Nicole Riehl knows Colorado's child-care conundrum from every angle — as a onetime early-childhood educator; as a professional and parent who had to find, and afford, quality child care, and most recently as an advocate for public policies expanding early-childhood education opportunities for all parents and their children. You could say she's invested in the issue. And it's not only because Colorado families are demanding it and, of course, their kids need it — but also because it makes good business sense.
Observes Riehl, "With the lowest unemployment rate Colorado has seen in 25 years, Colorado employers and business leaders are looking for ways to set their organization apart while attracting and retaining the best workforce." The need, she says, is urgent: "... our next generation of employees value family-friendly workplaces, and we have many individuals leaving the workforce due to the lack of available and/or affordable child care."
Riehl — president and CEO of Executives Partnering to Invest in Children — makes the case in today's Q&A.
Colorado Politics: You have extensive background in early childhood education and as an educator working with kids, but this is your first role combining that career experience with policy and advocacy at the State Capitol. What priorities are you hoping to advance among the state’s policy makers, particularly during the 2020 legislative session?
Nicole Riehl: In 2020, Executives Partnering to Invest in Children will continue to serve as the business champions for early childhood, and we'll be advocating for policies that improve the availability and affordability of early childhood care and education. And, with a special focus on addressing the economic model of child care, we will prioritize solutions that help child care business owners lower their real estate costs so they can afford to pay the wages necessary to attract and retain qualified workers while offering quality and affordable care to parents. The growing population and demand for child care in Colorado are increasing the interest in policies that will build the supply of quality child care and this includes growing the early childhood educator workforce. I'm looking forward to diving into the 2020 policy session and working with a wide range of partners to accomplish these goals!
- President and CEO, Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, since September 2019.
- Chief operating officer, Denver's Early Childhood Council, 2018-2019; senior director of programs and development, 2017-2018.
- Denver preschool program coordinator; quality improvement resource coordinator; outreach coordinator; quality rating specialist Qualistar Colorado, 2007-2011.
- Also served as an early childhood teacher at the Boulder Journey School, 200-2005.
- Holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Colorado at Denver and a certificate in nonprofit management and leadership from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
CP: EPIC has some prominent members and founders, along with its history of collaboration with the business power lobby Colorado Concern. Your organization's graduation into a more specific advocacy focus is relatively new. What is that history and what strides have you and EPIC made so far?
Riehl: EPIC was founded by a group of influential business, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders 10 year ago. These leaders recognized and understood that investments made during the early and formative years of children's lives pay huge dividends to our economy and society in ways that are both measurable and immeasurable. The founders all recognized there was a need for more early child advocacy and they committed to leveraging their business relationships in support of early childhood. EPIC was very engaged in advocacy efforts to pass and reauthorize Colorado's Child Care Contribution Tax Credit and has championed other early childhood legislation, including increasing the investments in the Colorado Preschool Program and the passage of full-day kindergarten funding in 2019. With expanded membership across Colorado, EPIC's work is evolving and will be focused on new opportunities to positively impact the sector while remaining true to our original mission.
CP: There is a number of organizations that advocate for early childhood education; it’s also a major policy priority of Gov. Jared Polis. How is EPIC’s mission different and what have you learned through working with the governor?
Riehl: EPIC's mission and work has always been bipartisan and focused on bringing the business voice and perspective to early childhood advocacy efforts. Our work, both in the Capitol and within the community, is informed and led by business leaders who want to find innovative, fiscally sound solutions that work for children, families, employers and our state as a whole. It's a great opportunity to have a governor who understands the value of investing in our children, and EPIC members have already had several opportunities to weigh in and bring their business acumen and entrepreneurial sensibilities to inform the proposed solutions. We look forward to continuing our bipartisan work with Gov. Polis and our state legislature over the next decade and beyond so we can ensure early childhood is a priority and Colorado remains a great place to raise a family.
CP: In your real life, you are also living your work as a mom and balancing a two-career family, both with demanding jobs. How does your family life translate into the issues you care about as you work on public policy?
