Long-time friends launch New Brunswick education business
Posted on May 17, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
A trio of long-time friends based in New Brunswick opened the doors to their new business in Saint John in January. Franchising with established brand Sylvan Learning, they’re eager to offer help to K-12 students who have struggled in the pandemic, to get them back on track with their education.
While the business itself isn’t a novelty, the partnership behind it is a rare one. Aaron Cao, Stacy Wang and Lili Xia all came to Canada from China for post-secondary studies. All three chose the University of New Brunswick (UNB), where their friendship blossomed.
“The three of us are really friends and we have known each other for I would say about 20 years,” Cao said.
He came to Canada about 15 years ago, “a long time,” he says with a quick laugh, as it strikes him how fast the time can go. He began working on his MBA while Wang and Xia started working on undergraduate degrees in Business Administration. He and Wang are now married.
They all graduated in the last few years and began working jobs with different companies, each finding different strengths. Xia moved to Moncton for an opportunity while Cao and Wang stayed in Saint John. Together they had all talked about what the future might hold and the idea of maybe starting a business.
Cao worked briefly for a consulting company and a government agency but then began a job with the university in 2018. He’d worked with a university before coming to Canada as well and always found himself interested in education and student progress. He more recently began to notice some students struggling in their transition from the K-12 system into post-secondary. And he took note of the stories of students challenged in the pandemic, thanks to interrupted education plans and remote learning. He listened when some parents spoke publicly of their fears that kids were losing ground.
“I see a lot of kids are struggling, from the post-secondary perspective, and I think kids in the area need help,” he said.
Last year, he and Wang went to visit with Xia and had the chance to talk with a mutual friend as well, someone who had started a Sylvan Learning Centre and been in operation for a couple of years. Lively conversation led to a tour of the centre and some shop talk. Cao, Wang and Xia talked about opening and running their own location together.
They’d learned a few things through their UNB studies of course and began research on the local education landscape, tutor options and market basics. They looked at details of the Sylvan education system in detail. Speaking recently with Atlantic Business Magazine, Cao described aspects of the Sylvan system and approach to personalized tutoring. Kids come in for an initial assessment, taking about 20 or 30 minutes and developing a sense of their skills, generating recommendations on what might be needed to reach academic targets. It can give them an idea of how they compare against other North American students. Next comes individual learning plans, adjusted over time with regular assessments to track progress. Cao said the 40 years of experience for Sylvan shows in the educational approaches that are designed to be age appropriate as well as effective, adding motivation with everything from educational toys to a token-based rewards system.
“I find that Sylvan is a really good system … I really believe in their program,” he said.
“It’s a business, it’s a start-up business, but at the end of the day it’s education. So in my opinion, the education comes first. The whole idea comes from the deep feeling that we need to help our local kids, help them as they go through K-12 and help them have very strong academics before they go to college, to university.”
The trio talked with Sylvan staff about franchising. And things came together from there, as they found the right space and the right staff to start. Xia made plans to move back from Moncton to Saint John. She and Wang took the lead on day-to-day management needs, with Cao working for the business when away from his job at the university.
Their Saint John Sylvan Learning Centre opened on January 4 at 680 Rothesay Avenue, Unit 4.
Early on, COVID topped their list of concerns. Sanitation protocols were put in place and other measures taken to protect teachers and students. “We’re teaching K-12 kids, so young kids, so we have to be very, very careful,” Cao said.
Another challenge was meeting Sylvan’s staffing standards, demanding teachers with a Bachelor of Education and teaching license but also a maximum 1:3 teacher-student ratio (one teacher to three students).
But Cao said by the end of April they were already getting positive feedback, with a couple of happy comments from kids and relief from parents. “I cannot measure that happiness by money. And at the end of the day, again, I think it’s a really good thing for local kids,” he said.
On the business side, there is built-in brand awareness with Sylvan, but the trio are in the process of just trying to get the word out that a location is open in Saint John. They’ve planned billboard and bus ads starting this month. They’ve talked about doing more in the world of education, potentially adding new centres elsewhere in the Greater Saint John area, if all goes well. Wang has a background in the multicultural sector and Xia in logistics and customer service and they’re considering outreach to new Canadians.
And the friendship is stronger than ever. “We always appreciated having a friendship for this long,” Cao said, before a laugh, quickly adding: “and will have it in years coming!”
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