MANILA, Philippines – Many people get frustrated and lose hope these days. Even young people are too weary or too cynical to dream. So meeting someone who strives for her dreams despite adversity and hardship is truly inspiring.
Rossana Llenado, founder-president of the most-awarded review center in the Philippines, Ahead Learning Systems, not only made her dreams come true. She paved the way for thousands to achieve theirs. During a short break from a customer service training session she recently organized for her staff, Rossana indulged me with what many would consider a classic success story.
At six, Rossana already had the makings of an entrepreneur. Instead of selling leaves for imaginary money like most of her neighborhood playmates did, she sold Tex, rubber bands, and marbles for real money. “It was just play for me. I hadn’t realized this was already my early training,” she shares.
At 8, she sold polvoron, which became such a hit among her schoolmates, she had to commission friends to sell the sweets for her.
“Somehow 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 later on sell,” Rossana laughs as she recalls her early entrepreneurial adventures.
Years later, being enterprising would prove to be more useful for Rossana. “Our house burned down, destroying everything, including my father’s stock for his small buy-and-sell business,” she recounts. “We had to move to Los Baños and live with my uncle. I wore nothing but hand-me-downs and at 10, sold fruits, stickers, and all sorts of stuff. I used what I earned to buy new stock to sell. Sometimes I would use it to buy my school supplies, so I didn’t have to ask my parents for money.”
For years, Rossana’s family depended on her uncle Art Cariaga’s generosity. He provided for all their basic needs and sent Rossana and her siblings to school.
Her roots may have been humble, but Rossana was never poor in spirit. “At a young age, I already liked to work,” she says. “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 then looked for other things to sell them. Whatever interested them, that’s what I sold. I always wanted to be their first source for the latest craze.”
Rossana’s enterprises continued throughout high school then college at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Los Baños, where she was a 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 and officer of several other groups.
“U.P. 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. Managing her own company later on became quite easy for her. She had honed her leadership skills and was accustomed to dealing with different types of people.
“More importantly, I 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 wanted 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. “My education gave me an edge.”
When Rossana was 18, her Tito Art wrote speeches for President Corazon Aquino and San Miguel Corporation chief Andres Soriano. When he was asked to write for Alberto Romulo, Art asked Rossana to research on education, the major topic of the speech. She said yes, not knowing 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. People would have thought her crazy if they knew of her dream to run development programs for teachers for free because at that time, she had neither money, name nor connections and from a small town.
Set on always being ahead of herself, Rossana fulfilled her dream to help educators three years ahead of target. At 37, she set up the Leadership Strategies for School Managers (LESSM) program in 2006. But instead of focusing on teacher development as she originally planned, the program supports training of school managers. Since it started, LESSM has trained thousands of principals and administrators both public and private schools nationwide.
“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), it hopes to honor 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 is currently looking for partners to stage the awards ceremony in January 2013 and sponsor other prizes for the winners.
So what other dreams does someone who has achieved so much have?
Rossana chuckles. She confides, “There was a time when I thought I had everything I wanted. I actually went into retirement for two years. At that time, I thought of focusing on the foundation but then I realized I would have so much more to give the teachers if my company was a bigger and better one.”
The dream to make Ahead an international brand was born. Today, it serves students from all over the world through online video conferencing. 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 US. She is however, careful about choosing the right partners.
Meantime, Rossana considers herself fortunate to have dedicated local franchisees. “They are all so vibrant and committed. They really want to make an impact on the lives of students and are very conscious of their role in helping them succeed,” she beams.
Even after nearly 18 years of running Ahead, Rossana is still awed at what she and her team can do for others. “We are really making dreams come true. Just thinking about it sends shivers down my spine,” she intimates.
She feels blessed to be able to help other parents realize their dreams for their children.
Her dream of providing more lucrative jobs for many Filipinos drives Rossana to make her company even bigger. “When we become successful in our online tutoring and international franchising ventures, we will be able to hire more tutors, lecturers, managers, and staff 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.”
She adds, “I also want to help Filipinos be known as the best teachers in world. Our teachers have so much to offer to young people. They are compassionate and nurturing, able to handle even the most difficult learners. Any student from anywhere in the world would be lucky to learn from a Filipino teacher.”