Former hedge fund manager and WSB lecturer Marisa Palmer now brings the hero’s journey to children with her growth-mindset-oriented private Montessori elementary school
Marisa Palmer attended UW-Madison and played volleyball for the Badgers before moving to New York to work as an investment banker and hedge fund analyst. That’s where she met her husband Brandon Palmer, who was the CIO for a foreign currency exchange before founding a startup. After returning to Madison, Marisa Palmer taught finance at the Wisconsin School of Business and started education businesses in financial services.
In 2022, the Palmers, parents of an elementary school-aged child, decided to launch a private elementary school, Acton Academy Madison West.
“As entrepreneurs and parents of a young son, my husband and I were very excited about the Acton learning philosophy, which combines technology and hands-on engagement in a self-paced learning environment,” says Marisa Palmer. “We also loved that the school hosted a Children’s Business Fair every year.”
Palmer reached out to the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Wisconsin School of Business (SBDC) in the spring of 2022. She was considering a small business loan to help fund the school.
“We were motivated to make our school a reality, so when the loan officer said we would need a business plan using the SBDC template to qualify, I sought out the SBDC,” she says.
Palmer was paired with business consultant Amy Bruner Zimmerman, who guided Palmer in business planning and marketing strategy.
“I’ve worked on developing new educational products or services within corporations, where I’ve had established marketing support,” says Palmer. “This was the first time, though, that I had to figure out the marketing piece of the business from scratch–and on my own.”
Zimmerman’s expertise in market research, marketing strategy, and marketing execution has been “invaluable,” says Palmer. “I’ve shared our marketing plan with her, and she’s provided insightful feedback, to the point where we’ve invested more heavily in some initiatives and backed away from others.”
Palmer says Zimmerman also provided helpful guidance on conducting market research to include in Palmer’s business plan.
“After assessing the market, we had a lot more confidence in the future success of our business,” Palmer says.
Palmer ended up not pursuing the small business loan but kept working on her business plan.
“I wanted the confidence that I knew the market research would provide–or it would tell us our business idea didn’t have legs,” she says. “I’m glad I kept going on it! We shared it with our landlord to get our lease approved, and insurance carriers requested it, as well.”
Palmer says that in addition to the general marketing skills she has developed as a result of working with Zimmerman, she has also gained specific knowledge about local private schools.
“Amy works with daycares and other educational institutions, so she has an understanding of staffing risks, messaging to parents, and timing of sales cycles,” says Palmer.
Now that Palmer has connected with the SBDC, she’s considering taking advantage of additional opportunities.
“I was very interested in the social media marketing conference, but it didn’t work with my schedule,” she says. “I plan to tap into classes and conferences in the future.”
Palmer secured a space on Madison’s near West side, off Nakoma road, and opened in January with a small inaugural class and teachers experienced in Montessori education. Acton Academy uses the “hero’s journey” archetype as a basis for curriculum development, aiming to instill a growth mindset in children.
“The idea is that a hero embarks on the unknown, encounters challenges, then recruits mentors and resources to help him or her overcome those challenges, eventually emerging stronger and transformed,” says Palmer. “We are on our hero’s journey of launching and operating Acton Academy Madison West, and we’ve learned that the SBDC is an incredibly helpful mentor and resource as we continue on our way!”
Acton Academy Madison West is hosting an open house January 28, 2023, from 11am-1pm for incoming kindergarten to fifth grade students. Learn more.
View the Acton Academy PDF story