Interviewed by Jenny de los Reyes, Photographed by Ricky Vasquez

Ahead Learning Systems has grown by leaps and bounds since it started 10 years ago in a small apartment beside Rossana Llenado’s home in Pasig City. It now caters to students of all ages, preschoolers to corporate clients–recognizing the fact that education or re-education is our country’s only hope for progress.

What is your business really about?

It is all about education. In the beginning, we offered tutorial services to kids who under-performed in school. Classes in traditional schools have become so large, reaching up to 60 students in a class, that it’s next to impossible for a teacher to attend properly to each student. So parents bring their kids to us for tutorials to help them raise their grades through one-on-one teaching. Then we saw that with increasing competition for entrance into good universities, high school students needed extra preparation so we offered college entrance test review packages. Then we opened classes for corporate clients who needed to train their employees, for example, in English communication for call centers. We also give language classes–Mandarin, Fookien, French, Spanish, Italian–for those who want to work abroad or in foreign firms based in the Philippines.

Most people resort only to tutorial services when their kids are failing in school.

That was the old thinking. Now we see that even really good students are coming to take our courses, so much so that we have created honors or advance classes for certain subjects. We invite the top 10 students of schools like Ateneo, Poveda, and La Salle to join these special classes and the response has been terrific. You can see the difference, these students really enjoy learning. Sometimes they don’t want to take their breaks because they can’t stop asking questions. If the students are that driven, that intelligent, we have to recruit the best teachers for them. Do you know, we’ve had PhDs enrolling to learn more about a certain subject? Whoever needs to learn a subject not taught in school or if they need extra help, they come to Ahead. Our course offerings grow from requests. For corporate clients, we offer business writing, time management, personality development, and marketing courses. Courses are usually packaged as 20 sessions of four hours each. We are constantly on the lookout for teachers who can handle these new courses as they come up.

How do you find good teachers?

Often by word of mouth. I ask friends and acquaintances if they have relatives who are potentially good teachers–those who were achievers in school or have attained academic honors. We also set an age limit so there is less of a communication gap, especially for the tutorials.

What differentiates you from other college entrance test review companies?

We do test-based reviews while [others] do comprehensive reviews. For example, if there are 40 different topics in Math, but only five topics will be included in most college entrance tests, we will just review the students on the five topics, not all 40. We feel this is more practical. The subject matter covered in the tests vary a bit. In UP, it’s language, reading, science, history, art, and general intelligence (abstract reasoning). Some tests are in Pilipino so we give special training for this or you get bogged down just translating the question! We also teach lessons in physics and trigonometry to senior high school students because by the time these students take the (college entrance) exam in the third quarter of the school year, they’ve not finished studying these lessons in class yet.

Do you give evaluation test at the beginning of the course?

In the case of La Salle, where we are the official review center, we separate them into sections according to their grades in, let’s say, math. Those who are weak are given extra hours for review. Sabi nga ng principal, “Yung mga mahihina noon sa math, ‘yun na ang nagto-top ngayon!” Natutuwa sila sa amin.

How much improvement does the student show after Ahead?

An additional 30% to their stock knowledge. If they knew about 40% of the subject matter before Ahead, they know a total of 70% by the time they finish the review. With time and experience we can predict, more or less, what will come out in the tests and we use this knowledge to help our students reach their maximum potential.

What made you start this kind of business?

I didn’t want my children to experience what had happened to me and my siblings. Tatlo kaming magkakapatid at ako ang panganay kaya alam ko ang paghihirap namin. We didn’t have the chance to be the best that we could be because we couldn’t afford good education. Sabi ko sa sarili ko, hindi pwedeng mahirap kami forever. Ganoon kalungkot ang buhay ko! (laughs)

You felt that education was that important?

In my case, I could’ve gone to UP Diliman to study for free but we couldn’t afford to buy books and other paraphernalia. I studied in UP Los Baños instead, but I had to borrow books from my classmates so I could do my homework before going home. I wanted to learn so many things, even become a doctor, but we just didn’t have the money for it. That’s why when I was thinking of a business, I thought of one in the field of education. I had to stop working when I had my twins. I felt that I could care for them much more than a yaya could. But I’m a hard worker at heart so I began to think of a business I could do while at home with the kids. Pero maski ako, hindi ko akalaing mararating ko ang narating ko. In the beginning, I’d sleep only three hours. We were like a factory–I’d work till 4 AM preparing materials. Then my staff, who’d sleep in my house, would go to the office to take over for me, still in their pajamas! We had few computers at that time, we had to share those and work in shifts.

