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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 22, 2017 5 years ago

School's in session

Nirjhar Shah is going from teaching engineering to being an entrepreneur. It's a steep learning curve.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Nirjhar Shah, an educator by trade, is learning to be a businessman.

Shah, 37, holds a Ph.D. in environmental engineering and had been working as an adjunct lecturer at the University of South Florida in Tampa until last year.

That's when he and his wife, Swarna Pujari-Shah, 35, who also has a background in teaching, began talking about starting their own business. Their daughter had just turned 5, and they wanted her to get the best education possible.

“We said, 'Why don't we start something on our own because we both like to teach?'” Shah recalls.

At the time, he says, “We both had full-time jobs, so we didn't have time to develop something on our own or kind of spend all of our time to start something. So, the franchise model was an ideal place to start in terms of something that would give us a support group ... we would have lot of help.”

That's when the couple discovered Best in Class. The Seattle-based franchise business provides supplemental education services, such as one-on-one tutoring and test preparation. Best in Class CEO Hao Lam, a Vietnamese expat, founded the company in 1995 and it now has 50 franchises nationwide.

Shah, who in addition to running the business also teaches high school mathematics at Best In Class, had some learning of his own to do as he got the franchise up and running. That includes entrepreneurial basics such as advertising, marketing and expenses. “I didn't have any business background before I started this,” he says. “Everything to me is kind of new.”

Best In Class customers pay out of pocket for the center's services — the company doesn't offer financial aid — but Shah says tuition and fees are kept low to serve a range of families and individuals. Classes start at around $100 a month, and go up to $140 a month.

Shah stresses that Best In Class is not a replacement for, but a supplement to, traditional K-12 public or private school education. The center has about eight part-time tutors — most of whom have USF credentials — who can teach and tutor all K-12 subjects as well as ACT and SAT test prep. Shah even offers a chess instruction program.

“The way we have our classes structured is that we teach enough material, in that one hour or so, that when the students go home they will have enough homework to last them for one week,” he says. “So if they pace themselves and they come the following week, they should be done with their homework and then we introduce new materials to them.”

Sharon Peterson, director of franchise sales for Best In Class, says the company is pleased with the performance of Shah's location, which opened in January. Shah says enrollment has grown between 5% and 10% per month. “We've had a lot of success with Nirjhar's location,” Peterson says, “and we're working with three other potential franchisees in the Tampa and Sarasota areas.”

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