Our Savvy CFO Discusses Her Role In a Growing Audiovisual Company
In advance of International Women’s Day, we sat down with Jennifer Crum, co-owner and CFO of Audio Enhancement, to get her take on dynamics within the family business and the future of audio in education.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First, please tell us about your mother, Claudia Anderson, who founded Audio Enhancement in 1978. What characteristics did you observe in her that you try to emulate in your own professional life?
I was seven when my mother started Audio Enhancement, so I grew up watching her building and managing the business. Two of my brothers are deaf, and when they were very young, she considered the advice of audiologists and also what she felt was right for her sons. She determined that there was more than one way to solve a problem. She wasn’t afraid to look for better solutions.
My mother developed individual speakers to place on students’ desks, and a great thing happened. In the process, she discovered that enhanced audio helped everyone in the classroom, not just those hard of hearing. They started doing studies around that and proved that it absolutely helps all students. The concept then grew from a personal system to an entire classroom system. It was awe-inspiring for her to realize the impact her vision could have on education.
The biggest thing that she taught me on a day-to-day basis is to never give up. She has always decided on a course of action and keeps going until she gets there. This quality really relates to every aspect of her life, whether it’s work or home or play. She makes it happen. She’s one who doesn’t wait for things to improve but takes the initiative and goes out to find solutions herself. She’s still that way today. Everyone who knows her knows that she doesn’t wait to be invited to the party—she plans the party!
Even though she’s retired and my three brothers and I now co-own the company, we conscientiously try to keep our mother’s passion, determination, and drive at the heart of the business. Everything we do truly revolves around helping kids in education so they can have the best educational experience possible.
My mother had a clear vision of who she was and what she could do. She didn’t see gender, education levels, or any other qualifiers as barriers but rather as characteristics that gave her the perspective the company most needed.–Jennifer Crum, CFO, Audio Enhancement
The theme of International Women’s Day 2021 is “Choose to Challenge.” How did your mother choose to challenge stereotypes in the business and technology industry as she built Audio Enhancement?
My mother had a clear vision of who she was and what she could do. She didn’t see gender, education levels, or any other qualifiers as barriers but rather as characteristics that gave her the perspective the company most needed.
The foundation of her company was itself a challenge to stereotypes. She didn’t start out to build a business or say, “I’m going to come up with a product to sell and make a lot of money.” She set out to help her own children. That determination came from being fully invested as a mother, not from wanting to make a million dollars. Her philosophy was. “I’m going to help my kids, and in the process, there will be other children who will benefit.”
Also, when I was a teenager, I started to notice that my mom surrounded herself with really smart people. She didn’t have the educational background or expertise to create the equipment she envisioned, but she hired engineers and designers who had the skills to help her get there. She was not intimidated by them. Sometimes it’s easy to feel like the least qualified person in the room—and your confidence might take a hit for it—but she didn’t care. In fact, she thought it was great. In brilliant ways, she was able to invite others to share her vision and contribute their expertise.
As you were growing up, how involved were you in the family business, and at what point did you decide to make it your career?
I’ve been involved in the family business for as long as I can remember. My mom grew up on a farm, and she was taught to work from a very young age. Likewise, she taught us to work from a very young age and regularly assigned us small tasks. When my brothers and I were young, I remember sealing envelopes while we watched TV at night.
Later as a teenager, I started doing more impactful jobs for the company like helping with the accounting and invoicing. Because of that, I decided to study accounting and finance in college, and it was then that I decided to make the family business my career.
What individual strengths do you believe you and each of your brothers contribute to the business?
The question my brothers and I are often asked is, “How do you really like working together?” Our response is always, “It’s the best! We sincerely enjoy it.”
Each of us has a unique skill set, and we all respect what the others bring to the table. To be honest, we don’t want to do each other’s jobs! Because of the deep respect we have for one another’s talents, there’s never been vying for positions.
Jeff is so talented with sales and design, Justin does a great job organizing the operations and inventory, and Jeremy and I work together in accounting and finance. Because we all have different interests, we make a well-rounded team.
How would you say your perspective differs from other company leaders due to your experiences as a working mother?
It’s definitely a juggling act to be an invested mother of six and a full-time CFO. Similar to what my mother experienced, I believe my role as a mother allows me to offer a different perspective when we talk about the where and what and why of the company and the benefits and flexibility we offer our employees.
I’m so fortunate, though, that I don’t feel different from my brothers when it comes to prioritizing family in our workplace. My brothers prioritize their families too and sometimes need that same flexibility. We all watched our mother expertly perform this balancing act between motherhood and entrepreneurship, so the values were already in place for us. Perhaps at times I bring the perspective of a woman or a mother, but I never feel like I have to fight for it. We’re all on the same page.
I’m grateful that my mom built this legacy of mindset for us, and I have seen it manifest in my own children. For example, when one of my daughters was in college, she heard the term “glass ceiling” for the first time in her political science class and didn’t know what it meant. What a wonderful thing to not know! We’ve all been shown that we can do anything we want to do and have always been told, “If you set your mind to it, you can do it and you can be it.”
What have you found to be helpful in balancing your professional and family responsibilities?
The most important thing I’ve been intentional about is being present wherever I am. Again, that’s something I learned from watching my mom. When I’m at work, I work hard. When I’m at home, I enjoy the time with my family.
