In a cynical world where people are haunted by unfulfilled ambitions and burdened by unrealized potentials, it is indeed refreshing to meet individuals who overcome adversity and hardship to fulfill their dreams.

One such person is Rossana Llenado, founder and president of the leading and most awarded tutorial and review center in the Philippines, AHEAD Learning Systems and one of the country’s most admired young women. Not only has this lady succeeded in making her own treasured dreams come true; she has paved the way for thousands of others to achieve theirs. During a short break from a customer service training session she organized for her staff recently, Rossana indulged me with what many would consider a classic success story.

At a tender age of 8, Rossana had to sell polvoron so she would have lunch money. Her polvoron proved to be a hit in the neighborhood that she soon had to commission playmates to sell them for her. The production expense for a single polvoron amounts to one peso, and they would sell them at two pesos.

“It’s funny that I seemed to have a natural sense for business, even at that age. I knew that I had to have a good product to sell, so I made my polvoron really yummy. I also knew that if I wanted to sell a lot of polvoron, I could not do it on my own, so I got my classmates to make the polvoron with me and earn their wage by reselling,” Rossana laughs as she recalls her early entrepreneurial adventures.

A couple of years later, hard work became even more important for Rossana. “Our house in Manila burned down, destroying everything, including my father’s stock for his small buy-and-sell business,” she recounts. “We had to move to Los Banos and live with my uncle and his family. I wore nothing but hand-me-downs and at 10, had to sell fruits, stickers, toy cards, and all sorts of stuff to help with the family expenses.”

Such was her plight, but Rossana was never poor in spirit. “I didn’t feel bad about having to work at a young age,” she says. “I actually enjoyed selling. It made me happy to see my classmates happy because they were able to buy the nicest stickers or the newest Tex cards from me. When every one of them had stickers and cards, I sold all of my stock at bargain price to recover my cost.”

Rossana’s enterprises continued throughout high school then college at the University of the Philippines in Los Banos, where she took up Communication Arts as a full scholar. She sold clothes, bags, accessories, university T-shirts, and grew mushrooms as she juggled her classes, part-time jobs at the university, and responsibilities as the president of two campus organizations.

“UP trained me to be even more resourceful and creative. It taught me to think out of the box and gave me the confidence to lead other people,” Rossana shares. “I also learned that I should give back to the community because it’s ordinary taxpayers who pay for the education of UP students like me.”

Her experience at the premier state university is probably one of the reasons Rossana became inclined to help high school students get into the top universities years later. “A good education is a person’s ticket to countless opportunities,” she relates. “Thanks to the support of my Tito Art, I was able to get into the U.P. Rural High School and then UPLB. This education gave me an edge over those from more privileged families.”

When Rossana was in school, her uncle Art Cariaga was a sought-after speech writer and public relations consultant. Commissioned to write for then senatorial candidate Alberto Romulo, Art asked his niece to do some research on education, the major topic of the politician’s campaign speech. Rossana accepted the task with much gusto, not knowing that this would be another turning point in her life.

“My research on how education shapes the nation made such an impact on me that I decided I would put up a foundation for teachers when I turn 40,” she recalls with amusement. Rossana was 18 years old then, a passionate idealist from a small town with little money and no connections. People would have thought her crazy if they knew of her dream to send teachers to school for free.

Set on always being ahead of herself, Rossana fulfilled this dream a year earlier. She put up Educ18 in 2008, at 39 years old. But instead of focusing on teachers’ education as she had originally intended, the foundation supports the training of school managers.

“One of the perks of running a learning company is that I get to meet and learn from the best educators and school leaders,” Rossana says. “These amazing people made me realize that the success of a school is largely in the hands of the one running it. How can a teacher be brilliant and teach his students excellently if he is not supported by a good mentor? How can a school have the best facilities if its administrator doesn’t know how to raise and manage funds?”

This great admiration for school managers is fuelling Rossana not only to run more leadership programs for them but to organize the first-ever nationwide search for the best principals in the Philippines. Dubbed The Outstanding Principals (TOP), the endeavor hopes to honor the efforts of educators who run excellent schools. “I want to help these principals tell their stories, so that they can inspire other principals to make their schools the best,” Rossana explains. “I hope to give the winning principals a grand celebration because they really deserve the best.” She looked for partners to stage the awards ceremony in January 2013 and sponsored other prizes for the winners.

So what other dreams does someone who has already achieved so much have?

Rossana chuckles. She confides, “There was a time when I thought I had everything I wanted. While I am happy with what I have now, there are new goals to be reached. As long as God allows me to, I want to continue serving others through education.”

One of these goals is to make AHEAD an international brand. Rossana has been approached by possible investors who want to put up AHEAD franchises in Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, and even the United States. She is however being careful about choosing the right partners and explains, “Ours is not like any other business that you can let managers or staff run. To run a tutorial center, the owner has to attend to students and parents herself. Our franchisees have to be hands-on with their branch’s operations for at least one year.”

Even after nearly 18 years of running AHEAD, Rossana is still in awe at what she and her team are able to do for other people. “We are really making dreams come true. Just thinking about it makes the hairs on my arms rise,” she intimates.

For one, she considers it a real blessing to be able to help other parents realize their dreams for their children. “Most parents these days are really too busy to help their children with schoolwork. Some of those who are willing and have the time to tutor their kids may not have enough patience. Others have simply forgotten their schooldays and find their children’s lessons absolutely foreign. We just help these parents make sure their children have the best support and reach their own dreams.”

Rossana’s business is also helpful to schools because it allows them to maintain a decent batting average in standardized tests such as the college entrance exams of the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University, and De La Salle University. After all, the students’ performance on such tests is reflective of their respective school’s effectiveness.

Her desire to make her company even bigger is driven by her hope to provide more lucrative jobs for Filipinos. “When we become successful in our online tutoring and international franchising ventures, we will be able to hire more tutors and lecturers and pay them the high salaries they deserve. That way, they don’t have to go abroad and leave their families here to earn well.”

It is no wonder that fate has been so kind to one with such noble dreams.

Written By: Maridol Rañoa-Bismark for Philippine Star

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