Carol Greenberg’s Learning Curves

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The owner and president of the Learning Exchange has experienced life’s ebb and flow during her 28 years with the organization.

As owner and president of the Learning Exchange, an adult-learning center based in Sacramento, Carol Greenberg oversees a company that needs to stay on the cutting edge. The classes she develops and the teachers and speakers she recruits must address both the latest trends and age-old concerns. And she must be able to problem-solve in a pinch.

Take, for example, her experience with that diva of domesticity, Martha Stewart. A week before she was to speak, Greenberg got a call from Stewart’s secretary—the sixth secretary Stewart had gone through in the time it took to arrange the speaking engagement. The secretary apologized: Stewart had been invited to the White House on the same day and couldn’t make it. After Greenberg politely reminded her that Stewart had signed a contract and that 1,800 ticket holders were eagerly awaiting her speech, Stewart agreed to come, but outlined these requirements: the color of her limousine and the brand of her cell phone. During the presentation, Stewart complained of a headache and left, leaving hundreds of unsigned and unsold books that had to be returned and an auditorium full of unhappy people.

“It was my first real experience with damage control. I stayed up all night trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Greenberg says. “I have to say, in my whole professional career, this might have been one of the very smartest things I ever did.” The next day, when the phone started ringing, Greenberg told her customers, “I couldn’t be more disappointed myself,” and urged them to call Stewart’s headquarters with their complaints. It worked. Instead of anger, she elicited sympathy, sparing her business a tarnished image.

Booking speakers and then cleaning up when they fail to deliver—or even show—is one of many tasks Greenberg juggles as head of the Learning Exchange. Diplomacy and quick thinking have served Greenberg well in the fast-paced job, her first and only professional position. She intended the $5-an-hour, part-time job as the company’s office manager, which she accepted in 1978, to be short term, planning to stay long enough to pay off a three-month trip to Europe she took with college friends. Her goal was to return to San Diego State University and earn her bachelor’s degree in communications.

But life doesn’t always turn out as planned. Three days into the job, Greenberg’s boss, Learning Exchange founder Clare Payne, went on maternity leave. Her departure was four weeks early, leaving the 23-year-old alone to run the fledgling, 2-year-old company for the next year. “That’s indicative of how this business is in general,” Greenberg says. “You never know what’s going to get thrown at you. You have to always think on your feet.”

The one-person operation grew into a full-time job after six months. Greenberg was responsible for nearly everything: developing class ideas, interviewing teachers, writing catalog copy and preparing paychecks. When Payne left to have her child, she gave Greenberg the freedom to run the business. Greenberg wanted to expand it. And in her 28 years with the company, she has. Annual enrollment has grown from 360 to 20,000 students. The number of annual classes has risen from about 200 to 2,000. In 1992, when Payne retired, Greenberg bought the business.

The Learning Exchange’s growth is due in part to the diversity of its classes, its well-known speakers and its high-caliber instructors, according to students and teachers. But there’s a special ingredient: Greenberg is never satisfied with her achievements. Friends say she constantly is searching for new ideas. “We go to breakfast, [and] she’s like, ‘Oh my God, aren’t those flowers beautiful? . . .  Maybe I can get them to do a class on arranging,’” says longtime friend Mary Locke.

The irony is that the head of the Learning Exchange, which has helped thousands of adults develop new skills and hobbies, doesn’t herself have a college diploma. “That’s my big secret,” she says. Greenberg attended college for six years (full time for 2½ of those years), but the Learning Exchange kept her from finishing a degree. “I’ve always wanted to go back and finish,” she says. She hasn’t had time yet. “But I’m going to.”

Greenberg is a youthful 51 with wavy, shoulder-length auburn hair. Her tortoise-shell reading glasses sit perched on the end of her nose. She is polished and sleek in a fitted white blazer, magenta top, black pants with a delicate polka-dot print and two pearl necklaces. Greenberg has strong ties to this area. When she was 6, she moved from San Francisco to Carmichael with her parents and two older brothers, and lived in the same house until she left for San Diego State, the same house her parents live in today. 

The day of our interview, Greenberg burns a vanilla-scented candle in her office. The room, with its large blue sofa, resembles a well-organized yet whimsically decorated college dorm. A cuckoo clock with a chicken that pops out on the hour hangs above her desk. Pictures of her 5-year old son adorn a bookcase.
The rest of the office is quirky and bright. There are framed posters by modern painters such as Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn, vases of silk flowers and animals everywhere—wooden chicken sculptures, oil paintings of cats and dogs, and masks of farm animals mounted on the wall in the reception area. A water bowl sits on the nearby kitchen floor, in case someone brings in her dog.

Greenberg has exposed thousands of Sacramentans to nationwide trends (do lambada, feng shui and color analysis ring a bell?), acted as a local matchmaker in the 1980s through Learning Exchange personal ads and boosted the careers of many instructors whose businesses have grown with the exposure.

This fall, Greenberg is planning festivities to celebrate the Learning Exchange’s 30th anniversary, including a party and a series of cooking demonstrations with local celebrity chefs. She also is looking to the company’s future. Plans include opening a cooking school and an art center, both within the next two years. She also plans to add at least one suburban satellite site to her five classrooms and office on Howe Avenue by September 2007. 

 

Greenberg has three full-time (and two part-time) employees who’ve shown their loyalty in the number of years they’ve stayed. Nancy Layton, the Learning Exchange’s office manager, has worked there nearly 12 years. “I would never go anywhere else,” Layton says. “This is my second home.” Things weren’t always so hunky-dory, though. Back in the 1990s, the employees weren’t getting along. The office felt tense and unnecessarily competitive. Greenberg had just hired an outside manager to take over some of her responsibilities. Many of her employees were resentful that they hadn’t been promoted and felt uncomfortable with the change. So Greenberg stuck them in a room for an hour and made them watch back-to-back episodes of “I Love Lucy.” The point? To get them to laugh and to be mindful that, although hard work is important, they should remember their work should reflect the company mission: educating people in a playful environment.

