Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Ilana Kukoff, Cognition Builders
In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, partner Laura Hoey interviews Ilana Kukoff, founder and CEO of Cognition Builders. In this inspiring conversation, Ilana talks about how she stumbled onto the idea for Cognition Builders, an education team that immerses itself with families to help resolve social, emotional, behavioral, intellectual and other needs. She shares some wisdom from the book she co-authored titled Say This, Not That (To Your Teenage Daughter), including dispelling the idea that discipline is a bad thing for children. Ilana also talks about what traits she looks for when hiring, why women shouldn’t be afraid to tout their own accomplishments, and how to approach difficult conversations. To top it all off, Ilana’s working on a new television show that will be entirely based on Cognition Builders, which is expected to begin pre-production early next year.
Laura Hoey: Welcome, and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by the Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and who are also making a positive impact in their work places and in their communities. We feature prominent women, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others and discuss with them their careers, what's lead to their successes, the challenges they faced, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired along the way. I'm Laura Hoey, a litigation & enforcement partner and the managing partner of our Chicago office. I'm thrilled to be here today supporting Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum, which, as a former co-chair of the Women's Forum, is very near and dear to my heart, and remains a powerful and critically important group within the firm. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with a fascinating businesswoman, Ilana Kukoff. Ilana is a tremendously successful entrepreneur and author, a mother, and the founder and CEO of Cognition Builders. She is also wonderfully candid, hilariously funny, and someone who I enjoy immensely. Ilana, welcome to the program.
Laura Hoey: Of course. I very much want to jump in and talk about Cognition Builders and all of the exciting developments you have on that front, but I think, having gotten to know you, that so much of understanding your approach and your philosophy and your work in Cognition Builders is really informed by your upbringing, so if you would take a minute and tell our listeners a little bit about your background?
Ilana Kukoff: I actually grew up in Staten Island to first-generation, college- and graduate-educated parents. My mom was a special education teacher for the New York City public school system. My father was an electrical engineer, and then went to Brooklyn Law School at night, and worked for the New York City Transit Authority. One of the things that was so important about the way that I was raised was that there was never an excuse, and when you got up in the morning, you got up with the attitude of, "I'm going to do this once, and I'm going to do it right, and I'm going to do it to the best of my ability." That's how I really have gone through life and that's how I've raised my two children: My son who is 25 and a venture capitalist, and my daughter who just graduated magna cum laude from ULCA's honors college and is heading to my alma mater, Columbia University, in the fall. You treat everybody with dignity, you treat everybody with respect, you try your hardest, and you live a purpose-driven life, which means that you find hopefully something that you're excited about doing, again, from the moment you wake up throughout the entire day. And you do it whether you're sick, whether you're well, whether you're happy, whether you're sad – that you have integrity. That's what I was raised with and I really feel that, more than anything, we need to see the younger generation and even folks that are my age, 55, remember that it's grit and perseverance and positivity and integrity that really determine your outcome.
Laura Hoey: So everything you've just said, it has entrepreneurial spirit and energy, but I have heard you call yourself an accidental entrepreneur. So what do you mean by that?
Ilana Kukoff: Correct. We all talk about feminism and women having an identity, but I, in spite of the wonderful upbringing that I had, really had mixed messages. So one of the messages was, "Get married and have children, and while you do that, please make sure you have a career at the same time." So truthfully, I really fell into this because when I was married I had to earn a living, and I had to earn that living very, very quickly. As a result of that, I started to work at my company, Cognition Builders, and I did so really because I wanted to effect change, I wanted to have integrity, but I also wanted to monetize what it is that I thought of and what I was doing. We had a family member, not my two children, but another family member that I took care of for several years who was diagnosed with autism. What I got to see was that it wasn't just about the child, but it was about the entire family and what that experience was like, and all of what they call the secondary components to when there's something that affects the entire family, so I guess it's two different answers. One answer was: There was a financial component and I had to earn a living very, very quickly, and then I had to figure out what did I believe in, what did I love, and what was I passionate about. And then the second thing was I wanted to figure out what was missing really from my industry. We work at the intersection of mental health and education, and so I needed to figure out what was missing that I could have an impact on. One of the things I started to realize was that the rate at which you learn, I'm not talking about academics, although that's part of it, I'm talking really about the word "learn" as change, that the rate at which you learn and change determines your outcome. As soon as I have that "ah-ha moment," then I started to be able to build Cognition Builders because I was able to understand the concept of how to change the social, the emotional, the intellectual, the behavioral, and the family system by being in the home and having these folks that we call family architects that have the background in education to be a therapist, but have chosen not to take on that role. As soon as I realized that changing the way that we speak to each other and the way that we behave with one another was going to change the outcome of the family, that's why I'm the accidental entrepreneur.
