Karin Hoffman is the founder and CEO of Key Innovative Solutions and is our featured guest on Episode 98 of the Agents of Innovation podcast.
Born in Chicago, she grew up in South Florida, lived in Mexico City in her early teenage years, and recently moved to Tampa, Florida.
Karin’s mother had always been in travel and her dad managed a law firm in Miami. And when she was a teenager (right after finishing Boca Middle), her parents felt called to go into the mission field and the family moved to Mexico City, living and working in a children’s home with the Salvation Army.
Karin describes it as “a phenomenal experience.” She said, “It really changed who I was from that standpoint because you really have to be independent.”
And independent she became. She washed her family’s clothes by hand, went to the market to pick up the food, and cooked the family’s meals – while her parents were working to take care of about a hundred children. These was more than just chores, but more like an unpaid job. Yet one that formed her work ethic.
Karin did all this while also going to the American school in Mexico City. “It was like going to college,” she said. Karin would take the bus to and from school in Mexico City, come home, and help with the responsibilities around the home including with the children. “It was very formative.”
When she came back to the United States, she said, “it took me a little while to get used to life as an American teenager again.” She got involved as a teenager with a group called “Youth for Christ,” where they also went on missions trips. While not fluent in Spanish, she was very proficient and her Spanish was very helpful during those trips.
While going to high school in Boca Raton, her first paid job was as a Publix cashier, when she was 16 years old. One of the things she learned was how to talk to a wide variety of people. “You’re just connecting with each customer,” she said. “I think that’s probably what has carried through from that, just connecting with each person.”
Following high school, the first degree she earned, at the age of 19, was in physical therapy. From that point on, she worked as a physical therapist assistant for 10 years. She also later went back and finished a degree in human resources and theological studies at Trinity International University, which has headquarters in Deerfield, IL, but she was able to take classes at their campus in Miami.
Karin’s mother was working as a travel agent and earned a degree in education from Florida Atlantic University. One day someone asked her to put together a proposal to take students from a school on a trip to St. Augustine. She did and that was the beginning of Sonshine Educational Tours. “A perfect blend of bringing education and travel together,” said Hoffman.
Meanwhile, as Karin’s mother continued to form and build the company, Karin and her husband had a church in Arkansas, where he was a minister. They later came back to South Florida.
“I came in to help her out one day,” said Hoffman. Then, she stayed for years. They served schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and eventually,, all over the nation.
Pre-pandemic, at their heights, Sonshine Educational Tours brought 10,000 students annually to Washington DC alone. They also brought students to places like New York City, Philadelphia, Orlando, and St. Augustine.
“This is where my immersion into education developed,” said Hoffman. “Because you’re developing a fantastic curriculum for these students on the road and then working with teachers, and then you started to hear some of the struggles that teachers were having and a lot of them didn’t have a voice. Through that, that’s when we developed the very first state trade association for student tour operators – the Florida Association of Student Educational Tours.” Karin was elected President.
“It was neat to be in the beginning of this,” said Hoffman. In one sense, these tour operators were competitors (for business) but as a trade association they were “on the same side” in making sure their voices were heard by policymakers in Tallahassee. “The decorum and respect for each other is critical.”
“Every district had a different process to be an approved vendor. Well, that can be burdensome,” said Hoffman. So they worked with government agencies including the Florida Department of Education and helped support legislation that passed, only 6 months after the association formed.
Aside from her role with the trade association and as a representative of a student tour operation, Karin has also been involved in various grassroots policy efforts. She recalled some of the common threads she saw among all these groups.
“People want to be heard. I think that’s a real frustration – and I think it’s an impediment – but sometimes that’s where the emotions come from: it’s when people feel like they are not being heard.”
Karin really understands the process of getting things done in a place like Florida’s capitol in Tallahassee. And for her it really comes down to one essential ingredient: “relationship building.” And the next ingredient is getting more people involved to provide strength to the voices. That involves “coalition-building” or what Hoffman calls the “surround sound.”
