Franchise Canada May/June 2024, Little Yogis Academy, Melissa Heikkila
Franchisee Success StoriesMay/June 2024Next Generation in FranchisingPrevious IssuesWomen in FranchisingWomen in Franchising Article

Next Generation in Franchising: Bringing Yoga to the Youth

Melissa Heikkila left her teaching career in search of a way to help more children. Today, through her Little Yogis Academy franchise, she’s helping hundreds of kids improve their physical and mental health

By Kirstyn Brown

As a lifelong educator, Melissa Heikkila never expected to become a franchise owner before the age of 40. But when she learned about Little Yogis Academy in the summer of 2023, that’s exactly what happened.

Little Yogis is a well-being enrichment provider that brings yoga and wellness programs to children under 13. Operating under the umbrella company Busy Minds Ed., its franchisees partner with schools and childcare centres, aiming to improve kids’ physical and mental well-being through a movement- and mindfulness-based curriculum.

For Heikkila, the concept is one that’s close to her heart. Not only has she worked with children for most of her life, but she’s also an avid yogi, practising yoga and mindfulness skills every day with her husband and their eight- and five-year-old sons. “I’m actually not a businessperson, and owning a franchise was not something I ever thought would be in my future, but when I came across Little Yogis Academy, I knew the programming was exactly what I wanted to do.”

And it couldn’t have come at a better time, as she had been looking to take her teaching career down a new path. “I wanted to make a change and find a way to reach more children,” she says. “When I found Little Yogis Academy, it was aligned with all the same values and beliefs that I have for providing a positive educational environment for children.”

Taking a leap of faith

Heikkila’s passion for education has been a common thread throughout her life.

Born and raised in Aurora, Ontario, she spent her youth and teen years as a summer camp counsellor and coordinator. After graduating from university in 2008, Heikkila taught English in Japan for a year before moving to Markham, Ontario, to embark on a 13-year career as a Montessori educator.

But while Heikkila loved the Montessori teaching philosophy—one that encourages self-paced, multi-sensory learning and values cognitive, social, and emotional development—she was ready for a change. And when a coworker told her about Little Yogis last July, Heikkila knew it was a good fit. “The concept is absolutely beautiful, and the branding stood out to me,” says Heikkila. “After meeting the founder and CEO, knowing her passion and why she created this program, I knew it was exactly what I was looking for.”

Little Yogis was founded in 2019 by another dedicated educator and mental health advocate, Michelle Faber. After experiencing her own mental health struggles with anxiety and depression, Faber was inspired to empower children with the tools to thrive physically and mentally. In 2023, Faber expanded the business to Busy Minds Ed., which includes additional children’s programming such as Play Gym and DanceFit Kids. Today, Busy Minds Ed. operates across Canada, and Little Yogis even has franchises in the United Arab Emirates.

Once she’d made her decision, Heikkila hit the ground running. Within a few months, she had left her full-time teaching career and took over the Little Yogis Academy franchise in Ottawa, where she had moved with family in 2021. After completing the paperwork and training, she knew she wanted to offer additional programming, and decided to expand to Busy Minds Ed.

Despite not having a business background, Heikkila says the brand’s established reputation and curriculum helped give her confidence. “Working with a franchise gives you a leg up. It gives you the advantage of an insight of the business world, and also allows you to show that you’re a reputable company and business provider. You are part of something that is not just yourself, and part of a curriculum that has been developed over time.”

She also credits the support of their franchise community, whom she meets with on a bi-weekly basis, for helping to make the transition easier. “We’re here to grow together and support each other. It’s a very amazing business community to be a part of.”

Motivated to make a difference

When it comes to managing Little Yogis’ Ottawa North and South territories, Heikkila often finds herself bending over backwards—and we’re not talking about wheel pose. Bringing in new business and making sales, meeting with school and program coordinators, and interviewing and hiring new staff are just a few of the tasks that make up Heikkila’s day-to-day life.

But while she spends a lot of time behind a computer, Heikkila says she loves to work on the other side of the desk as well. “I’ve been working with children my entire life, so for me to sit behind the screen all day is extremely hard,” she says. “I’m motivated to go out there and train my staff to make sure that they have strong classroom management skills and create a group of instructors that I can trust to go out there every single day.”

For Heikkila, getting face time with clients and students is part of her business philosophy, which is why she’ll join one of her eight instructors in the field on occasion—and even lead a class or two. “I just like to go pop in and make a special appearance because it’s important for me to connect with the staff and make sure the children know that I’m there for them and that I believe in them.”

And her hard work is paying off. Although she’s been a franchisee less than one year, she’s already hit some impressive milestones. Last December, just a couple of months after opening, Heikkila appeared on CTV Morning Live to promote the business. “I did a little yoga session on TV to promote mindfulness here in Ottawa. It was a huge, huge checkbox for me, something I didn’t expect so early, since I had just started in September.”

Moving in the right direction

As a testament to Heikkila’s efforts, her Little Yogis programs are expanding quickly in the region, alongside Busy Minds Ed.’s other offerings. Currently, Heikkila works with multiple childcare centres, and she added her first private school to her roster this past spring. Going forward, Heikkila says one of her main goals is to work with the Ottawa Catholic School Board. “We’ll go very big if this happens for us.”

Like any business, owning a franchise comes with its share of challenges. Heikkila’s main challenge? Keeping all the proverbial balls in the air. “I think the biggest challenge of being a franchisee is having a lot of tasks

to be done and holding it all together [while] being that face of the company,” she says. “Doing all the behind-the-scenes work with the numbers, that’s definitely not my strong suit.”

Additionally, Heikkila says she faces the challenge of politics and misconceptions around yoga- and mindfulness-based exercises. “We are yoga, but we’re non-traditional yoga, we’re non-religious. And I think individuals are starting to understand that, but that has been a challenge for us,” she says. “It’s a struggle, I think for every franchise owner, to get the people on the other side to see and hear you and to give you that green light to come in, especially when you’re working with children.”

But the challenges are well worth it for Heikkila, who says in this post-pandemic world, the need for mindfulness and mental health programs for children has never been greater. “We’re seeing higher numbers with anxiety and lower self-confidence in children, so we’re hoping to provide these programs that can encourage self-love and self-confidence and give them that resilience that they need to move forward in life.”

To those who are looking to own their own business through franchising, no matter their age, Heikkila has some sage advice. “It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the community, individuals, and teams you’ll engage with regularly. Ensure your commitment stems from genuine passion and that your values resonate to your contribution to society.”

Luckily for her, and for young yoga fans in the Ottawa area, Heikkila has found just that.

Learn more about franchising with Little Yogis Academy