Laura Hoey: You refer to Cognition Builders as an education company, but for listeners who aren't familiar with it, are you educating the parents, the children – what is the curriculum?
Ilana Kukoff: The way that Cognition Builders works is a mental health care expert, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a therapist, an educational consultant, therapeutic boarding school, and the like, will make a referral for us to work with a family in their home or what is commonly referred to as their natural environment. We use a curricula of over 2,000 programs, lessons if you will, that specifically focus on the social, emotional, behavioral, intellectual, and the family system work. We educate both the children and the parents and anybody else who's involved on a regular basis in their lives, how to speak to each other and how to behave with one another. Once we do that in real time, we also use the curricula to quite literally sit down with them and role play the lessons that are about the human condition. If you think about learning a foreign language, you first study it whether it's in high school and again in college or even graduate school, but the best way that you're going to learn that language is by being immersed in that community. This is the same exact concept. If you want to handle your family differently, if you want to have a healthy family, you have to learn at the very base level how to speak to each other differently and how to behave differently – and the only way that gets done is through immersion and repetition.
Once a scene has occurred in a family, and let me give you an example – let's say dinner time. Nobody wants to sit down at dinner time and talk about the test they didn't do well on, right? There's no high schooler, no middle schooler, no grade schooler that wants to sit down and be grilled by a parent. Dinner time really should be about a shared experience where you discuss things at the table. It's such a wonderful and unique opportunity. Now you might say, "Ilana, come on – that's so obvious." But it actually isn't obvious because in so many homes where both parents are working, or even when one parent stays at home, usually you want to accomplish things at dinner. But we say accomplish it in a different way by taking an article from your local newspaper, or going to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal – pick something that's appropriate and discuss it with your child. So we're educating the parent. We're educating the children. We're using language and behavior, the way you speak and the way you act, to dictate a different outcome. And the curricula, because it's quite literally divided up into these micro-moments, micro-exchanges, and micro-communications, we take those and we practice it with the family so it becomes second nature.
Laura Hoey: You're giving me the perfect opening – I'm going to put a plug in for your book, which I love. I have to say as the mother of a teenage daughter, you have a book which is a glimpse of what you are articulating here, of this approach of reframing. So the book is called Say This, Not That To Your Teenage Daughter: The Pocket Guide to Everyday Conversations, available on Amazon for anybody who wants to grab it. You mentioned to me in discussing it – you said something like, "Parenting is a contingency-based job which interestingly enough is the same thing needed for building a business." Tell me more about what you meant by that.
Ilana Kukoff: Correct. I've spoken about discipline, which nobody likes to use that word anymore, but that's really what we're talking about. When something is contingency-based, it means that there has to be in essence a consequence for your action. When I started my business, if I didn't work or wasn't in the mood to work, nothing would happen – and the contingency again, in loose terms, would be that if I didn't work, I didn't make money. So with parenting, a lot of parents feel that they have to punish or discipline, and they don't follow through. The real better way is to look at the behavior, to figure out the function of the behavior which is, "What is my child really going for?" and then to set the contingency, if you will. So what do I mean by that? If a child is rude to you in your home, why on Earth would you cook dinner for that child? My answer would be that the consequence or the contingency, if you will, is that they have to fend for themselves. It beats the heck out of saying to a child, "You know, because you were rude to me, we're not going to do X, Y and Z." The better thing to do is to very kindly say, "Oh, I'm sorry – I made that dinner for your dad and me,” or “I made that dinner for your dad, for me, and for your brother and sister – so sorry." That's so much more effective in parenting than yelling or hollering or making threats that you can't carry through, and you're not able to really teach them.
Laura Hoey: Love it. I think in that, the learning is not a passive activity, which you've explained here, and so how are you applying that in your business? What is happening right now with Cognition Builders? What are your most exciting developments?
