Julia Rhodes is at it again.
The founder of KleenSlate Concepts, a Sonora company that specializes in dry-erase products for the classroom, will celebrate her company’s 10th anniversary, its first American manufacturing partnership and a new hiring wave.
The past decade was a crash course in the mechanics of business, Rhodes said, which boils down to making a quality product that fills a niche, making relationships in the business community and pushing until you come out on top.
Rhodes’ company began in an eighth grade liberal arts class at Sonora Elementary, and quite by accident. She was working with her students on advertising, and they asked her how an entrepreneur takes a product from concept to production line.
“I had no idea,” she confessed.
In fact, that was the one thing she did have — an idea — on how to improve first the dry erase marker and then the system of call and response in the classroom as a whole.
The company was founded on Sept. 9, 2001, with one simple concept in mind. Dry erase markers and their corresponding erasers did not exist together in nature. Rhodes decided to design an eraser that would connect right to the dry erase pen, eliminating the need for separate erasers.
Rhodes pitched the product to major companies and potential clients anyway she could. She took advantage of her position as a “minority” — i.e., female — business owner to get preferential contracting with major businesses.
Unable to afford a booth at major trade shows, she would attend dressed in clothes she’d made out of dry erase material and write on the clothing to demonstrate her erasers.
“People would ask me, ‘Where do I get those clothes?’” she said. “I’d tell them, ‘I sell erasers!’”
The concept evolved into a full dry-erase system, backed up by several patents in the United States, China and Japan, that includes a dry erase surface connected to a paddle that has a built-in marker holder with attached eraser.
The classic KleenSlate paddle has a ping-pong paddle appearance, with a flat surface of dry-erase material and a handle that also holds a unique marker with a patented eraser design so that the pen and its counterpart are never far from the device.
Students can write answers to questions posed by teachers on the paddles and raise them, giving instructors an opportunity to get instant feedback on how well students are picking up information in classrooms.
Rhodes estimates that the paddles raise the number of student responses by a factor of 13 in comparison to normal hand-raising since teachers can get a sense for all the students’ answers rather than just the random sample of those who raise their hands.
This year, Rhodes is launching a redesign of her popular paddles and markers which she hopes will target a wider audience, particularly older students.
Now, Rhodes will offer a rectangular, double-sided board with a blank slate on end and a graphing grid on the back for use in higher math classrooms.
The same principle can be applied to custom boards for music classes by applying musical staves, or Venn diagrams for liberal arts classes.
The goal is to get as many paddles into the hands of as many different kinds of students as possible, and not just for the comfort of her bottom line, she said.
Also new this year, Rhodes is moving one of her molds to a manufacturing plant in Michigan. All of her production takes place in China.
It’s all part of giving back to the community, she said, by bringing jobs back to the United States.
She plans to do a bit of that here, as well.
“We’re looking for people to handle sales and marketing,” Rhodes said.