We recently put up a preschool called World Prep, or preparation for the world ahead, using progressive teaching methods like Montessori but by the last quarter of the kinder year, we start training them in traditional methods of learning to prepare them for the ‘big schools.’ We want to be able to produce students who are able to adapt to changes in the world in the future, whatever that may hold. And I think the key to that is to produce good teachers. That is my dream, to put up a foundation, when I am 40, to train teachers, or re-train them in new methods. Kulang na kulang kasi ang mga teacher dito, they keep leaving for abroad! I’d like that foundation to also sponsor scholarships for children who cannot afford a good education.

Is your husband involved in your business too?

Yes! Siya ang tagabayad! (laughs) He’s also from Los Baños but I met him at a real estate seminar. He insists nagkatinginan kami sa elevator pero di ko naaalala yun! He was brought to the seminar by his then girlfriend-to-be so that he could get a license. I was already a licensed broker but was required to take a seminar before I could get my commission. I did a lot of networking and that day I only had five calling cards left. There were six people facing me and I had to decide who would get the cards. Yung mga bihis-na-bihis binigyan ko. Eh siya, naka-t-shirt lang kaya papel lang sa kanya. ‘Di ko akalain na siya ang magiging asawa ko kasi taliwas na taliwas sa iniisip kong mag-asawa! The next week, he called to say he wanted to join our sales group, could I mentor him. I really couldn’t remember him, even when I saw him at the office.

Liniligawan ka na pala?

Oo! That was August 29, by the second week of September he already proposed marriage. By November we were engaged. He is the perfect husband and father. People say there’s husband material and boyfriend material. I tell my friends they should find a partner in life who knows how to do chores and to take care of children. Si Edwin, magpapalit lang ng diaper, nakangiti pa! Gusto niya pa na siya mismo ang maghahatid sa mga bata sa iskwela.

How are you able to manage your time between work and home?

From the beginning we decided that our family would always come first. That’s why, even if it made good business sense to expand, we have kept our number of review centers down to four: Katipunan, Greenhills, SM Megamall, and Robinsons Galleria. They’re all close to my house and to the children’s schools.

It’s useful to have a fixed schedule instead of having to arrange a new schedule each morning. This way, I can give a portion of my time to everyone in the office as well as at home.

What is your typical day like?

Evenings are for the family. One night is devoted to each of the four children, one night for me, one for Edwin, and Sunday is for the whole family. During the day, Monday is for meetings, status reports, assignments for the whole company. Tuesday is for marketing and finance because my car is coded, so I stay in the office. We have a time for meeting our World Prep teachers, the Ahead professionals… walang katapusan! My friend said my schedule resembled that of the military! When a time slot is given I stick to it because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to attend to all the other issues that are just as important.

Business tips for women?

My number one tip is huwag muna mag-aasawa agad! When you’re married, you cannot just go ahead and act on your ideas. You must consult and discuss these matters first. Pero masarap din mag-asawa kasi mahirap naman mag-isa lagi. You can start a business after getting married, but it’s more difficult to sustain it then. I suggest working full-time first until you’ve saved enough capital for a business. Having your own business is very risky. You’re never really sure if your idea will click. Choose a business that is unique and useful. If you put up an ordinary eating place, the moment someone puts up a new one beside you, you’ll already be in trouble. But if you think of something unique, you’ll always be ahead of everyone. We were the only tutorial service offering Chinese at the preschool level in our area. Huwag ‘yung kopya lang ng kopya. The time you thought you’d have for yourself as an entrepreneur, kailangan ibuhos mo rin sa business for you to succeed.

What do you know now that you wish all women knew?

Mahalin nila ang biyenan nila! (laughs) I had to court my mother-in-law. It was difficult at first, it didn’t seem that I could do anything right. The dishes I cooked and sent her were too sweet or too expensive. In time, she saw that I took good care of her son and her grandchildren and she began to appreciate me more. Being a mother and a career woman is really difficult but nowadays it is necessary for women to work. But I believe the first priority of a mother is the home. If you fail there, maraming buhay ang masisira. It is important to train your children to be disciplined. Takot kami na our children will take what we have achieved financially for granted. Gusto kong magsumikap pa rin sila. You have to decide what your financial goals are. Sa akin naman, sapat lang na pera ang hinahanap ko para makapag-aral ang mga bata. Atsaka, sa totoo lang, mas masipag ang mga babae at marami tayong magagawa kung gugustuhin lang natin.

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