Ilana Kukoff: I'm so proud of Cognition Builders because we have grown every single year. We have yet to have one year where we have not become more profitable than the year that has passed. So we actually have a television show, I am not at liberty to say which network, but we have a television show that we did receive an order to go to series for eight episodes. It's going to be exactly what it is that we currently do, which is to go into the home, and to think of us as a fixer-upper for your family life. We're going to replace the language and behavior, and we're not going to take excuses or deflections or allow any of that to go on. When we talk about building as an entrepreneur and why our company is valuable, it's because our goal is not just to work with the extraordinary members of the globe, but also to make this available for everybody, and we've done so with our BootCamps. With our television show, it's really going to take our BootCamps and really make them globally available to everybody. That's super exciting because there's such an easy way in a lot of situations, certainly not all, but a lot of situations to remedy what's happening with these kids that are in their mid 20s and are failing to launch, or 18-19 and are struggling in college.
We have really unique programs. We offer 24/7 round-the-clock support, and we work all over the world. You know what the common denominator is of every family? It's when you have a problem with your child, it brings you to your knees – it can affect the way that you work, it can affect your marriage, it can affect your friendships, and it can affect your ability to be a contributing family member to your extended family. When you have a problem with a child, it doesn't make any difference if it's a health-related problem, a mental health-related problem, or just what we call the daily common occurrence, the things that we all experience. They do weigh heavily on all of us, so it doesn't make a difference where a family is located – it's the same exact issues.
Laura Hoey: I know you are highly qualified and have a Ph.D. in this space, but what I love the most, and I've read this in one of your intros, I think is, "It's not theory that saves the day, it's humor, compassion, and no-nonsense instruction." Those are your words, not mine, so I won't own them, but I really do love it. I think in a nutshell it really beautifully summarizes your approach. A lot of the listeners to this program are women professionals. I have met several of the women who have senior roles in your company and so I wonder, as the CEO, when you're looking for those key partners in your business, the women who are running it with you, what are the traits you're looking for?
Ilana Kukoff: That's a really good question. Without hesitation I would say loyalty, commitment, honesty, not being afraid to speak up to a family and to say, "That's not what we're going to be doing." I would say the ability to be available and to always be positive when you're available. The number one thing I would say in addition to all of that is humility. Understanding that that could be you, and understanding that the great equalizer, again, in life, is having a problem. So, it's compassion. We look for people that have been through their own, maybe, bumps in the road, and all of us have, myself included, but if it doesn't make you into an angry person, that's all the better because then you can use that experience to push yourself forward and to give a commitment to somebody else. You use it because it expands your thinking.
Laura Hoey: I would say, too, at the Women's Forum, one of the key aspects of our success within the firm has been mentorship among women, honesty, and a lot of the support that I know that you give your team as well. Is there someone in particular who has influenced or inspired you on your journey?
Ilana Kukoff: I'd have to say my parents. We all go through different things. My dad's been gone 18 years and I have his voice in my head, and I always think to myself, "What would he do?" I look back at my family, my extended family – what have they gone through that I should stand tall for? And my mom of course – she said to me after a particularly difficult breakup, and I think probably my first when I was in college, "Don't let anybody burst your bubble." And that is something that has stayed with me.
Laura Hoey: I love the concept of the voice in your head because certainly we carry those with us. I know I do as gentle reminders, which are so informed by an upbringing. I know this is a very popular question to ask of entrepreneurs, and I feel like you've probably hit on some of them, but what along the way would you say was one of your greatest obstacles and how you overcame that?
Ilana Kukoff: I would say the biggest or greatest obstacle would be getting a parent, especially at the beginning when I was first doing this, to understand they need to spend a great deal of money to get the outcome they want. Frequently it's hard to explain, but I'm going to make an attempt. So if you go into a home and you suggest, I'd say, 20 hours a week that you have to be there – a parent could think to themselves, "Well, of course you want 20 hours a week because it's you, you're making the money. You're the person making the money. What can assure me?" So the greatest thing that we have at Cognition Builders that has really affected the way that we operate is because the referral comes from a mental health care expert. And then we do some things. In essence, what happens is that our executive teams, the folks that are doing the content-driven, clinical-driven side, will gather information that comes from all the stakeholders, parents, mental health care experts, and we write it together and match it with our curricula – these documents are three to 33 pages long. And really the suggestion then for how many hours we do in the home no longer comes from what we think, but rather what the stakeholders think – this way for us, they are the folks that decide it, we don't decide it. We will make a recommendation, but the recommendation is backed by the mental health care team. So it took me a while to understand that that was the best equation to both have integrity and to explain why the cost is so necessary.