Greenberg also inspires loyalty from her teachers, who work as independent contractors. Some have taught there for more than 20 years. Biba Caggiano, owner of Biba, the landmark Italian restaurant in midtown, has taught large cooking demonstration classes through the Learning Exchange when she’s published cookbooks. Caggiano says that while she’s done teaching, if Greenberg asked, she might oblige. “I might do something because I have a high regard about what she does and who she is,” Caggiano says.

For most of her adult life, Greenberg has been focused on her career. Fourteen years ago, she married psychologist Marty Greenberg. Four years into their marriage, she turned 40. “I’ll never forget being at my gynecologist’s when I was 40 and having him say to me, ‘So you decided not to have kids.’”

“No,” Greenberg responded.

“Well, you’re 40,” the doctor said.

“It’s just like this light went on and I went, ‘Oh, my God, how did that happen?’” Greenberg says. After years of fertility treatments, Greenberg got pregnant and gave birth to a girl. The baby died at birth.

It was the first real tragedy Greenberg had ever dealt with. The grief and loss, though intensely painful, showed her that she’s a lot more resilient than she ever realized. It’s the kind of horror she couldn’t imagine happening to anyone, yet she has survived it—and it helped her appreciate what she does have. In her professional life, it helped her learn to trust. During the pregnancy, she took large chunks of time off to rest and afterward, to grieve. The “real turning point,” she says, “was realizing that I could really count on the people that I work with to come through for me.”

When Greenberg couldn’t get pregnant again, she and her husband adopted a baby boy, Samuel Miller Greenberg, in March 2001. That he entered their lives later in life makes him even more special. She learned through the whole experience that some things in life are beyond her control and sometimes a person has to accept things as they are. In the end, “We got the baby we were supposed to have,” she says. “I think he was just meant to be with us.”

With her son as her priority, Greenberg juggles family and work responsibilities, professional affiliations, friends and hobbies like any other working mom. “I’m often feeling like I’m not doing it right, I’m not doing it good enough,” she says. “But I just kind of get in there and do it and hope that nothing is pushed through the cracks.” She does it with help from her husband, a relationship friends describe as a true partnership, plus a dose of humility and a wickedly funny sense of humor. “She could have a second career as a stand-up comedian,” says friend Nita Vail.

The demands of Greenberg’s job don’t allow her to stay home with Sammy full time. Some days she wishes she could. “Sometimes I look with envy at the [mothers] that get to do that. But then I think, well, maybe that makes me the kind of mom that I am,” she says.

Outside of work, she loves garden and home-improvement projects. She calls herself a “wannabe knitter—an excellent Learning Exchange class.” She takes weekly tennis lessons, loves to cook, has belonged to the same book club for 12 years and spends time with her extended family and a wide circle of friends. The experience of losing a child, she says, made her “a more compassionate and sensitive person.” She is, her friends say, the kind of person you can count on. When her friend’s father was dying, Greenberg “was the first one there with meals and support and errands and whatever she could do for our family . . . despite her busy schedule,” Mary Locke says.

Having a child gives her life a new perspective, Greenberg says. “When you have a kid, you get that feeling of how precious time is and how lucky you are. You have a healthy child and you see such horrible things people have to go through and endure. And every day I think, ‘I’m so lucky. I’m just so lucky.’”

Time to Party—
To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Learning Exchange will offer discounts on classes and a cooking demonstration series with local celebrity chefs at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St. Featured chefs include: Rick Mahan of The Waterboy, Sept. 7; Mai Pham of Lemon Grass Restaurant, Oct. 10; Biba Caggiano of Biba, Nov. 2; and Kotaro Arai of Mikuni Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar, Dec. 7.
All classes start at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $59 per class or $219 for the series. In October, there will be a party in the Learning Exchange parking lot, 1111 Howe Ave., with mini-classes and food. Call (916) 929-9200 or log on to learningexchange.com for more information. — Joanna Corman

– Through the Decades
An old Learning Exchange catalog is like a time capsule, providing a glimpse at once-popular pastimes and personalities.

While classes on golfing, cooking, art, personal growth and anything about careers have remained popular for three decades, others, such as how to find and identify edible weeds and microwave cooking, faded long ago. Still others, like hot tubbing—popular in the ’70s—are popular again.

Once computers became big in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, the Learning Exchange became one of the first computer training centers in the city. Five years ago, classes on the stock market were huge. More recently, it’s been real estate. And the focus on home improvement has remained popular since the 1990s. “It seems like with every decade there’s a trend that comes out that we could really maximize and bring to the community and really sell,” says Carol Greenberg, Learning Exchange’s owner and president. “In the ’70s and ’80s, it was ballroom dancing. Color analysis was huge for us in the ’80s. Everyone wanted to know what ‘season’ they were.”

During the mid-1990s, the Learning Exchange brought big-name speakers to Sacramento, at times packing auditoriums with nearly 2,000 people. Author John Gray (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus), spiritual guide Ram Dass, psychic Sylvia Browne and alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra are some of the household names who came to town. Local notables included restaurant owners Mai Pham of Lemon Grass Restaurant and Randy Paragary of Paragary’s Restaurant Group.

Greenberg says she targets the interests of her generation, the baby boomers. Most classes are taught in a traditional classroom setting, but online courses make up about 18 percent of the Learning Exchange’s offerings, with 3 percent of students taking classes by computer.

Classes always have been diverse and include lessons in how to fly a helicopter, make a tamale, let go of a relationship or become a home inspector. There really is something for everyone.
—Joanna Corman