When Pittsburgh-natives and father-son team Jack and Jeff Shilling decided to go into business together, the opportunity to partner with Sylvan Learning and lead the brand’s development across the Pittsburgh market seemed to fall perfectly into place.
Jack, well-acquainted with the educational services sector, graduated from Cornell University with his masters in physics and followed that up with a PhD in material science from the University of Pittsburgh’s school of engineering. Over the breadth of his career, he led research and development efforts at several companies and then held executive positions with the Pittsburgh-based Allegheny Technologies. His son, Jeff, chose a slightly different path. Shortly after graduating from Penn State with a degree in civil engineering, Jeff left his career in engineering and decided to pursue his entrepreneurial itch and start his own company. For seventeen years, he owned his own medical device distribution company before pursuing another business opportunity in the senior care space.
After wrapping up his life’s career in the corporate world and retiring in 2007, it didn’t take long for Jack to begin pondering the thought of entrepreneurship himself and consider business ownership alongside his son.
Between his passion for science and STEM education and Jeff’s entrepreneurial spirit, the duo proved to be the missing piece in Sylvan Learning’s plan to re-enter the Pittsburgh market.
“My dad has more education than most people, so his passion for education and my passion for helping people came together,” said Jeff. “Those two stars aligned with the opportunity to bring Sylvan back to our hometown in western Pennsylvania. We couldn’t pass it up.”
The South Hills, an area encompassing a number of neighborhoods that lie just south of Pittsburgh, will be the location of the Shillings’ first of at least five Sylvan Learning centers they plan to open over the next several years. It’s an area that holds special sentiment for the entire Shilling family.
“Pittsburgh’s a great market on a personal level because it’s our hometown,” said Jeff. “It’s where I not only grew up, but where my parents grew up. It’s where our family is from and where we all went to school.”
From a business standpoint, Jack has seen the city’s values and demands shift over the years.
“Pittsburgh is a great market for a number of reasons, but one of the most important reasons is that Pittsburgh has been totally reborn as a city that values and utilizes tech and education,” said Jack. “We have several large universities and a number of businesses moving into the city here. It’s become an area populated with a lot of parents who care deeply about their kids’ education.”
Jeff also adds that there’s an increasing national demand for supplementary education.
“Most markets are great for an education concept because of the need,” said Jeff. “The public school system is doing a great job with the resources they have, but we need to do the best we can as a country to strengthen our kids’ education and there’s becoming more of a demand for supplementary education. Ultimately, we want to help meet that demand and help be a part of the future of our country’s kids’ education.”
Jack, who spent a period of time teaching during his span as a graduate student, also emphasized the excitement around returning to the education sector.
“I’m a big believer in helping kids keep pace in school from the elementary level all the way through high school, but also helping them go beyond their grade level and reach their full potential,” said Jack. “The idea of being able to help our kids become the next generation of innovators and business owners out there is very exciting to me.”
While still a few weeks away from officially opening their first center’s doors to the South Hills community, the Shillings wanted to get a jump start by engaging with Pittsburgh’s families and kids. In August, they hosted a three day STEM camp at the local YMCA as part of Sylvan’s national compeition, the Grand STEM Challenge. In a way, it was the opening ceremony for the return of Sylvan Learning. The beginning of something big.
“I love business. It’s exciting to take risks and help grow a company,” said Jack. “But that’s not what keeps you going. It’s about doing something that’s going to help make a change out there in the world - and we’re lucky enough that we get to start right here in our hometown of Pittsburgh.”