Riehl: I'm married to my high school sweetheart of 20 years, and the birth of our daughter in 2013 gave us a new set of life adventures and challenges to navigate. I had the option to leave the workforce, but I also knew finding a way to balance being a new mother while maintaining my career would allow me to be the best version of myself. We didn't have family nearby to help with care and got lucky when we were offered a child care slot in a quality early-childhood education program near our home. We paid over $90,000 for child care from the time our daughter was an infant through preschool (an average of $1,350 per month), and while I'm thankful we were able to pursue our careers while knowing our daughter was being supported through great early childhood care and experiences, many Colorado families struggle to afford child care and are making any number of sacrifices to meet the needs of their families. Although many families decide the unavailability of affordable, quality child care requires a parent to leave the workforce, for many other families — especially lower-income or single-parent families — giving up a parent’s income is not an option and they must accept whatever child care they can find, which may not be of high quality or safe. As a result, some children may not be ready for school and may not reach their full potential and be able to help Colorado compete in a globally competitive economy.
Now that our daughter is in full-day kindergarten this year, I hear from families in her school about the financial relief that came with full-day kindergarten funding, including the ability for parents to return to work. My own personal experiences and those of families around me continue to inspire my work and underline the importance of early childhood when it comes to supporting Colorado's families and economy.
CP: EPIC discusses early childhood as a business and an economic development issue. Is this still a unique perspective or do you see more business leaders focusing on family issues in the workplace?
Riehl: With the lowest unemployment rate Colorado has seen in 25 years, Colorado employers and business leaders are looking for ways to set their organization apart while attracting and retaining the best workforce. At the same time, our next generation of employees value family-friendly workplaces and we have many individuals leaving the workforce due to the lack of available and/or affordable child care. These two factors combined have drawn more business leaders to this key issue and have brought them to EPIC so they can support and weigh in through our efforts. I started my career as an early childhood teacher at Storagetek's onsite child-care facility in Louisville in the late '90s and saw firsthand the benefits of a company that made it a priority to ensure their employees had their child care needs met. This isn’t a new idea, but it is a trend and conversation that continues to grow, and as a state that leads in the percentage of elected women legislators, I anticipate this will continue to be a hot topic at the Capitol.
CP: What is the No. 1 thing you wish you had done before moving into the leadership of EPIC?
Riehl: Good work is based on authentic relationships and preparation, and I wish I would have had more time to get to know legislators during the 2019 session. I had no idea my path would lead to the role with EPIC at the time, but I'm relying upon my existing relationships while looking forward to new opportunities to meet more legislators in 2020. The deep dedication our legislators have to their local communities is really impressive and indicative of their character, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them on an individual basis.
CP: There is a lot of discussion about the high-cost of quality child care. What do you see as the main contributors and what can be done to make it more affordable for Colorado families?
Riehl: I've experienced the high cost of child care firsthand as a parent, and a family earning the state median income of $73,000 per year would have to spend almost 40% of their income on child care for an infant and a 4-year old, roughly the equivalent of paying a 30-year mortgage on a $400,000 house. I also worked in early childhood education programs as a teacher early in my career and have had conversations with hundreds of business owners and operators over the years. The need to ensure healthy, safe, and supportive environments for children makes the industry a labor-intensive business model, and payroll is the leading expense for child-care programs. At the same time, the average early childhood educator is making $13 per hour and they're struggling to pay their bills.
Behind labor and wages, the cost of facilities — the mortgage or rent, and associated property tax — comes in as the second-highest expense of operating a child-care facility. Finding new ways to increase access to sustainable and affordable real estate opportunities for these businesses will also lead to improved access to child care and will free up revenue for other uses — such as lower costs for families, higher wages for staff, and the provision of quality care. This includes exploring ways to create incentives for the co-location of child care with the development of affordable housing, access to affordable homes and business pathways for family child care providers, and ways to increase access to financing, capital funding, and start-up support.