While some are born with a passion for something specific, many stumble upon it almost on accident. The latter was the case for Kari Weigel, the present day co-owner of Sylvan Learning Center in Bismarck and Fargo, ND. When Kari was 17, her mom opened, owned, and operated Sylvan Learning Center—a nationwide tutoring facility that offers personalized programs and curriculum catered to the specific needs of each child—in Bismarck, ND, but Kari never dreamed she would come to take it over one day.
Kari was always helping her mom at Sylvan, whether it be unpacking curriculum boxes, greeting some of the kids that came in, visiting different real estate spots for potential expansion opportunities, or even offering her financial perspective as she worked for her accounting degree at the University of North Dakota. Needless to say, her involvement sparked her passion. “I was pretty involved in the beginning and that’s how I got started—I kind of just accidentally fell in love with it,” explained Kari. This is why, after living in Minneapolis for 5 ½ years, Kari and her husband, Ryan, decided to move back to Bismarck and help her mom run the business. From there, Ryan got involved with the company and he and Kari began to slowly purchase Sylvan Learning Center from Kari’s mother in 2008.
After fully purchasing the business, Ryan and Kari sat down and formulated their vision for the company. They both knew that they needed to expand to multiple locations as there were families driving over 4-5 hours to their services. So, they began to dream: “In 2009, I wrote down a goal to offer Sylvan from border to border all across the state, making it more convenient for families in North Dakota,” Kari shared. Ryan and Kari started by opening up satellite businesses in Williston, Dickinson, and Minot. Later, in 2013, they took advantage of the opportunity to purchase the Fargo territory from corporate. They knew this addition to their business would be a key component for achieving their goal, but they still had one minor setback: financing for the real estate. To help make matters easier, Sylvan Learning Center created a partnership with the Shawn Rehm Agency, another company who had hopes and dreams of having their own building. Together, these two businesses formed a real estate holding company and utilized the Dakota Business Lending 504 loan program.
“We were in a temporary location [in Fargo] and really wanted to build our own building…yet, we couldn’t necessarily afford it or get the type of payment structure we needed. [The 504] made it possible for us to build a building and have an asset…and the interaction with Dakota Business Lending was everything we needed it to be to open Sylvan Learning Center."
Because they were able to purchase a building with affordable interest rates, Ryan and Kari were able to relax and focus on one of the most important aspects of Sylvan Learning Center: the relationships. Sylvan Learning Center puts extra time and attention into personalizing their program around each student and their family: from the curriculum itself down to their tutoring schedule and even their payment plan. “Everything is highly personalized,” Kari explained. “For most other programs, the kid has to fit the programs. For us, our programs fit around every kid. We’re in the relationship business.” That, combined with the satisfaction and results that Sylvan Learning Center gets, is what keeps Ryan and Kari as passionate as they are.
The expansion has also allowed Ryan and Kari to grow their team, adapt their roles, and grow professionally. In addition, Sylvan Learning Center’s interaction with the community has greatly increased. They have gotten to chance to meet even more families from across the state, as well as get involved in various community events such as Legacy Children’s Foundation, “Boo at the Zoo”, and the Red River Valley Fair. “One of our goals is just to be a resource to families in the state or even in Minnesota who are looking for information. We’re pretty connected at the state level and want to help families with their educational aspirations. We enjoy being a resource,” noted Kari.
When asked about the favorite part of her job, Kari stated that she has two. The first is, of course, helping the kids succeed. The feeling of having a request or goal, working on it, and seeing the kids succeed, she claims, is perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects. However, she also loves working with the parents. Many times, parents come into Sylvan feeling very stressed, worried, or anxious for their child. Kari gets the opportunity to take that stress away from them. “These parents care deeply for their kids. I love taking this burden away,” Kari states passionately. “I love when a parent can go back to being a mom or a dad and we get to help the kid. It feels so good!” Over the years, Sylvan Learning Center has become multi-generational. Kari has began to get children of some of the students that came in when the center opened over 20 years ago, which has been fun for her and her mom to reminisce about.
Kari’s passion and love is visible to all who encounter her, so much so that she was nominated for and received the Small Business Person of the Year for the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber in the fall of 2017. She then moved on to the state level, receiving the award again for North Dakota. Because of this, Kari was invited to Washington D.C. in early April 2018 to be honored at a luncheon and dinner and be awarded by Linda McMahon, administrator for the Small Business Administration just under President Trump.
Looking back on this amazing opportunity, as well as how far they have come since they began to purchase the business in 2008, Ryan and Kari cannot believe the things they have accomplished. With this steady growth, they both have dreams to further expand throughout North Dakota, making Sylvan Learning Center even more available to families across the state.
“We just feel blessed to get to do something so great every day. It’s definitely a business where it’s fun to come to work because of the work we do. And it’s thanks to awesome partners like Dakota Business Lending that can help assist us so we can do what we do.”