From the beginning, the pursuit of new opportunities in the name of education has been a central focus of the Best in Class brand.
In the late 1980s, fleeing the communist government in Vietnam, Best in Class CEO and founder Hao Lam met his soon-to-be-wife, Lisa, as the pair sought a new life in the United States. Although they lived on opposite coasts for the first few years after their arrival in North America, the two supported one another in their pursuits, including Hao’s earning of his B.A. in Mathematics from the University of British Columbia. While tutoring students through complex coursework and exam preparation, Hao realized his passion for education. Hao and Lisa decided to open a student enrichment center focused on building better teachers in order to build successful students.
Hao and Lisa eventually settled in Seattle, Washington, where the first Best in Class location was born. After 23 locations grew in the region, the Lams introduced franchising in 2010, and since then, the franchise system has expanded to include over 55 centers in 14 states across the U.S.
One of the newest additions to the Best in Class community is franchisee Shan Zhao, who just successfully completed the acquisition of her E-2 Treaty Investor Visa. The E-2 Visa allows prospective workers to come to the U.S. on the basis of a substantial investment that the worker controls—in this case, as the owner of a Best in Class franchise location.
“We feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to help aspiring entrepreneurs from across the globe achieve the American Dream by partnering with Best in Class Education,” said Sharon Peterson, VP of Franchise Recruitment and Development at Best in Class. “One of the avenues that allows us to achieve that goal is the E-2 Treaty Investor Visa Program. The E-2 Treaty Investor Visa Program provides an incredible opportunity that allows investors from specific countries to launch a business and enter the U.S., and provides job opportunities for American citizens,” Peterson said.
Zhao is the second E-2 Visa franchise owner to join Best in Class, according to Peterson.
“Shan’s passion for education and seasoned management experience are traits we search for in a franchise owner. We are so excited to celebrate her grand opening in the Bay Area within the next several weeks,” Peterson said.
Zhao moved from Beijing to Canada after obtaining her M.B.A. in Monaco. In Canada, she worked as the Director of Operations at EUBK Holdings before her husband accepted an IT position in California, where she and her family moved in 2016. Because of U.S. laws pertaining to work visas, however, spouses of those permitted entry for strategic or high-demand employment cannot automatically work in the country, which was the case for Zhao.
“I volunteered a lot at my son’s school, which got me interested in education,” Zhao explained.
When she mentioned to a friend and former colleague that she would be interested in a tutoring center or education franchise opportunity, that friend recommended that she look into Best in Class. After hiring a franchise broker who also emphasized the benefits of Best in Class’s business model, Zhao was nearly convinced.
The final push? Best in Class’s leadership.
“I went with Best in Class because, during the process, we were talking to different companies, but we thought that Sharon [Peterson] answered all my questions with genius answers, and that, combined with [the Best in Class team’s] actions, compelled us,” Zhao said. “Other franchises seemed not as familiar with what they were doing. After we talked a lot with Best in Class, we also went to their Discovery Day and met Hao, the owner. We’d been to Best in Class centers, and we liked what they’re doing and we felt really comfortable working with them.”
Zhao also pointed out that Best in Class is all about re-evaluating and constantly adapting—and not only when it comes to curricula.
“Best in Class compared with other franchises is really flexible and tries really hard to really start the business, to help us reach our goals. They do their best to accommodate [their franchisees],” Zhao said.
That accommodation and support extended to both the process of obtaining her E-2, as well as that of learning the Best in Class business model from the ground up.
“They’ve been very open and understanding about the visa papers,” Zhao said of Best in Class’s leadership. “So when we signed the franchise agreement, we had measures and agreements in place such that, if I couldn’t get my visa, I wouldn’t lose a huge investment. And with my lawyer’s suggestion, we set up the business so that Best in Class could co-apply with us for the visa.”
The experience clearly meant a lot to her: “Even if they were to lose their franchise fee,” Zhao said, “Best in Class was still committed to helping us look for locations. They knew if I didn’t get my E-2 Visa, they might lose business, and even though they weren’t getting money from me, they still helped me out a lot.”
