Interview with Elisa
Interview with Elisa, owner of My School Bus
Learning centre in a search of balance between old and new school.
Tell us about yourself
I am 41 years old and from Vancouver, Canada. One day my husband suggested we move to Hong Kong, my reply… where is that? Is that in Japan. (Laughs) Joking. So off we go. I came here 13 years ago and now it’s history in the making. I was bored for the first few years, I did a lot of shopping but I could only fit so much into a shoe box flat so I decided I should probably work. Having my Hong Kong ID it was easy for me to teach in Kindergarten, Government, Private or International Schools teaching English. But none of it felt like a good fit for me. I decided I would just do my own thing.
Tell us more about your business and your industry
After getting into the Hong Kong Educational System I realized there was not a good balance. “East meets the West”. A fusion of North American English to Chinese students. My target was to supplement local students the English they needed. I decided to open my own Learning Centre. That was 8 years ago.
How did you get started?
I realized that it wasn't the easiest thing to do, because in Canada the landlord would just throw you keys and says “Good Luck”. In Hong Kong there is a wait list to get into the lease. If you pick the prime spot that you want for rent/lease/buy, you might have to wait. My mother in-law and my father in-law said, “good luck getting into a good lease”. At the end of the day, its all about money. You need to come up with the money (for me) 4 months back payments, 4 months forward payments, damage payments, deposits, insurances, renovations, safety and fire inspectors etc.
Did you know anything about it before starting?
Education and teaching yes, business ownership in Hong Kong no.
How was the idea to open the school born?
I didn’t agree with the school system under the Hong Kong Education Bureau and I did't agree with kids learning only 15 minutes of English a day. My son goes to International school, where he learns 3 languages - Putonghua, Cantonese and English, English being his 3rd language. In some Government and Public Schools all you need to know is “ABC”. Some of them are 7-8 year old and all they can say, “the cat is on the mat”. I didn't think it was enough for these kids growing up in this generation. I wanted to give them a higher level of English. Some of them come to me once a week, others 3 times a week. At least they get an hour of solid English. And we don't do Chinglish, it’s not “wong sick”- yellow, “hong sick” - red. Its just “This is yellow”, “This is red”, there is no combination.
What were your first steps when you decided to open learning centre?
First thing was “ location, location, location”, which is a cliche. The second thing was … I needed to get involved into…what’s the right word for it, importing teachers. I can go to Hong Kong Island and pick a couple of teachers or I can get Danielle AKA Miss Didi (pointing to the second teacher and friend for many years) out of Canada and sponsor her working visa.
First steps were to trade mark, franchise and be able to sponsor visas. Being able to sponsor visas is a huge thing. Its basically means that I can bring you or any of your friends here and they can stay and work, IF they meet the criteria. So dollar value wise it’s a huge value, being a limited company I can sell it to you tomorrow along with it goes the ability to franchise, its trade marked and you can also import whoever you want. As long as they meet criteria. Criteria are lets say, they have to be between the age of 30 and 40…
Oh only 30 to 40?
Ok, lets say 50. Just saying, I am not sponsoring someone who is just out of high school nor a senior citizen. You need to be female. I know fantastic male teachers but sometimes it’s the parents who prefer female teachers. And I like to narrow it down to certain countries … a window. The government always would ask, why don’t you hire a local, so it makes sense to be specific.
Tell us more about looking for location.
Location was a difficult one, but I got really lucky to get the location I wanted. Also in Hong Kong, what you see is what you get. So if its a cement box, you will get a cement box and you will have to built everything, lighting, floors, walls, airconditioning, plumbing, electrical etc.. So off we go, built everything and got the students, everything was great. Oh my gosh, in 7 months we got too busy and it became over capacity. Rules and regulations say that you are allowed to have so many students per day, per teacher, per square foot. “ We will need to relocate! Things are going well, money coming in, but we are out of space”. The shop next to us goes bankrupt and I say “ yay, I am taking over their space!” Done so, lets break another wall and again we have to take everything out, just to put it in again. And then 24 hours later you can start over again. I expanded!
What was your biggest motivation and inspiration when you decided to start your business?
