Lauren Petrick’s unconventional entrepreneurial journey began with a favor from her boss: Help a special needs child through gymnastics.
She didn’t know it at the time, but fulfilling that simple request would send Petrick on a rewarding path of service and compassion. Her efforts have been recognized by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, who nominated Petrick (BSBA ’06) for the HYPE Entrepreneur Award. The HYPE Awards, sponsored by UF MBA at the Hough Graduate School of Business, were presented today at Jungle Island’s Treetop Ballroom in Miami.
Petrick is the first to admit her business—LEAP (Learning Enriched Athletic Programs) South Florida—is atypical, but she founded the organization using the same tactics and methods she would have in beginning any other business venture.
“The delicate nature surrounding the community we serve required a greater amount of consideration when planning, organizing and executing LEAP,” Petrick said. “I found myself constantly thinking back to my entrepreneurship classes, using the projects and assignments to help mold and fine-tune my thoughts and ideas for LEAP.”
First, Petrick identified a market segment in need of service. Developmental disability diagnoses in the U.S. have increased over the last decade, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 6 children aged 3 to 17 have one or more developmental disability. These children engage in various therapies—physical, behavioral, speech, etc.—but Petrick believed recreational activity was a missing piece to a successful treatment strategy.
Petrick’s work with that single special needs child planted the seed for LEAP.
She complemented her nearly 15 years of gymnastics coaching experience with a Master of Science in Behavior Analysis from Florida International University to better understand the challenges her students endure. She then approached numerous gymnastics clubs in South Florida requesting space in their facilities to launch LEAP.
After being turned down repeatedly, Petrick started LEAP on her own.
Petrick said her biggest challenge early on was convincing parents with special needs children that incorporating gymnastics into their treatment regimen was a worthwhile and effective course of therapy.
“Athletic programs tend to be overlooked as a necessity for special needs children,” Petrick said.
So Petrick enhanced her marketing efforts. She established relationships with support groups for families with special needs children. Petrick said families were more likely to consider LEAP if they were referred through these support groups rather than a generic marketing campaign. Petrick said collaborating with other special needs organizations, and using social media to post training examples and success stories also increased participation.
When LEAP began in 2012, the program only offered artistic gymnastics and had just five students enrolled. Now, LEAP has more than 40 athletes participating in artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, cheerleading, and strength and conditions programs.
Petrick’s influence with special needs children has been felt not only at LEAP, but throughout South Florida. She revived the Special Olympics Miami-Dade County (SOMDC) Gymnastics Program, which had been dormant for years, organizing training sessions and competitions. The SOMDC Program now has about 75 athletes actively competing, and nearly half of them qualify for the statewide Special Olympics Florida State Fall Classic.
Petrick said the recognition from the Miami Chamber of Commerce has been “surreal,” but she’s thrilled that LEAP is receiving more attention in the hopes that she can help more special needs children.
“One who goes to work in sweatpants and sneakers and whose office resembles an indoor playground is not typically considered a business professional, yet here I am being recognized,” Petrick said. “I’m a simple girl who had a passion for a sport, which led to a dream that has turned into a reality.”