Laura Hoey: This is going to be a related question, and it really is what I like to end with because you've given us several nuggets along the way here. I feel like in your line of work, Ilana, you have had a lot of really hard conversations with some very powerful, very well-educated, very senior business people. Now it's typically relating to their family life and not their work life, but what advice would you give to young women professionals about approaching difficult conversations?
Ilana Kukoff: I'm a very big believer in summarizing the conversation and also speaking about your ability to boast. A lot of people don’t like to boast because they think it's a little bit juvenile or they think it's really inappropriate or they think it's X, whatever that X is, but going back to my upbringing again, if you don't sing from the top of rooftops, then no one else is going to do it for you. So the first thing is reminding people of your value. The second thing is if you have a conversation with somebody, and it is about moving forward, it's important to follow that up in writing: "The below email is a summary of our conversation. Please let me know if we've gotten anything wrong." So that's the next thing that we do as well. And so my advice actually would be to be aggressive, and I know people don't like that word, but it is important to be boastful, meaning to sing your own praises because nobody else is really going to do it for you. Then, also, in addition to all of that is learning how to insinuate yourself because a lot of people feel that when they contact somebody it has to be with a direct ask, and I also think that's not always the case. So one of the best things to do is to say, "I admire your work." A lot of people are afraid to show vulnerability, and I think actually in showing that and being willing to get in touch with somebody that you might otherwise feel you don't have access to or a limited access to, sometimes even sending a short note that says, "I really enjoyed listening to your talk. This is a little bit of who I am. I'd love to open the lines of communication," is good enough. So I think the advice is multi-factorial. It's knowing what your value is, what your worth is, knowing how to reach out to people that you may not have access to, understanding what makes you tick and making a list of those attributes or traits or characteristics that work, and being able to then back it up and say, "Okay, I'm here, how do I get there?" So I often feel that's very worthwhile.
Laura Hoey: Do you recall a time when you followed your own advice and made a bold ask of someone?
Ilana Kukoff: When I was thinking about a summer job, I went through the alumni list at Columbia. A lot of people actually were really nice to me, but one person who's very well-known, so I'm going to leave the name out obviously, was so rude to me, that he complained to the alumni office. I was telling my kids, Zach and Alice, my 25- and now 22-year-old this story, and my daughter said to me, "Well, didn't you feel embarrassed? Didn't you feel upset? Didn't you not want to do it again or bother with any other alumni?" And I said, "No, not even remotely because that's on him." I think we always look back to ourselves to say, "Look, what would you have done differently or why did that happen?" Yes, that's great perspective-taking, but that also could lead to low self-esteem, so it's important to also say, "Hey, maybe the guy had a bad day. Maybe I caught him at a bad month. Maybe it's been a horrible year." We have to learn that perception is not always reality, and I think that's another important message.
Laura Hoey: I love it. I know one of the downsides of a podcast, Ilana, is that you can't see me, I know, but I have to tell you that every time I talk to you, I find myself smiling on the phone, smiling because I'm energized, smiling because I'm inspired, smiling because I'm laughing, and so I want to thank you. I'm so, so grateful for your time, for your participating in the Women's Forum podcast and for all of these pearls of wisdom that you have passed on. I wish you continued success and appreciate your friendship.
Ilana Kukoff: I have to thank you again because I appreciate your friendship. I so enjoy working, and getting to know, and having gotten to know you, and for doing this. It's really hard to impart information in short snippets. But I have to tell you that as much as I'm able, I always say, "I'm here," and I really am here. There's an expression, it's "hineni," which means “I am here.” I am here for you, and that's one of the most important things.
Laura Hoey: Ilana, this was so much fun. Thank you for joining me on Women @ RopesTalk. And thank you to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit www.ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts including on Apple, Google and Spotify. Thanks again for listening.