Published December 15, 2009
Volume 17, Number 12

Yang Fan Academy Allows Founder Jennifer Zheng to Enjoy Best of Both Worlds        

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

One of life’s best lessons is that, with resilience and creativity, unexpected obstacles can be managed to produce a happy outcome. Jennifer Zheng, the founder and president of Yang Fan Academy, exemplifies how this is done. In figuring out a win-win solution to a family challenge, the resourceful and hard-working mother of two created a business that not only taps her MBA training but is also right on target with market demand--while allowing her to spend more time with her own children.

It all started in the summer of 2003, when Zheng, her husband Adam, and their two daughters moved to Pleasanton from Fremont. At the time, she was a competitive and licensing specialist with LifeScan, the Johnson & Johnson company known for its pioneering work in blood glucose monitoring. Part of settling into her new home was finding after-school care for her children, but nothing was available at the time.

“All the after-school programs were full,” recalls Zheng. “I was number 35 on the waiting list for the on-site program at my daughter’s school, but I never got called." As a newcomer, she felt totally at the mercy of her surroundings. "We had no friends or family here, and there was no school bus. I even had a hard time finding someone to pick up the kids after school and drive them home."

Compounding the lack of availability was the fact that Zheng really wanted more than just simple care. She had a vision of an academic environment that would supplement what was offered in school. Children of all ethnic backgrounds could get their homework done, engage in accelerated learning, and be exposed to Chinese culture in all its rich variation, from language to dance to martial arts.

Zheng realized she was not the only working mom who needed an extra level of support. "When parents get home from work, there is hardly any time to struggle with basic homework,” she says. “You have dinner, and piano practice, and all sorts of other commitments to fulfill. So my idea was to have a place that combines both the essentials and enrichment for three hours after school. Then families can be more relaxed and spend fun time at home. I tried hard to find such a program for school-aged kids in Pleasanton, but it just didn’t exist.”

Throughout her career with LifeScan Zheng’s position had always been very demanding. She put in long hours at work, and she traveled often. Having completed her MBA at Santa Clara University in 2002, she was looking at even more responsibilities.

The Pleasanton move forced her to confront the stark reality shared by so many working mothers: without the right childcare arrangements, she could not stay at her job. “My husband is an attorney, and he is also very busy, so he could not step in. I was facing the choice of either continuing in corporate life, moving up and sacrificing a lot of things, or having time for my family,” she explains. After more than 20 years as a professional, it was a big decision.

Her thinking was also influenced by concern for the future. “Another trigger was that eventually I might want to get out of corporate life and into a small business that is more local and related to my kids,” Zheng notes.

It became a “sink-or-swim” moment. “My husband and I talked about it and decided that the after-school program I envisioned could be one of those needs just waiting to be filled,” she relates. 

Once she made the decision, Zheng did all the research and development necessary to start an after-school program on her own. “I didn’t just jump in, but I was also doing this in addition to my full-time job. I was thinking that at the least we would have a program. It didn’t have to be profit making, but it would be right for my kids. That was the biggest driver, making sure they were well taken care of emotionally.”

Zheng opened Yang Fan Academy (translating to Little Ivy League) in a small site on Santa Rita Road in 2005. Since then it has grown into “the largest after-school institution in the Tri-Valley with a unique focus in both academic enrichment and Chinese language and culture immersion.” The expansion has been physical as well, with two moves into progressively larger space, first at Pleasanton Community Church, and then, this summer, at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Hacienda.

To those who know her, it should be no surprise that Zheng managed once again to shift course and channel her interests into positive results. She was born in Fuzhou, a coastal Chinese city whose proximity to Taiwan was evident in its “very Westernized” ambiance. When she was 10, the family--both parents, an older sister and a younger brother--moved to Beijing. At her father's urging, she started preparing for a career in physics. She was a student at Tsinghua University, the Chinese equivalent of MIT, when a church scholarship sent her on a semester abroad to the University of Kansas, in Lawrence.

The first in the family to come to the United States, she resolved to take full advantage of the opportunity. “Here I had my own choice of what to study, beyond physics, as my father wanted,” she admits. “I always liked science and chemistry, so I determined to get a Ph.D. in biochemistry.”

The stately KU campus in Lawrence became a stepping stone for her next move, a transfer to the University of Pennsylvania, where she planned to earn her doctorate. A few years into the program, however, she discovered “it was not my dream.” As a back-up plan, she finished her masters in biochemistry and was recruited to LifeScan. She and her husband, who had just finished law school at Villanova, moved to the Bay Area in 1995 and started their family a few years later.

Earlier this year, Zheng left corporate life to devote herself fully to the school operation.

With Yang Fan in operation now for almost six years, Zheng has no doubt she made the right choice. "My kids have grown up with the school, and I’ve had the chance to actually see that happen. In addition to help with the academics, I can watch them interact socially—something working parents usually miss. This bonding is the biggest benefit.”

One of the consequences of this interaction is that her older daughter, now a sixth grader, has gone from talking about wanting to be a ballerina or a gymnastics teacher to aspiring to become "a mom with a school." Pausing to sum it all up, Zheng muses, "After all these years of hard work, I feel like I still have a full career. I’m not a stay-at-home mom, but I have the luxury of spending quality time with my kids. It is the best of both worlds."


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