The great United States of America is a nation built by and for its many immigrants who arrive at its borders from all points of the world every day. For the first time ever, TOP USA Awards has taken the time to honor immigrants for their efforts and growth within the American enterprise system.
One of these highly successful entrepreneurs and nominees is Iryna Drozdovska, who is a founder of Hopscotch Montessori, an international network of Montessori schools. We had the privilege of sitting down with Iryna for an interview to get to know her and learn more about her business and accomplishments.
Iryna, tell us a little bit about yourself: Where did you grow up, and what inspired your move to America?
I was born, raised, and educated in Kyiv, Ukraine where I eventually obtained my master’s degree in international relations in Kyiv National Economic University. From a very early age, I had a dual passion for different cultures and traveling, which served as an incentive to foreign languages and international affairs. Although I established many businesses that were interwoven with international communities, I never had a goal to leave Ukraine. I love Kyiv and always considered it as my native city because it is where my parents were born. Kyiv is where I grew up, learned to walk, to be a friend and fell in love. I created my own family and started my business there. Kyiv is a city where both my children were born and for all these reasons, I have a very deep connection with Ukraine.
Though my initial desires were to live in Kyiv permanently, the endless possibilities presented in NYC could not escape my inner entrepreneur lense, which I cultivated since I was 19 years old. I quickly realized that there is much potential for growth for Hopscotch Montessori in New York. I knew that combining the New York market with our Ukrainian level of service, hospitality, and deep knowledge of building relationships with families and clients would lead to remarkable results. Our family had to move to New York in 2014 because of family circumstances. Later on I was granted entry to the United States as a person with exceptional ability in business that pertains to the national interest. Shortly after immigrating to the U.S. I began expanding Hopscotch Montessori in earnest.
What were your first impressions of New York?
In 2012, I visited the US for the first time with my family. We landed in New York and toured the bustling city. During our time there, I received a phone call from a former classmate and friend who was residing in London at the time. She wanted to gain my perspective on the city. In that conversation, I remember telling her that while I love being a tourist in New York, living here is just something inconceivable to me. In fact, the foreignness of the culture, people, social norms, and cuisine weighed heavily on my mind at the time and even lead me to respond with a resounding, “No.” Little did I realize, in that very moment, that the United States would eventually transform into a cherished home for my family.
One vivid memory stands out from that time: walking down bustling 34th Street, where people hurried along with distinct purposes. Entering Golden and Sacks’ management company office filled me with both apprehension and excitement. In a negotiation room, I faced seven formally dressed men, initially intimidating. It felt like a scene from a New York movie, and I couldn’t have imagined these meetings turning into pleasurable experiences. The top manager of the company applauded my courage for entering a tough market in a foreign, formidable country without connections. Later on, getting to know the city better and seeing the growth opportunities, made me fall for New York.
Hopscotch Montessori is focused on early childhood education. What led you to choose this segment of education?
I’m driven by a profound understanding of the vital importance of a child’s first six years in establishing an early childhood education business based on the Montessori philosophy. These formative years shape a child’s personality, influencing their mental, emotional, and ethical development. The period from infancy to six years is a crucial window for a child’s psyche, compassion, cognitive abilities, and character traits to take root, setting their life path.
My own happiness and positive outlook stem from the nurturing environment provided by my parents’ unwavering love and respect. Their influence emphasized the potential of a childhood marked by empathy, kindness, and cognitive stimulation. When I became a parent to my older child, Elia, the challenges of finding a preschool that prioritized child development and supported parents became clear.
This search sparked the inspiration to create an enriching space for young minds, nurturing their curiosity and potential while valuing the educator-parent partnership. Every child should have respect, autonomy, and tools for self-paced learning in a unique learning environment. The Montessori approach resonates with me due to its focus on self-directed learning, individualized attention, and holistic development. Through my journey as a parent and my passion for positive change, I’ve recognized an unmet need in early childhood education. Our center aims not only to impart knowledge but also to instill values of empathy, resilience, and a love for learning. By integrating Montessori principles with open communication and parent collaboration, we’ll prepare children academically and empower them to become compassionate, curious, and confident individuals who positively impact the world.
You built an incredible international network of Montessori schools. Tell us a little about how you got started in this journey.
Our first schools were successfully established in our native city Kyiv, Ukraine. But we were always dreaming of making a real difference in the world. We wanted to bring positive changes not just to local communities in Ukraine but also abroad.
While traveling to the US and attending conferences and educational events in NYC, we realized that our values are in demand everywhere all over the world. These are high standards for service: unconditional respect for every child, acceptance of each family with their cultural authenticity, and our approach to peace education. We decided that we were ready to expand beyond our native country in the middle of Europe and bring our philosophy to the world. We saw NYC as the perfect place to start our expansion where we met many people along the way to help us create a culturally-rich and cozy environment for learning.
What was the greatest challenge you had to overcome thus far in the development of Hopscotch Montessori?
The first year was trying for me because I was faced with the challenge of establishing a business that would fit in with the local population. I consistently emphasize that we are not merely a child-centered company; rather, we are a people-centered organization. The inaugural year in NYC proved to be a significant trial for me. While I always excelled at comprehending and interpreting people, my experiences here were distinct. Discerning people’s thoughts became difficult due to variations in expressions, customs, tastes, and attitudes. It was hard to understand people due to cultural differences and I felt like an outsider despite my English skills. It was important for me to adapt to the culture while remaining true to myself.
To lead effectively, I cultivated candid, respectful, and profound relationships. Employees need to experience customer orientation to perform optimally in a customer-oriented company. Just as we aimed to foster a culture of respect for children, the same ethos should extend to all participants in our processes. Our journey commenced with prioritizing the well-being of our personnel, holding it as a central tenet of our company’s values. Remarkably, this approach yielded positive results. I am confident that I successfully surmounted this challenge. Through my genuine affection for people and an approach rooted in systemic thinking, Hopscotch Montessori transformed into one of the premier preschools in Manhattan.
What did you feel when you learned that you were nominated for TOP USA 100?
This nomination caused me to stop, look back, and reflect. To me, it was a chance to show the world the beauty of our Ukrainian people. I realized just how proud I am to be a Ukrainian and how much I learned just from being born there.
What advice can you give to other immigrant entrepreneurs?
It is important that you take the time to understand the local market you are working in and the people you are serving. At the same time, do not lose sight of your true authentic self. Do not be afraid to be different because it can be your superpower.