I have my Bachelors in Business, Teaching Degree, Diploma in Arts, Diploma in General Studies, ESL, TESL, TEFL Diplomas. When we came to Hong Kong, my husband said “Its an easy life here" and I had nothing to do. I honestly went to every MTR stop in Hong Kong and got off. Some of them were interesting, some of them were boring.
So you’ve done every MTR stop? You must be kidding me?
Nope, not kidding. I know, I had absolutely nothing to do. I was promised a life of nothing to do and I really did nothing. I shopped and shopped and you can only shop for so long, I decided to get out there and see what’s on. Some stops were boring, I would make 10 steps out and return back on the MTR train. Industrial buildings, Commercial, Apartments, Factories etc., not interesting.
So your motivation was that you had nothing to do?
Kind of . . . when I had enough of shopping, sightseeing, and travelling Asia I decided to try with schools. But I couldn't fit in with local schools, public school, government school, thats when I decided I to do my own thing. And I did do private tutoring for a while, but it killed me, because it was a run around everywhere. Even, for example, I worked for the Lee family at the Peak, who were paying me 1000HKD per hour. OK, sounds great. However, round trip took nearly 4 hours from Shatin, where I live, to get to the Peak. So when you break it down, its not that great. “It sounds fantastic, I am a 1000 dollar an hour teacher”, but not really.
What was the most challenging part of starting your business? Any unexpected difficulties?
I would have to say, not unexpected, but the fact is, we are extracurricular, so it is outside the school hours. So we have a high rent and I have to sit here and watch the space to be empty till 3pm, cause kids are at school. I would have to say its difficult knowing the rent and the space empty all day. I’m racking my brain as a business owner, how can I utilize this space from 8am to 3pm, other then sitting empty. Then it goes into licensing, we are licensed as education, so “Do I teach adults? Or do I take little kids?” But we are not a safety zone for nursery. Our license is K1 one and above.
Tell us about your first client.
I had some students that I gave private lessons to. Himhim was my first student as a private 10 years ago and once I opened my Language centre he was the first one their as well.
So you started marketing your learning centre before it opened?
I never marketed at all. I am coming from business background and I know that marketing is number one, but what I did instead, I opened right outside the MTR. So, there was no need for promotion, advertising, marketing, because you go out of the MTR and that's just what you see – My School Bus. Exit MTR and there we are. Loud and bold.
But now that things are slightly different here because now you are not in front of the MTR. How are you doing…
(Last year My School Bus moved to a new location, inside the shopping mall).
Word of mouth. It's quality over quantity. So, we are Ferrari, Lamborghini type style but the price is not super expensive. It's heart, soul and passion! Most of my students are getting in the 80-90% for their grades. I've got one that is getting 99%. You have to have heart for it. This is my 24 hour, 7 days a week job. Cause I am thinking, reading, researching, studying, writing, reading grammar books etc. one of my weaknesses is, well I am great at creativity but creativity and innovation, sometimes I just feel alone. When I am trying to come up with ideas I shut out the real world to focus on my thoughts. And go to Yoga (big smile).
So would you say this is the challenging part about running your business?
Being innovative is the challenging part. I want to send the students home with something to show their parents. “Look what I made at My School Bus”. And parents are going to say, “Wow, how did you do that?” I prefer things you can't get in Hong Kong. I know you can order stuff online but...it's coming up with new ideas to keep the kids going, keep them engaged and interested. Because some of them just want to cross their arms and say, “I don't want to learn English”, or “I don't understand the teachers”.
But to keep the ball rolling and to keep them interested, I am trying to keep kids away from being on the screen and on the Internet and go to the old fashioned way, where, you know what, here is a book, you have to read pages and turn pages. I know times are changing and everything is on their e-classes and iPhones and all of this, but at some given point here is a paintbrush. Use it. And put the phone down.
So there is a no phone policy that kids are not allowed to use phones. But at the same time they look at you and roll their eyes like...well this is boring. So keeping up with balancing between old school and new school is a little difficult.
So what is that you love the most about what you are doing?
