Crystal Free

While working as a school psychologist and learning specialist at Brentwood School, Crystal Free discovered a need for additional options for high-quality early childhood education. She founded Piper Preschool, which offers classes for babies through prekindergarten at four locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange County.

What inspired you to pursue a career in education?

I saw what a difference I could potentially make. I’ve always been career-oriented, but purpose was the main driver. In my prior role, I was privy to what preschools historically offered and how they were characterized—which was largely child care. Given my position at a premier elementary school, I had the unique insight as to where the children were headed next and how the preschool experience impacted that transition—everything from the process of separation to building self-esteem. I knew what I could offer and truly felt it would benefit families. On top of that, I wanted to create a workplace where teachers wanted to be there—for people to not only love what they do but have the opportunity to love doing it. 

Why is Piper Preschool considered a go-to business in the South Bay community?

Most importantly, we build trust with our families. A preschool is a parent’s first partner in their child’s life other than a pediatrician. That decision isn’t taken lightly by us, and we make that known in all we do. We think about the child’s experience, the parent’s experience, the teacher’s experience and even that of our outside community. We view our faculty as professionals—not caregivers—and equip ourselves not only with the education to offer a resource to parents but also with a platform for professional growth. 

How do you foster a positive work environment?

Simple … I don’t view it as a work environment. We take what we do seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We have fun and give credit to each other as appropriate.

How do you rally your team to take on a big goal?

With prosecco. 

What are the benefits of having women in leadership?

The #1 and very personal benefit is my son, who is now 6. From day one, I’ve had the privilege of raising him where lady leadership is his norm.  

What are some key qualities for women working in leadership roles?

I’m beyond proud to be among a group of women who implement our innate balance of compassion and clarity in all decisions we make. There is an empowerment that comes first in all we do—that was from the onset of Piper and is at our core. It’s never a focus on hierarchy and never room for ego. 

How do you push for systemic change around ideas that are not popular? 

I don’t think about what’s popular or not. I take a look at our community, our classrooms, our parents, our kids. I listen to myself and to my village, and while appreciating the world around us, I hold true to what is “right” for what we believe and what’s in line with our values. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in business? 

This question is challenging. It’s not lost on me that I’ve never felt inferior as a woman. With that said, I’m sensitive to the climate surrounding gender dynamics and certainly aware of historical obstacles and stifling journeys. In my industry, however, being a woman and becoming a mom has been my greatest gift and connection to my community. I’m fortunate to recognize that power in symmetry with my career—and propel conversations in an otherwise male-dominated arena, as Piper is legitimized as a “business.” 

What are the roadblocks in taking good care of yourself?

Eek. Time, of course. With that said, I really do believe in empowering others. I always say that what I am best at is knowing that I’m not best at it. Delegating is key, and when mistakes are made, even better. We all learn, and if we value resiliency as adults, we inherently recognize the importance of affording opportunities for our children to build it. 

Have you had mentors who influenced your career?

Now for the tears: my dad. Leadership was modeled very early on. Everything he did was rooted in lifting others and leading with principle. He faced challenges with grace and set others up for success. Special not-so-sidenote: My mom was the one behind the curtain, empowering it all to happen. 

Tell us about the book or podcast you’re loving right now.

Podcast: SmartLess. Books: Think Like a Monk and Shoe Dog (way before the movie came out!). 

What motivates you to go to work every day?

Well, it’s who I am, who I want my son to see and who people depend on. I’ve created my work-life to have the potential to have a positive impact on others. Not showing up isn’t an option.

Photographed by Shane O’Donnell