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How Sylvan Learning’s Passion-Based Business Model Turns Employees Into Bosses

Kai Lee Awaya-Yoder and Jennifer Bellestri’s passion for education helped them grow within the Sylvan Learning system from being instructors all the way to franchise ownership.

Sylvan Learning doesn’t just change the lives of its students — its model offers life-changing professional development for staff as well. In fact, its impressive network of franchisees includes countless stories of employees who grew with the brand in order to make major career advances. Both Jennifer Bellestri and Kai Lee Awaya-Yoder are examples of former Sylvan Learning employees whose passion for education has helped them thrive in their careers and become franchise owners. Both franchisees were able to find inspiration in their work to keep achieving and leading by example for the students they continue to serve.

“My undergraduate degree is in psychology, but my family always told me I should be a teacher,” Bellestri said. “When I was in graduate school, I began substitute teaching part-time and realized that teaching really was for me. I changed course and became a certified special education teacher, but when I graduated, the job market was very competitive, so I started working at Sylvan in the interim.”

Sylvan Learning’s small group setting offered Bellestri a chance to impact students on a daily basis — one of the main reasons she started teaching. After working as an instructor for just three months, Bellestri became the director of education at the center, and it became clear to her that a career with Sylvan Learning had the potential to be every bit as fulfilling as a traditional teaching role would. Over the next 25 years, Bellestri established herself as a Sylvan Learning center director and eventually worked her way up to owning her own center in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.

“A value we have as a company and that I have personally as an owner is to deliver on the promise we make to our students and their families,” said Bellestri. “That’s what drives day-to-day business. I may be working more behind-the-scenes now, but when I’m within the four walls meeting families and working with students, my approach is still the same. We make a difference by building students’ confidence and helping them understand who they are as learners. We are responsible for finding new ways to employ the Sylvan Learning curriculum and have the freedom to do whatever we can to make an impact on each individual student.”

With an incredible network of franchise partners and a multi-layered support system, the Sylvan Learning team positions owners like Bellestri for continued success as part of the growing Sylvan family. “Sylvan has a professional development path regardless of which role you begin in,” said Georgia Chasen, Sylvan Learning’s vice president of franchise development. “We have seen center directors, teachers and even Sylvan Learning parents choose to embrace small business ownership as a franchisee, and one of our leading initiatives for 2020 is to continue to grow our franchisee support.”

Another example of Sylvan Learning’s successful career opportunities is Kai Lee Awaya-Yoder. The Hawaii native originally started working at Sylvan Learning as a teenager when her mother met the owner of the Kahala, Hawaii Sylvan Learning center, Joe Weldon. After Awaya-Yoder’s brother began attending the center, the family quickly developed a strong relationship with the owner and the Sylvan Learning brand.

“Twenty years ago, I was hired as a ‘book-puller’ at the Kahala Sylvan Learning center — back before everything was digitized,” said Awaya-Yoder. “Eventually, I worked my way from information and grant specialist to substitute teacher and then center director. Being able to see results on my students' faces when things click and the positive influence and appreciation from families really made me want to build a career with the company.”

It was around that time that Awaya-Yoder met her future husband, Tobin Yoder, at a Sylvan Learning conference. He had also grown up with the Sylvan Learning brand back on the U.S. mainland — his parents purchased a Sylvan location in Saginaw, Michigan when he was in middle school. He spent some time participating in the center’s programs and even cleaned the center on weekends for some extra spending money. Many years later, Tobin opened a center of his own in Midland, Michigan

In the meantime, Kai Lee’s uncle, George Naito, was coming back to Hawaii from New York City, where he had been a high-powered building manager. Naito wanted to teach math to pass the time in his retirement. After doing some research, Naito purchased a different Sylvan center in Mililani, Hawaii and Kai Lee eventually went to work for him in 2007.

When Awaya-Yoder’s uncle decided to retire from Sylvan Learning ownership after a long, varied and successful career, the brand’s flexible financial model made it very easy for Awaya-Yoder and her husband to take over his center. 

Now as a franchisee, Awaya-Yoder has been able to use the insight gained from serving in numerous roles within Sylvan Learning’s structure to her advantage in her own center. “As a center director, I was heavily involved in internal operations,” she said. “Now, I can look at the business as a whole and identify potential opportunities to maximize revenue and community engagement, as well as communicate with staff to learn what is and isn't working.”

Awaya-Yoder notes that while Sylvan Learning has provided so many opportunities for her entire extended family, the biggest is the ability to make a difference in someone’s life. “We all know that success in school leads to having options later in life, such as being competitive for college and career opportunities,” she said. 

Bellestri echoes Amaya-Yoder’s sentiment, pointing to one specific relationship that has characterized her Sylvan Learning experience. “When I first started as an instructor, I was performing an assessment for a student who clearly didn’t want to be there,” she said. “This 10-year-old was so adamant about not participating that he ran out of the center and climbed a tree to avoid the assessment. It’s impressive in my memory because I had to literally talk him off of a ledge.”

Eventually, the student climbed down, reluctantly took the assessment and became a successful Sylvan Learning student not long after. Years later, after the student moved on with his schooling, he paid Bellestri a visit. 

“When the same student was in high school, he stopped by our center and introduced himself, asking me if I remembered when he climbed a tree,” Bellestri said. “We laughed about it together, and he told me that he was doing well in school and thanked the center for our help. With Sylvan Learning, it always comes back, and I’ll definitely never forget that moment for illustrating very early on the impact of our work.”

It’s stories like these that make both Bellestri and Awaya-Yoder thankful for their career journeys with Sylvan Learning. After 40 years of business and counting, Sylvan Learning not only offers an established brand name that customers can trust, but also provides franchisees with an opportunity as rewarding financially as it is emotionally.

“In addition to giving kids the power to choose their own path, Sylvan Learning has also given me the power to be my own boss while having the systems in place to stay current and effective,” said Awaya-Yoder. “Sylvan Learning has been such an important part of my story, and I am proud to give back to the families of our community on a daily basis with the brand.”

The startup costs for a Sylvan Learning franchise range from $70,270-$163,625. The franchise fee is $24,000. To learn more about franchising with Sylvan Learning, visit

*This brand is a paid partner of 1851 Franchise. For more information on paid partnerships please click here.