Go to any school zone in Metro Manila today, and you’d surely pass by at least a couple of tutorial and review centers along the way. In the last three years or so, centers offering tutorial and test review services have gained increasing popularity. What used to be more of a home-based operation has now become a booming business, with thousands of students enrolled in after-school and summer enrichment courses.
Taking the lead in tutorial and review service is AHEAD Learning Systems, invariably the most visible. Its billboards are everywhere that matters—EDSA, Katipunan, C5, Libis Alabang, North and South Expressways. With celebrity endorsers like Maxene Magalona and Andrei Felix, it is bound to attract attention, positive or negative.
Its founder and managing director Rossana Llenado likes to think of herself as a service entrepreneur, who uses her business smarts to further a cause—quality education. “Many people don’t like putting business and education together,” she observes. “But I’ve discovered that there doesn’t have to be conflict between the two. In my case, I apply practical business sense so that we can constantly improve our services and meet the needs of our students.”
Llenado’s strategy has obviously served well. Just recently, she received the Aurelio Periquet Jr. Pearl Award for business leadership from no less than President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the yearly Philippine Business Conference of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Llenado now has six centers in Metro Manila and plans to franchise AHEAD for provincial branches. She is also the first to locate tutorial and review services in shopping malls with her branches in SM Megamall and Robinsons Galleria. Their college entrance tests reviews are conducted in at least four other venues in the metro.
It is with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work that Llenado has arrived where she’s at. In 1995, AHEAD was merely a three-man operation, with Llenado as manager, accountant, and backup tutor. For the first six months, she worked until 3 AM and survived on two hours of sleep every day.
Llenado’s potential in business was already evident at a young age. She was five when she first organized a caroling group. To distinguish themselves from the other carolers in the neighborhood, Llenado made her friends wear their best clothes and memorize the songs. She believed that if their neighbors saw how pretty they looked and heard how well they sang, they would give more than the usual amount.
Llenado continued with her entrepreneurial activities in high school and college. As a communication arts student in the University of the Philippines Los Baños, she tried her hand in shirt printing, mushroom growing, and even commercial subleasing. All this as she was president of two campus organizations, an active member of other service groups, staff writer of the campus paper, and student assistant at the vice chancellor’s office.
It was probably from these experiences that she developed a concept of quality, which she upholds to the present. “While other centers always compete on price, we emphasize quality,” Llenado says. “I believe in value for money. People would rather pay P2 for a product that works than waste a peso on something defective.”
This premium on quality is one of the things that make Llenado’s company stand out. Many other tutorial centers fill up their rooms with students for group instruction. One or two tutors go around to check on the children doing their homework. For a little more, Llenado guarantees one-on-one instruction—the undivided attention of the tutor.
Another thing that sets Llenado’s company apart from the rest is the innovativeness of their services. To date, it is the only review center to offer authentic “test-based” review classes for specific entrance exams. Llenado further explains, “Our review isn’t a run-down of the things the students should have learned in high school. It’s a guide on how they should go about answering questions that they are most likely to meet in the test itself.”
Llenado’s interest in education started when she wrote a speech for then Senator Alberto Romulo when she was eighteen. The speech revolved around the role of education in nation building. The research she made on it awakened in her a true appreciation of teachers and academic pursuits. She even came up with the idea of putting up a foundation that would send students to teacher-training colleges for free. To this day, she harbors that dream. It is something she would like to pursue when she’s 40, five years from now.
Llenado, presently taking her masters in educational administration at the Ateneo, sees teaching as a big responsibility. “I really admire teachers. In fact, I always encourage people to try teaching, especially when I know they’re very smart and good with people. I believe that with really good teachers, the Philippines has a bigger chance of producing good doctors, lawyers, more good teachers, and good voters!”
This idealism of hers invariably influences her company’s operations. Every year since 1996, AHEAD takes in scholars for their UPCAT review. Three years in a row, in cooperation with two Ateneo-based organizations, AHEAD prepared nearly 80 students for college entrance tests for free. This 2004, she coordinated with the San Juan Jaycees and Zonta Club of Metro Pasig in giving out more review scholarships. Llenado sees this as a way to give deserving public school students competitive advantage in their college applications. Having been an iskolar ng bayan herself, she knows what a solid education can do in a person’s life, “So many parents want to send their kids to the best schools, but they just can’t afford to. We try to help these kids get into good state universities or get scholarships by offering them the same service paying clients are given.”
Llenado believes that tutorial and review centers help four different groups of people. First, they help students get better grades, enter the best schools, and eventually prepare for future careers. Second, they help the parents who can’t find the time in their busy schedules to tutor their kids. “With schoolwork left to professionals, parents have the time and energy to engage their children in more enjoyable activities like sharing about their day, family games, and bonding,” Llenado’s tutorial manager says.
College students and fresh graduates also benefit from the booming tutorial and review business. AHEAD prefers young tutors and reviewers, believing they can relate better with students than their more senior counterparts. In turn, young people get relevant work experience, which they can eventually use for employment in bigger corporations. Review courses likewise allow professionals to take on part-time teaching jobs. Llenado’s pool of lecturers includes several doctors, lawyers, and engineers who find the desire to teach while developing their practice.
“I feel blessed to be in a line of work that helps so many people,” she shares. A top school actually discourages tutorial and review classes, yet more than 50% of their students enroll in tutorial and review courses. I think we will continue to rise because of the service we give. We are parents’ ally in their children’s education. We help kids realize their potentials. If other students have the advantage of a support system, why would other parents deprive their children? Students today are lucky they have this kind of support. Whereas before, you’d just flunk if you’re not ready for the tests.”
Llenado is indeed blessed. She is virtually an outsider in education, and yet her center is making a growing impact on the metro’s academic climate. Her other attempts to venture unfamiliar terrain also bear fruit. In 2001, she sponsored a staged event at Glorietta with MTV Philippines in celebration of her review students’ entry to college. The following year, the project bagged a Gold Quill from the International Association of Business Communicators for its effective marketing strategy. A number of the entries to the competition came from the country’s top corporations.
Interestingly, Llenado does not have a marketing department in her company. Her active promotion strategies, however, have generated a lot of attention on tutorial and review courses in recent years. What was a little-known auxiliary service has now become a trend, especially among the A and B classes. “I like to think we helped make review classes and tutorials as basic as texting, internet connection, and bottled water,” Llenado says. “Changing the negative perception of tutorials as only for underachievers has been our goal ever since.”
Aside from the Gold Quill, Llenado has received several other prestigious awards in the last two years, among which are: Ilaw ng Karunungan award from Philam Life for her contribution to the field of education, presidential awards from San Juan Jaycees and Zonta Club of Metro Pasig, and an Ulirang Ina award. She is also one of the first Filipino entrepreneurs to be recognized by Entrepreneur Magazine Philippines in its Entrepreneur 10 event and has received professional awards for education from all five major national consumer groups.