When my kids were younger, I made a concerted effort to be home by early evening so I could be with them and give them my full attention. Of course, work responsibilities often can’t be squeezed into an eight-hour workday, so if I needed to get back on my computer to finish some work once the kids were in bed, I’d do that. But I wanted to be very present during those key hours when we were all home together.
I also prioritized my kids’ events, big and small. I volunteered for their school Halloween festivals and Valentine’s parties, and sometimes it was very hard to leave work in the middle of the day to do that. But I feel that my being there had an important impact on my kids. I didn’t want to miss their performances or activities. It was ideal to have the flexibility to do that.
Now that my kids are older—I still have teenagers at home—my schedule has changed. They don’t finish their extracurricular activities until later, so I make sure I’m available to them later in the evening.
What do you consider to be the perks of co-owning a family business, and what would you say are the biggest challenges?
Working with my family is the best part of working in the family business! As a young mom, I was so grateful to be able to see my mom at work everyday. She gave me the flexibility to do what I needed at home and at work.
Now I love working with my brothers, children, nieces, and nephews. I have four children who currently work with me, and the fact that I get to see them thrive in a work setting everyday is a pretty great thing as a mother.
I have relationships with my nieces and nephews that I don’t have on the other side of the family simply because we don’t have the same daily connection. Since we interact with each other everyday, we always have things to talk about, and so we’re very close. We truly do value family and friendship.
When my brother Jeff and I were first parents, we determined that we wanted our kids to be best friends. We would regularly plan activities for them to do together like taking them to the park or to McDonald’s, and to this day they still enjoy each other’s company. Our mother taught us that family relationships are so important and sometimes we may not like each other but we always do love each other. And she taught us how to figure out ways to get past any differences.
Once in a while a disagreement will arise regarding the business, and it usually has to do with opinions over the best approach to something. When we do have business disagreements, we don’t let them spill over into our personal relationships. We really do have a deep respect for one another’s talents and decision-making abilities, and consequently there’s never hostility because that’s just not how we work. In the unusual case when we can’t come to terms, we’ll table it for a while. Our relationships are far more important than getting our own way. Typically a decision falls toward a department, so that person takes the lead and the rest of us respect their decisions.
We all agreed years ago that we would never let anything tear us apart. Our family is the most important thing, and if we can work together in a meaningful business, even better.
We all agreed years ago that we would never let anything tear us apart. Our family is the most important thing, and if we can work together in a meaningful business, even better.–Jennifer Crum, CFO, Audio Enhancement
What aspect of the company are you most proud of?
Our passion for education and helping children in school is our main focus, and I’m most proud of how we’ve stayed true to that mission.
In the late 1980s we had an advertisement slogan that said, “We woke up the back row!” That was back in the day when the teacher would stand at the front of the room to lecture, and students on the back row would fall asleep. Our products changed that dynamic. Again for my mom, it wasn’t a, “Wow, what a great business driver” but rather, “Wow, we can help every student and every teacher in every classroom.”
I’m pleased that we’ve stayed focused on education, even though there are so many other areas where our products could be adapted for productive uses. We haven’t allowed ourselves to get distracted.
What are your specific challenges as the CFO in a growing audiovisual company?
Managing rapid growth is my biggest challenge as CFO. Of course our objective is to grow responsibly by having great teams in place, making fiscally responsible decisions that we won’t regret in five years, and working with our ever-present goal of helping students and educators. As challenging as the past year has been with the pandemic, we’ve been able to grow substantially as a business because our products solve many of the problems that COVID-19 has imposed on education.
How have you had to adapt to rapidly changing trends in education due to COVID-19?
Because our company is 100% reliant upon and dedicated to K-12, it was very unnerving when the country shut down in March 2020. When schools shuttered so suddenly, we were worried about students, educators, and our business. However, it didn’t take us long to realize that our products would be hugely beneficial to educators teaching remotely and in person wearing masks. We’ve been able to quickly conduct studies that show how drastically masks affect audio.
All of us have now had the experience of not being able to hear the cashier at the grocery store—so much gets lost in translation between her mask, your mask, and the plexiglass. How frustrating to be a kid at school who can’t hear anything the teacher is saying!
We have a great innovations department which was able to pivot our existing product and change it just enough to be more helpful for distance and in-person learning. Our product has been extremely helpful in both scenarios. Gratefully, we were poised and in the right position pre-pandemic, and as a result we’ve been able to help.
How do you envision the future of Audio Enhancement?
Audio has always been and will always be a need. Once students have experienced enhanced hearing in a classroom setting, they don’t go back. Students and teachers are going to know that and feel that, and the benefits will continue to be proven by test results.
The great need for enhanced classroom audio was present long before masks were. I believe that remote learning options will continue, and even though there will be a new normal, I’m confident that Audio Enhancement will play an important part of it. We’ve proven that we can innovate under pressure, and we continue to find new ways to bring products to the market. I think the company will continue to have a growing impact on education in the future, whatever it looks like.
My advice to anyone starting a business is to build off what you’re passionate about, what you love to do, what you want to spend your life doing and being.–Jennifer Crum, CFO, Audio Enhancement
What advice would you give to women starting out in business?
My advice to anyone starting a business is to build off what you’re passionate about, what you love to do, what you want to spend your life doing and being. You want to make sure you’re doing something that is meaningful to you because you’re going to spend a whole lot of time doing it. Never give up, and don’t limit yourself. Remember that you can literally turn your vision into reality.