I would say...seeing results. Having the parents say, “My kid got 98% on their English exam” and seeing the kids come bouncing through the doors with big smiles. Ear to ear, just being happy to embrace English. In an area where we live English is not spoken, and like I say they get 15 minutes sometimes at school. But to come in for 1 hour and to be bouncing and smiling ear to ear, it warms my heart.
What is the favourite part of your day?
The best feeling I have is when I unlock the door to my business (click), work the day, and when I lock the door (click) at the end of the day. This baby is mine! And that makes my heart pump.
That is very nice. And what would you say, what are the advantages and disadvantages of having your own business?
Let's go with advantages first because I believe the glass is half full. Advantage is I've got my own time schedule and freedom. I have control of my staff and economic income. I am the boss of me (tee hee).
Disadvantage would be, it consumes my life. It's 24/7 job. I think, I live and I breathe the concepts of teaching English. I miss time with my son. And of course I'm a great mom, a great wife, great business owner, great employeer, but sometimes it's a juggling act. Where I've got to say “no” sometimes. Just “no”, I can't go to this seminar, that seminar, this lecture, that lecture.
I enjoy being caught up in education, I live it and breathe it. And again,I love being on top of everything. I mean if money was no obstacle, I would be buying the state of the art equipment. The memory boards. The big touch screens. Where it's the size of the wall, and the kids can go up and press A, press B. But again, I try to be old school and keep them off electronics. So, a balancing act.
And I don't believe in pushing papers to the kids. We try to incorporate fun in it at the same time, without going totally technology crazy. So in terms of having equal balance. Yes I think it's good to play with puzzles. Play with play doh. Read books. Do some painting. Play with boardgames. Do role play. Not going off the chart crazy in getting involved with interactive whiteboards and all these touch everything.
Also, in Hong Kong, some parents are called “tiger parents”. They have high expectations. You've got a 2 year old that parents think should be able to speak in paragraphs. Not going to happen. So along with that, goes the parents' expectations for top quality pencils, crayons, pens, paints whatever. With that, for example, (showing half used pencil) this is considered in Hong Kong standard, too short.
So what do you do with all your left over pencils, papers, photocopies, books that are partly used, or pages that are torn or whatever.
Every year, I donate to the Philippines. I actually take 4 suitcases of left over teaching materials and take them to a local school. Its great to be able to do it contributing to another business owner. I get a little holiday and can teach the Filipino teachers new methods.
As a woman, you most probably have something to say about work - family balance. Please share your thoughts with us. What keeps you sane in doing all this multi-tasking, what's the secret?
I think one of the bigger challenges at the beginning of opening the business was coming to terms with the fact that I needed my husbands help. It was a language barrier, in terms the reception and administration. Not with the children, with the parents. The grandparents who don't speak a word of English and they want to make a payment or ask about progress or curriculum but they don't speak English. So in the end I had to get my husband to quit his job, to come to work as administration. Basically I just call him a translator (laughs). He hates it. There he is right now (pointing at her husband chatting with a mother). It does take a lot of patience to live and work with your spouse but we have the teamwork figured out. When discrepencies occur we just say to each other “you do what your good at and I’ll do what I am good at”.
Alright and what would you recommend to someone planning to open their language school or learning centre?
Stay away from Hong Kong Island. You can go to Starbucks, McDonalds any of your grocery stores or walk on the street and learn English. On the island English is much more previlant. Most westernerers live on the island. In New Territories, even closer to China like Fanling, Sheung Shui or Tai Po anywhere up close to the border would be a good place to open a learning centre. For the reason being, there is a lack of an English environment. They don't learn enough at school. And the closer to the border you are, the more mainland people who are willing to pay a lot.
What is your motto or life philosophy?
My philosophy is, it's got to come from your heart. You have to have passion to own your own business. It's tiring and it's time consuming but at the same time so rewarding.If you're not in it wholeheartedly two feet in, don't go there. Just work 9 to 5.
Thank you for your interview, we can learn so much from your dedication.
I am sure that your story can empower many women to try hard to make their dreams come true.
You can visit Elisa Foggo at her Learning Centre:
My School Bus
Shop 163, 1/F, Kings Wing Plaza 1,
3 On Kwan Street, Shatin, N.T.
or learn more about her centre at
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