WESTHAMPTON – When Julia Volkman took a temporary break from teaching at the Pioneer Valley Montessori School in Springfield, she left to adopt a child. She never dreamed the time off would lead her to form a new business.
While she was on leave with her new son, Volkman couldn’t stop thinking about the other children in her life – those back at the Montessori school. With them in mind she started getting ready for the day when she would return to the classroom.
“I started making materials for my classroom for when I would get back to teaching my students. My materials came out well because I have this background in marketing and design,” said Volkman.
The materials were so good, a friend encouraged Volkman to pitch her product to Montessori Services, a catalog that sells educational materials and tools to tens of thousands of Montessori schools around the world. Volkman had the company’s president on the line when she made her pitch.
“She asked me to send her everything we made, and they bought everything. This business was started by accident. I hadn’t really planned on having a business,” said Volkman.
Volkman left full-time teaching so she could focus on her start-up enterprise. She founded Maitri Learning in her Westhampton home. The business started in an in-law apartment and as the enterprise grew, it spread to the basement as well.
Maitri Learning has a significant product line including cards, books and aprons with pouches to hold the cards. Having her products listed in the catalogue gives Volkman’s business global visibility.
Volkman’s products have been so popular, her business outgrew the house and moved to 192 North Rd. in Westhampton, the former home of the Strawbale Café. She renovated the space last fall, opening her business in the spring.
When she first started, Volkman’s entire staff consisted of herself and two part-timers. Now she has a staff of nine who make their products entirely at their Westhampton facility.
“We are the makers, everything is done in-house. We tried to do it out of house, but nobody did it well,” said Volkman.
Quality and precision are two reasons the company has seen such sustained growth. “We’re very strict in our quality control and in our design. The materials really meet the developmental needs of children. Over the years everybody knew they could rely on us. They didn’t have to worry about anything we made because it was properly designed for the young child,” said Volkman.
Maitri’s products may come in a dazzling palette of colors, but her environmentally conscious business is about as green as it gets. The beams in this renovated space are reclaimed wood from a 100-year-old mill building.
The walls are made from bales of hay stacked on top of each other, covered with Adobe clay and sealed off with reclaimed pine siding. That’s just the beginning of Maitri’s efforts to go green.
“Whenever we buy something, we have to figure out if what we’re buying is going to create a problem. We make sure everything we’re buying is environmentally sound,” she said.
Volkman said recycling is like an extreme sport to everyone on the staff. “We are avid recyclers and that can get a bit tricky. We end up having scraps of laminating material as part of our production and the only recycling center that will take them is in Hartford, [CT,] so we drive all the way down there,” she said.
Volkman is fulfilling two great passions with her growing business, nurturing and sustaining children, and the environment.
“I love that we’re doing something useful that can benefit the world without complicating the environmental situation. We try hard to be a green company so that’s involved in all our business decision,” she said. “We’re in this business to help people and children in particular and we’re not helping anyone if we’re not considering the needs of the planet.”