Study in Contrasts
This Entrepreneurial Venture Has Provided Many Valuable Lessons
Deborah Alli thought she was ready to start her own business a few years ago.
But her boss at Computer Science Corp. (CSC) called and presented her with another long-term consulting assignment this one much closer to home than most of her others, which have taken her to Tokyo, New Delhi, and Texas, among other places and she took it. And by the time it was over (actually, long before it ended), she was really ready.
And thus she commenced a lengthy search for the right way to scratch her entrepreneurial itch, and found one in a franchise of the Huntington Learning Center, which she opened late last year in the Five Town Plaza in Springfield.
But the center, which provides a host of individual testing and tutoring services, does more than satisfy Allis thirst to be a business owner. It also fulfills her desire to give something back to her hometown of Springfield a facility that may help achieve progress with some of the issues confronting the city, especially high drop-out rates, a skills gap involving many sectors of the economy, and poverty.
One of the major issues in Springfield today is education, she told BusinessWest. A learning center like this one is something the city needs. I knew that I wanted to do something in the community that was helping, or giving back, in some way.
Just a few months into her new career, Alli says that all her extensive research has paid off. She finds the learning center to be as rewarding a venture as she thought it would be, and, from a business standpoint, she believes shes in the right place at the right time despite an economic downturn that has touched virtually every business sector.
And she believes President Obama gets much of the credit for that.
Hes given a great sense of hope to a lot of people who otherwise would not have considered what kind of job they might be able to obtain or what their children can do, she explained. They may have set some really low bars, and Barack Obamas presidency has raised the bar for a lot of people.
I sensed this that night, she said, referring to his Election Day remarks. And I hope Im right. I hope he inspires a lot of people to realize what can be achieved.
In this issue, BusinessWest explores Allis desire to reach higher, and how she found what she considers the perfect outlet for giving back to the community she grew up in and fueling her entrepreneurial drive.
Alli did two tours of duty, if one can call them that, in Tokyo, working for CSC Japan as what was known as a business process architect and senior consulting principal. First, she consulted for the Nicos Life Insurance Co., specifically on a nearly three-year-long project to convert databases into a new computer system. Similar work came two years later for Manulife Japan.
She has many colorful anecdotes about working in that nation and in that culture, and some interesting observations. For example, she said that, while the language barrier presented some stern challenges, being a woman was a far bigger problem, apparently. There isnt a glass ceiling there, she explained. Its made of titanium you just cant get through it.
She started thinking about launching her own business even before her first stint in Japan in 1997, but put those plans on the back burner because she thought the assignment overseas would help her career-wise and confidence-wise. And as it turned out, she was right.
When I went to Japan, I put my life on hold, she explained. But I thought to myself, I need to do this this is something totally different, its a new challenge. And Im certainly glad I went. I wouldnt trade that experience for anything.
Overall, though, she said, a conformist mentality prevails in Japan, and after several months, she was starting to conform and not liking it.
I was becoming one of those numbers, she explained. If it was going to rain, I carried my umbrella; I got to the subway station at exactly the same time every day. I was becoming part of the crowd I saw the same people standing in line for the train every day. And I knew I needed more.
Elaborating, she said that, from a career-development standpoint, she again needed a new and different challenge, one that would meet many personal and professional needs. I knew that something was missing for me I needed to feel more satisfied about what I was doing.
It would be several more years before she would find what she was looking for, but Alli told BusinessWest that the wait not to mention the hard work and planning would be well-worth it.
Backing up a little, and dating herself somewhat, Alli said she grew up in Winchester Square, which has long been known as Mason Square, and saw the struggles of many people from that neighborhood to acquire the skills and the ambition needed to succeed in business and in life.
I wanted to get involved and do something about the issues that are facing Springfield, she said, adding that this mindset was with her as she was considering a number of options for a business venture to call her own. She said she looked at restaurants and several franchising possibilities in that realm, but ultimately decided she wanted something that contributed more to the community and its overall well-being.
A Stern Test
She looked at several learning center chains, including Sylvan, Club Z, Princeton Review, and others, but eventually opted for Huntington after research into its products and philosophy.
The Huntington model wraps itself around the student, she said. Its very family-oriented, and its about more than teaching people skills its also about teaching life strategies.
The center, which has one full-time and eight part-time teachers and serves clients from across the region, provides a number of individual testing and tutoring services, she noted, involving reading, study skills, writing, phonics, math, spelling, and SAT/ACT preparation work. Most clients are children, but there are programs for adults as well.
And the client list is quite diverse, she continued, noting that many of the young people who come to the center have difficulties with learning, and there are also some who are doing well, but their parents want them to do better and gain needed confidence.
As for her own transition, from employee to employer, Alli says shes handled the learning curve fairly well, and credited her previous work experiences, which were, in many ways, entrepreneurial in nature.
For starters, Im used to working long hours in Japan, everyone works 11 or 12 hours a day, she joked. But beyond that, I was managing different parts of projects and always managing some type of team. I had a lot of autonomy I only spoke to my manager once a month if I was lucky so I was gaining good experience for this.
Alli says shes been helped, from a competitive standpoint, by the closing of a Sylvan Learning Center facility in East Longmeadow several months ago, but the bigger boost, business-wise, may come from the recently sworn-in president and his ability to inspire people to set higher bars for themselves.
Its only been a few weeks, but I can already sense that hes having an impact on people, she explained. Because of him, I think people will want to reach higher than maybe they thought was possible.
Meanwhile, the current economic conditions, while not outwardly good for business, may also inspire more people to seek help for themselves or their children.
I think parents are looking around and realizing that their children are going to have to someday take care of themselves, she told BusinessWest. To do that, theyre going to need skills, and theyre going to need confidence.
Returning to her past life in the corporate world, Alli said there was much about it that unnerved her, particularly a dog-eat-dog mentality that she saw in Tokyo, Houston, and even Springfield and Hartford.
It was all about getting ahead, she explained. With these management styles coming out now, people are pitted against one another and have become very aggressive toward each other, and theres no concern for the repercussions of your actions toward others. What people are being taught is that this is how you get ahead in the world.
Teaching people that there may be other ways to get where one wants to go is just one of the lessons Alli wants to impart at Huntington, a business venture that doubles as a way for its owner to contibute to the city she grew up in.
When youre working with people, you should be looking for ways to lift each other up, not keep them down, she continued. Thats one of things I want to do here show people that they can succeed without crushing someone else; we should be working to help each other always.
If she can succeed with that assignment, then she really will be giving back to the community.
George OBrien can be reached at[email protected]