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Small-Business Success Story: Learners Chess Academy

His nonprofit uses chess to help kids succeed in and out of school.

Kiplinger's spoke with Victor Francisco Lopez, 31, founder and executive director of Learners Chess Academy, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based educational program that aims to enhance child development through playing the game of chess. Here, he discusses what motivated him to start the program and more. Read on for an excerpt from our interview:

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What's your mission? We use chess to teach kids intellectual, social and leadership skills in school clubs and camps. The game is the medium, not the ultimate goal. The kids learn the rules, moves and tactics; practice analytical skills; and play chess puzzles and mazes. They practice mindfulness -- sitting and breathing -- to calm down and resume their decision-making after they lose a piece or make a bad move. They learn not to brag or talk too much while playing, as well as to respect their opponents. Many older players become junior leaders and teach newer players.

How did you learn to play chess? I learned from my dad when I was 5. In sixth grade, I joined a chess club at school. I loved it, and I noticed that as my game improved, so did my grades, and school became easier. I started a chess club at my sister's school and ran it until I graduated from high school. I’m a Class B player, meaning I'm in the 90th percentile of U.S. amateur players.

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Why did you start Learners? After college, I came home to start a micro-lending nonprofit while I went to business school and worked as a substitute teacher. One school asked me to coach its chess club. I thought, I forgot how really fun this is! Teachers told me, "You're literally coaching the kids to think." So in 2010, I started a summer camp, and the next summer I began pursuing Learners full-time.

How did you launch it? I borrowed $2,000 from my mom to print fliers, and I either cold-called school principals or took substitute-teaching jobs to develop relationships. I hired coaches who play chess, believe in our mission and are good with kids. Kids love our program, so we've grown through strong word of mouth, too.

Learners is a nonprofit? I started it as a sole proprietorship. But in 2012, I registered it with the IRS as a 501(c)3 nonprofit so I could gain access to more venues and raise more money for a need-based scholarship fund. The club costs $75 to $100 per semester, and the camps cost $150 per week of half days or $250 for full days. We offer need-based scholarships for 25% to 95% of the cost. We reinvest our profit into programs in low-income areas. I take a salary.

How big is Learners? In the 2016–17 school year, we reached about 1,700 children in chess clubs at 51 schools and chess camps over 11 weeks. So far, we’ve taught 7,055 children and awarded more than $72,000 in scholarships.

What's your greatest challenge? How we continue to grow and raise money to give more scholarships without losing the heart of who we are. Right now, we're doing exactly what we want to do without changing to meet, say, a foundation's requirements.

What's your greatest satisfaction? Seeing kids I taught become leaders and coaches. In the summer of 2016, two of our high school leaders spent 10 days teaching chess to 36 kids in a rural village in El Salvador. I was in tears almost every day watching them teach in the middle of the jungle.

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