Karin Hoffman is really big into experiences that are formative, and travel experiences is perhaps at the top of that for someone like her. She is passionate about how formative travel can be.
“I liken people to almost being like a peg board on a slant. And every experience that they have is another peg that goes on that peg board. When you have this peg board set up with a ton of hooks, any bit of information can hook on to that. You have some place to hold that content. But if you don’t have those experiences, or you’re sitting on your couch, it’s like a peg board without any pegs. So information comes but it slides right off.”
In March 2020, Sonshine Educational Tours was affected very dramatically by the COVID-19 pandemic, which not only shut down travel, but also schools.
Sonshine had 7 employees and about 40 tour guides – not to mention all the people in the travel industry they provide business opportunities for. Despite this being a very successful company for over 30 years with a strong reputation, Karin reminded us that “There is no guarantee in being an entrepreneur. What is incorporated in that is risk. You’re not guaranteed anything. Nothing is guaranteed.” She talked about how, as an entrepreneur, your resiliency is constantly tested.
When they were first told that we would need to shut down for two weeks to slow the spread of COVID, she thought they could make it. Most of the major school trips they put together were in May and they initially believed those trips in May 2020 could still happen.
But then, it became apparent that travel was not coming back and schools would not be reopening. However, Sonshine kept paying their staff – who needed to work as essential employees.
“Hundreds of thousands of dollars were out to all our vendors: airlines, buses, hotels, restaurants, attractions,” said Hoffman. “What we had to do was pay our staff to try to get this money back from all of our vendors. And speed it up because we needed to give it back to the schools so they could give it back to the parents.”
There was a question of whether Sonshine Educational Tours had to give the money back. Contractually they were not obligated, since many of these trips were under the 30-day rule. However, they did what they thought was right. And in the end, if you’re looking long-term and not short-term, that’s a smart business practice too.
“These are extenuating circumstances. We are in a pandemic. That’s not the parent’s fault. It’s not the school’s fault. It’s not our fault. But in the same sense too: do what is right,” said Hoffman.
She also reminded us that many parents were also getting laid off and now they were losing money for a trip they paid for their children to go on that was canceled. Karin wanted to make sure that those parents were rightfully refunded.
“We took money from us to make sure that 100 percent of the money that was paid by the parents got it. I’m so proud of us for doing that. Not every company did,” she said.
Government policy of shutting down business due to the pandemic forced businesses like Sonshine Educational Tours,, who were also free of government subsidies and ran their business without any debts, to now depend on the government for their business to survive. “That bothered me,” said Hoffman.
They applied through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to continue to pay their employees for two months.
“Our employees, some of them had been with us for 20 years,” she recounted. “So we really held on to them as long as possible. And then, on top of that, we also gave them severance. These are phenomenal people. The reason why our company is so great is because they are so great.”
After all was said and done, Sonshine Educational Tours evaluated the future risk and pivoted to no longer offer educational tours but to start sending referrals to another tour company that they have a strong partnership with.
“It gave an opportunity for me to pivot,” said Hoffman. Her mother also retired. “It provided a platform for us to move forward to the next level of what we needed to do in education and industry.”
Karin told us now, from the vantage point of the fall of 2021, that people are now booking trips and students are going on trips and she’s excited to see that.
“It’s so imperative, it’s so necessary too,” said Hoffman. “Because how many students would never have the experience to travel if it weren’t for these field trips?” She referred again to the peg board – without these travel experiences the students would have no frame of reference to hold this content.
On top of her job responsibilities, Karin also serves on the Florida Commission on the Status of Women – she was appointed by the Attorney General and was named chair (this year) of this 22-member commission, which is focused on raising awareness and celebration the contributions and successes of women.
“Who I am as a strong woman now – I am benefitting from these strong innovative women years back that have pushed the envelope on opportunities,” said Hoffman.
