Rob and Kathy Olevsky

Tucked away at the corner of Spring Forest Road and Hargrove Street in North Raleigh, Kathy Olevsky sits in her office and pounds away at her computer. Like many small business owners in Wake County, Kathy wears many hats: a manager, an accountant, a marketer, etc. But there’s one thing that separates Kathy from her small business peers: she’s one of the most highly decorated female martial artists on the planet.

Kathy Olevsky and her husband Rob own Karate International, a brand of four martial arts schools here in the Triangle. Karate International was opened in 1974 in Raleigh by a gentleman named Mr. Jan Wellendorf and purchased in 1976 by Kathy and Rob. Over the years the Olevskys opened schools in Apex, Cary, and West Raleigh. The Olevskys have trained generations of families in the Triangle with many students crediting their martial arts training as an integral part of their success in academic and work careers. They have two children, son Josh and daughter Casey. Josh is being groomed to take over the family business and Casey started her own social media marketing company named Digital Harmony. Of course, Josh and Casey are black belts.

My seven-year-old daughter Lucy takes classes at that school on Hargrove Street and I will occasionally sit in Kathy’s office and talk shop with her. I always like to find out how a successful business works: the culture, the systems, the processes, etc. I am particularly intrigued by a business like Karate International whose product is taught. After my hours of chats with Kathy, I consider her more of a businesswoman than a martial artist. That’s big considering she’s a 8th Degree Black Belt in Sanshinkai Karate, a 2nd Degree Black Belt in Sanshinkai Jujitsu, and a 3rd Degree Brown Belt in Kodokan Judo. Oh yeah, she was inducted into the U. S. Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2001 as the 1st Female Master Instructor.

Husband Rob is the head instructor, a self-professed “martial arts nerd” with more belts in more styles of martial arts than you can shake a stick at. A Grandmaster in Sanshinkai Karate and one of the most revered martial artists in the world, he knows his strengths and weaknesses. Rob lets Kathy handle the business stuff as he would much rather teach his discipline instead of getting involved in the books.

“The books are one sparring partner Rob wants no part of,” Kathy says rolling her eyes laughing. “But hey, being a fantastic chef does not mean you would be a great restaurant owner, right? That’s why we make good team,” she adds.

A testament to Kathy’s business savvy is how she adapted to the changes in her industry, particularly one significant event that happened in 1984. Not many children took martial arts classes before martial arts got caught up in the vortex of mini-vans, juice boxes and orange slices; the schools were generally filled with adults. So what happened in 1984 that filled her classes with children?

“The Karate Kid,” Kathy says as fast as Daniel-San can whip a fly out of the air with a pair of chopsticks. “That movie changed it all”.

Change it did. Martial arts schools in and outside of Raleigh were being flooded with adolescent students after the release of The Karate Kid. As a career restaurant guy, I equate this to managing a Chili’s one day, then managing a Chuckie Cheese the next.

The problem was a lot of martial arts instructors did not know how to teach kids or furthermore how to market to Moms and Dads and take advantage of this phenomenon. They did not have the patience or the pedigree. Kathy did, as a graduate in early Childhood Education from East Carolina University. While other martial schools struggled and sometimes failed, Kathy’s ability to teach children and create an environment parents would gravitate toward allowed them to eventually open three more schools.

I wondered how challenging it would be for karate instructors who had no prior experience teaching kids to teach them. I asked my friend Alison Hurley, a 17-year educator with a Masters Degree in Elementary Education if it was really that big of a deal.

“Absolutely challenging! In order to teach kids, you have to understand child development on some level. People really misunderstand that. They believe anyone with a math degree, for example, can teach math. Not true,” Alison said.

“Understanding just the dynamics of pedagogy – adults are much more compliant, they will do what is asked of them but they are also more resistant to change and new ideas,” she added. “Kids however will question but are willing to take risks, as long as they are in a safe environment.”

That’s exactly why Kathy makes sure the children’s karate classes focus on building confidence and self-esteem. It’s also why teens are taught a whole different skill set than the children. The teen students are spoken to like adults but treated as growing adolescents. It’s an interesting parallel to that game changing film from 1984 referenced earlier, huh? I mean, was The Karate Kid about a teen’s journey to win the All-Valley Karate Tournament or was it about a teen’s journey from youth to manhood?

Putting on my marketer’s belt, I bow in respect to Kathy’s ability to market to parents. Kathy’s style of marketing is more experience-based than traditional. When I take my daughter to class, I plug my phone into the community charging port. My two-year old plays in the kid’s area filled with books and toys. I enjoy a cup of coffee from the variety of pods available for the Keurig coffee machine. I look on the bulletin board and see a flyer promoting “Parent’s Night Out” where the coming Saturday, parents can drop off their students at the dojo for a night of pizza, games and movies so Mom and Dad can enjoy a date night (praise hands!). All of the above can be a lot more memorable than a television, radio, or print advertisement.

I talked to my buddy Lewis Sheats, Director of the NC State Entrepreneurship Clinic and a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship, about the Olevskys and he too marvels at their business savvy. He and I often debate if the term “entrepreneur” gets thrown around a little too loosely in this town, but both we both agree it describes the Olevskys well.

“The Olevskys’ seized two opportunities in ’84 – a change in the social environment – karate was cool for kids; and a gap in the marketplace – no one was teaching them. Where Kathy and Rob were different, they recognized this and acted,” Lewis tells me.

Wax on, wax off, Raleigh.