Zhao also said that Hao encouraged her to finish her business plan, sending plan templates and reviewing Zhao’s outline and financial data. While making sure Zhao was informed and able to complete her due diligence before committing to a Best in Class franchise, Hao and the rest of the Best in Class leadership team simultaneously stayed available to Zhao throughout the E-2 Visa acquisition process.
“It took us eight months to finally get a location, and Hao was always helping us review lease agreements, helping us with the letter of intent and how to modify the letter to fit our best interest,” Zhao said. “And while I’m interested in the business, I hadn’t been through [formal] training, so I had a lot of questions and [Best in Class leadership] always answered me quickly and thoroughly.”
In addition to exceptional support from leadership, Zhao also enjoyed the opportunity to meet with and hear from other franchisees in the Best in Class system when she accepted an invitation from Hao to attend the brand’s first franchise conference in the summer of 2018.
“I wasn’t actually a franchisee yet, but they invited me to go and check out the business anyway,” Zhao said. “And I was very grateful about that and I learned a lot during the conference, and that made me more confident in the business and helped me to finish my business plan.”
In addition to franchise validation, Zhao also felt inspired with ideas for where she could take her Best in Class location: “There were lots of marketing ideas I had never thought about, because I hadn’t yet started to run this business,” Zhao said.“ Hearing other franchisees sharing their ideas and Hao’s visions of the company, the mission—that just makes me more confident in running my own business.”
Zhao also emphasized Best in Class’s point of differentiation: ever-evolving curricula and a team of teachers that are trained in multiple class levels and who often have ESL training.
“We see parents demanding more from schools that schools might not be able to [provide],” Zhao said. Best in Class stood out from competitors because of the Lams’ unique structure: “They have their own curriculum, first of all, which is very competitive, and small groups, which is more cost-effective,” Zhao said. “And they’re committed to developing their teachers. If you know the system, you’ll notice that a lot of teachers only know the current grade they are in. They’re always in the same grade or level, teaching the same level students… they never touch other levels of students.”
For ESL students, a non-adaptive teacher can prove especially challenging. Best in Class offers a holistic, flexible option for students.
“Say you're a fourth grade teacher, you only know your grade and not how to teach kindergarten, for example. So if there is an immigrant kid who just came to the country, and they’re supposed to be in fourth grade, but their English level would put them in the first grade, the fourth grade teacher doesn’t know what to do.” However, that’s not the case at Best in Class.
“Best in Class is different,” Zhao emphasized. “A Best in Class teacher is multilevel, and if they are an elementary school teacher, they’re supposed to be able to teach at least the whole of elementary school, from K through 5th grade. Best in Class develops their teachers so they can cover different levels and can tend to more individualized needs of the students. So they have a broad view of the whole situation.”
With the acquisition of her E-2 Visa and empowered with a thorough understanding of the Best in Class difference, Zhao is now entering the final stage of preparation before her grand opening. Best in Class will next appoint her a mentor for 2019, who will work with her for the first three months following her location’s grand opening, and who will also partner with her on an intensive marketing campaign.
“Since we’re brand new, we need to do a lot of the marketing activities to get referrals,” Zhao said. “My goal is to break even within six months, and by the end of next year, to be profitable and have a consistent income.”
Assistance with the referral and team-building process has also come in the form of other franchisees with whom Zhao connected on a system-wide conference call. “They’ve been giving me a lot of good suggestions and helping me, and one franchisee has been helping me to refer her friend who’s in my location—he's the VP of a college in California, so he can give me some ideas as to how to recruit college students as tutors,” Zhao said. “And Alison [Ashton] at Best in Class headquarters has been calling me every month to ask me the track record of my marketing and to collect marketing information so I can hit the ground running.”
With all this support, Zhao feels empowered and excited for her grand opening, which she hopes will take place by the end of February and looks forward to completing the franchisee training class planned for January 2019,and ultimately to open the doors of her new location.