Karin is also a gubernatorial appointee on the Southern Regional Education board, a compact of 16 states in the Southeastern United States. Each governor appoints four people per state. Two of those members are legislators; Karin is one of the two non-legislators. She says her experience in this role “has been a great opportunity not just to know all the great education policies that we have here in Florida, but what is working throughout the nation.”
Key Innovative Solutions came into this space to “connect industry and education so there is a viable sense of communication based on the needs.” They also focus on workforce talent, talent pipeline, having students become college and career ready, and apprenticeship training.
“Through COVID, industry was running around with their hair on fire,” said Hoffman. “So you have industries like construction, manufacturing, health, IT, tourism, all of them are trying to survive. But in the same sense, they know what these needs are and they want to connect with education but now they are trying to hold on for dear life here. And it almost became prohibitive. Meanwhile, education also had their hair on fire during this whole COVID experience.”
“This is where Key has come in,” said Hoffman. “Because we are moving them and finding what their particular needs are and being able to identify that and work out a pathway or strategy to connect with education. It’s meeting a need in industry. It’s meeting a specific need in education. It’s solving that problem that they have not even had time to analyze or do outreach.”
For those in the education space, “it’s important, but not urgent.” So Karin and Key Innovative Solutions try to help them out with that. For many, she says, “it’s a sigh of relief.”
This past legislative session, the REACH Act was passed. It stands for “reimagining education and career help.” This is an effort to bring education and industry together in conversation. “Because of that intent, that really opens up a lot of doors as well.”
This helps students get on a better career path. “We no longer want to wait until they graduate high school and then wait until they graduate college for them to really enter that so it’s exposure to many career opportunities, work-based learning opportunities,” said Hoffman. “It changes the trajectory of a student’s journey in high school and then even in college. It makes college more purposeful when you know when you’re going – or what’s beneficial sometimes is knowing what you don’t want to do.”
She believes Key Innovative Solutions is “changing the whole educational model in a powerful way.” And Karin Hoffman should know something about how young people can learn through experiences. After all, one of the most formative aspects of her life was learning through experiences she had while in middle school, in Mexico. This is where her work ethic was formed and now she is using her role as founder and CEO of Key Innovative Solutions to make sure every young person in Florida is able to have formative experiences that help them become career ready.
Hoffman is also encouraged by the fact that “Everytime I share what I’m doing, people lean in: that is so needed … people love the fact that there is a solution.”
Hoffman also knows that there are many experiences we can have through philanthropy, and serving on boards of organizations.
She suggested we should each ask ourselves, “What are you doing with your spare time, your volunteer activities?” Then she added, “You have an opportunity to give back. And there is nothing more enriching than serving. There really isn’t.”
The relationships Hoffman has formed through many of her experiences have been critical for her. “In education, there is a grading system,” said Hoffman, referring to the A, B, C, D’s, and F’s students might receive. “In the real world, it’s really only one or two things: pass or fail. There’s no in between. It either worked or it didn’t work. We have to provide an environment for students to learn that first of all a fail does not mean failure either because if your idea didn’t work it does not mean you’re a failure.”
She is also a big believer in the role that mentors and mentorship can have on each of us. “Mentorship is a fantastic relationship that we should be actively participating in. We are being mentored at the same time that we are mentoring,” said Hoffman. “You really are learning when you are teaching. We can’t get into the mindset that ‘I’m mentoring so it’s going to take away from me.’ It only enhances us.” She also added that this makes your network more “explosive” because it makes your relationships more meaningful.
Her parting advice to every aspiring entrepreneur: “Get out and experience. Immerse yourself. Talk to people.”
You can listen to our conversation with Karin Hoffman on Episode 98 of the Agents of Innovation podcast on Apple podcasts, Audible, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you listen to podcasts (and please don’t forget to write a review on any of those platforms!) You can also follow the podcast on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. For those looking to directly connect with and learn from the many guests of the Agents of Innovation podcast, please consider joining the Fearless Journeys community today!