Alexandra (Alex) Pickel is a resourceful and intelligent young woman I managed to catch for a brief interview between her two new summer camp initiatives. The first proud, breathless words out of her mouth were that she just finished running her first Helen Doron English Family Vacation in one of the most beautiful and prestigious holiday destinations in the world: Sardinia, Italy. The English-only programme was a huge success for both parents and children. Although the area is considered exclusive, she managed to negotiate very affordable prices and many participants already said they want to return next summer, with new families already inquiring about next year.
Originally from Austria, the multilingual academic studied languages in university and spent a lot of time abroad in English-speaking countries, including a year as an exchange student in Australia and working as an au pair in the UK. Alex planned a career as a journalist, but these plans changed when she met her husband and eventually moved to San Marino. “In Italy it is very difficult to find employment and for foreigners, it is even harder. So, I freelanced in tutoring and translation. Then, I found a local museum specializing in immigrants and did my doctoral dissertation there through my university in Austria on the topic of San Marino residents who had immigrated to the United States.”
Shortly after completing her PhD, she became pregnant with her first child and turned her complete attentions to motherhood. When her 2nd child was a year old, Alex started looking around for something to do that didn’t involve sitting in an office all day. “My cousin, who is also Austrian and lives in Germany, told me that when her son turns a year old, she is going to send him to English school. I knew that children can easily become bilingual, as my own children are equally fluent in Italian and German, but I thought it was a strange idea that someone was actually making a business out of teaching such young children another language. So, I Googled it, trying to find something like it in San Marino, as I wanted my children to learn English as early as possible. There was nothing in my area at all. I was always attracted to the franchise idea, and I kept on coming across the name ‘Helen Doron English’ in franchise publications, and I became excited about the possibility that I could make this my career. One thing led to another and I signed in March 2007 and opened my first Learning Centre in October.”
“San Marino is a small but wealthy community, with a population of only 32,000. Our Helen Doron English classes gained quick popularity because people were ready for something like this. Many of the parents are university-educated and are open minded, but there was nothing similar to offer at the time. In fact, there were no activities for babies or small children available at all. So, what I was offering was welcomed by many. After a couple of months, I was already thinking about expanding and a year later I became Master Franchisor for all of Le Marche.”
Alex reports that her biggest challenge is that Le Marche is a very large area with a small population, so lots of traveling is required. It takes 2.5 hours to drive from San Marino to the furthest Learning Centre in her region, which she does often, as she makes it a priority to be highly visible to her Learning Centre Franchisees, as well as teachers and parents.
Alex is up to the challenge though, as she is so committed to her business. “I love being a Helen Doron Master Franchisor. I am my own boss. I didn’t want to work for somebody else, yet I am still part of an international network and part of a team. My management style is very hands-on and I work very closely with my franchisees. I view them as responsible, independent business people. The Helen Doron English business model allows you to develop your own style.”
“What brought me to this business was the opportunity to give something to the community—to promote something intellectual that enhances children’s development. Not only brain development: but also important socialization skills— which learning in small, intimate groups promotes. I saw this very clearly recently at our summer camp. There was a noticeable difference between the social skills of the children who were exposed to Helen Doron for the first time at camp and our veteran students. So, I am very proud of the positive influence we have on children’s lives.”
Alexandra’s plans for the Le Marche region are many. The Helen Doron San Marino Learning Centre was just approved as an official Cambridge ESOL preparation and exam centre (one of only three in all of Italy). “We were recently approved, so promotion of Cambridge preparation and exams regionally is one of our main goals, which will improve profitability and add prestige. We also added the new Teen English courses to the programmes we offer and we are moving the San Marino Learning Centre to larger premises. We also intend to open more learning centres in our region and adding new activities.
Did I mention that Alexandra is a busy woman? As we wrapped up our conversation, she commented that she was heading off to the 2nd summer camp of the season: a regional Helen Doron English summer school she and her 5 Learning Centre Franchisees are holding in a vacation campground.