it. Her drive paid off in 2013 when Detroit Achievement Academy, a charter school Smitley founded with Chris Robb, opened its doors.
Smitley's road to Detroit
Smitley was born and raised in Defiance, Ohio. She attended DePauw University in Indiana, majoring in geology and philosophy. She took a year off between her undergrad and law school and founded barley & birch.
When Smitley decided to move back to the Midwest, Detroit was a no-brainer. She spent her childhood visiting the city with her dad. "I am the only child of a man who did not name me Kyle because he wanted a princess," she jokes – so her father turned her into a sports fan who had season tickets to all the games.
"I grew up just being so enamored with everything about the city that it definitely imprinted upon me. Every other city I went was sort of just a lamer version of Detroit."
And Smitley also saw a need for a different kind of education for the D's students.
"I'm not saying the school system is broken," she says. "My whole goal was to come in and shake it up a little bit and raise the standards, so people can kind of see how we can deliver better results for kids."
Setting up the DAA
Founding the school wasn't without its setbacks. Smitley applied for a charter in January 2012 and got "uniformly rejected."
While she didn't have a background in education, this 29-year-old had more experience in operations than the average person her age. "I know that I was successful putting the pieces together. … I know how to do this," Smitley says. "I know what strategy looks like, I know what marketing looks like, I know what outreach looks like. I know what customer service looks like."
She put her skills to use, reworked her charter application and then applied only to Grand Valley State University.
"We were a huge risk for them. I had no background in education and I didn't have a principal at the time, so they really had to trust when I said I will get everything in place."
The charter application was accepted and the risk paid off. Smitley even sold her company in 2012 to focus solely on the school.
Today, the DAA serves more than 40 kids in kindergarten and first grade.
"We really have set things up for success, and that's really exciting," Smitley says. "Our staff is very strong" – and it includes fellow Michigan-transfer Sharon Yaecker Roesser, who's principal. There's before- and after-school care and early release on Thursday, for teacher planning time. Kids are fed three meals per day, plus a snack, at no charge.
"We have a really healthy focus on how we can support our families," Smitley says.
The school also enriches the whole child. "We give them this arts instruction that no other charters do," she says – plus food, core instruction and character development.
Shortly after opening, the DAA received national attention when there was a robbery. Smitley sent an email out regarding the break-in, and it somehow made it to Ellen DeGeneres. Thanks to The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Shutterfly, the school received a $50,000 donation.
And, thanks to the publicity, the DAA is stocked with supplies and books – which now fill the Ellen DeGeneres Library, named in honor of the talk show host.
The future looks bright for the school and Smitley, who plans to be in the world of education for the long haul – and settle down with her long-time boyfriend.
"I really just want to get married and have kids. I want a normal life," she says. "I joke about this being my retirement. It is. I love it. I love doing this."