Making my way
My efforts at finding a job landed me two six-month contracts with travel companies. After living with family for three months, I decided to rent a house and buy a car. My husband suggested I get an inexpensive basement apartment to save on rent, but I had other ideas in mind. In Kenya, I had a chef, a driver and a gardener. Here, I was doing everything on my own. I was determined to find a small house, so we could live more comfortably. It wouldn’t be long before school was out and my two eldest sons would join me. This period in my life was challenging to say the least. I was working, paying for everything myself and trying to help my sons adjust to the culture and the weather. I remember bribing them with Tim Hortons donuts and hot chocolate to get them to go to the skating rink. I had to do that for the first few winters, but now I can’t keep them in the house during the winter months. They are ardent skating and ice hockey enthusiasts.
During this time, my youngest son fell very ill and we were in and out of the hospital. To make matters worse, my contract was not renewed. As a single parent, I realized I needed to be a business owner; if I continued to work my way up to a managerial position, it would take forever. I also knew I wanted my career to have meaning—I didn’t just want a paycheque for the sake of it. I looked at buying a travel franchise, but dismissed this idea, as the industry is all about networking and contacts and I didn’t have any of those. I looked at food services franchises, but for someone like me who had minimal funds and no credit history, the fees were completely out of my reach.
My time was divided between sorting out my prospects of finding a franchise I could buy into and helping my son catch up in school after he’d fallen behind due to his illness. Enrolling Saheb in an after-school program seemed an obvious solution. I was already familiar with Kumon, as my children had been part of the program in Kenya.
Compared to traditional, though passive, teaching methods, Kumon’s reading and math programs are designed to help students improve their self-learning skills. Developed by a math teacher named Toru Kumon for his eight-year-old son, Kumon allows students to gain confidence and independence with each assignment, while shaping their ability to analyze and conceptualize through examples included on each worksheet. The programs are not just about teaching students math and reading; they are about teaching them very holistic values that are transferable to other parts of their lives.
Visiting Kumon’s website, I soon realized it is a franchise. I had already applied for every job I could, so I submitted an application. A ‘no’ never hurts, I thought to myself. Within a week, I got a call from Sonia Radice, who oversaw franchise development at the time. She asked if I wanted to open a new centre or buy an existing one in Kanata, Ont. You can imagine what was going through my mind over those next few seconds. I thought if I buy a centre, I’ll have income from day one and hit the ground running. Touring the centre soon after, I knew immediately I had found what I’d been looking for.
Since it was an existing centre, I had to buy goodwill and that was in the five figures. I had no money and no credit history, which resulted in a ‘no’ from several of the big banks. I turned to Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). With less strict loan requirements than banks, BDC agreed to loan me the money, although I still had to come up with 25 per cent of it.
It had been some time since my husband stopped sending money to help support our sons, so it was no surprise that he refused to help. Turning to family and friends, I borrowed the initial 25 per cent and secured a five-year loan from BDC, purchasing the centre in November 2006.
Buying the centre was a major hurdle, but that was the easy part. Running it ended up being a nine-day a week job—it took over my whole life. Even though I had great support from head office, it was a big centre with 170 students at different levels.
I found it very challenging to run a business, a household and look after three children, who were all at ages where they needed my attention. At 14, my son Aman was old enough to look after his younger brothers, who were 11 and four at the time. Money was tight and I refused to pay for babysitters when I had to work late. I’m proud to say Aman did not let me down—he really played an important role in the life of his siblings and in my life. Today, they are very close as brothers and friends because of the role he played during this hectic period in our lives.
Class is in session
There is a steep learning curve when you take over a centre. In my case, some students left—adjusting to a new instructor and new rules takes time, but the franchisor and my branch manager were there to help me through the transition. I recall the CEO of Kumon Canada visiting my centre within six months of me taking it over. I also know I made full use of calling head office whenever I was stuck and needed guidance. It took a while before I felt comfortable in my role as a franchisee and juggling my home life; however, I was always looking ahead. I had to succeed—there was no other choice for me. I wasn’t going back to Kenya and I knew if I allowed myself to believe I had that option, it would be too easy to quit when the going got tough.
At that time, Kumon centres were still run out of churches and community halls, not commercial spaces, as they are now. Being a business-minded person, though, I always knew running Kumon out of the church I was in would not allow me to grow the centre. I needed to be visible, the centre’s name prominently displayed. With the help of the Kumon business development team, I started looking at commercial spaces in Kanata. We eventually came across a small plaza with a ground-floor unit.
Although I had given the church our notice, we discovered the new space was not zoned for instructional use, a fact due diligence did not reveal. Rescinding my notice to the church, I began the re-zoning process. Although it would cost $28,000, I had no choice but to forge ahead. My franchise agreement would be up for renewal a year down the road and I would be required to move into a commercial space. This was a case of bite the bullet and somehow find a way to make it happen. The positive in all this is that I would be the biggest tenant in a plaza that had reasonable rent and a lot of parking.
Once again, the banks turned me down for a loan. What they failed to recognize was that I, as an immigrant and a single parent, was going to succeed because I wanted to get back to a lifestyle I once had. I believe there is a pain or passion that drives immigrants to succeed that cannot be reflected in one’s credit history. Turning to a credit union, I got the money I needed. The loan officer grilled me more than the banks ever did, but I felt she looked at me as a person, understood my skills and professionalism and assessed my passion, rather than my account balance.
I welcomed my students to our new centre in June 2012. These days, it still feels surreal when I walk through its doors and realize I made it all happen. Today, I have more than 250 students and I can see enrollment hitting 300 before the end of the year. I’m aiming for 500 students and a lot more program completers at the five-year mark.