Catherine Altarejos: Bringing int’l education closer to Filipinos

The story of the Bicolana behind the biggest visa consultancy in the Philippines

There had to be a better way to a better future for Filipinos like her working abroad, thought young Bicolana OFW Catherine Altarejos. She just didn’t know how yet but she had made up her mind she was going to do something about it. It was a day she remembers clearly to this day. Cathy is the founder and CEO of the only Bicol-based international education and visa consultancy firm, WORLDCONNECT. It is the biggest immigration consultancy in the Philippines with 12 locations across major cities in the country and two offices abroad. The company’s humble beginnings can be traced back to a young woman who dared to dream big - not just for herself and her family but also for her fellow OFWs. The birth of a dream At the age of 26, she was one of the young Filipinos who braved the decision to leave the Philippines to earn a better living abroad. “I knew chasing a better way of living in a foreign country will be no walk in the park. But I also kept in mind that nothing of value ever is,” she said. Cathy, a native of Daraga, Albay, studied Business Management at Bicol University. She would also later earn a degree in Nursing and become a registered nurse, but the latter, she would admit, was not something she was really passionate about. She later came back to the field of business working at the front desk of EDSA Shangri-La Hotel in Manila for a year. After her one year stint at Shangri-La, she came across a job opportunity in sales at London, United Kingdom. She knew that what she earned here would be nothing compared to what she could earn there. And so grab the opportunity, she did. She joined the ranks of the growing million of Pinoys or Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in London, braving life in a foreign country thousands of miles away from their families, looking for greener pastures to better provide for their loved ones back home. Life and her job in London, she admitted, was initially challenging. “The cultural and language barriers proved to be a little tough at first. While I had a good command of the English language, as most Filipinos do, the British accent and vocabulary can be a little tough to navigate,” she shared. But these were nothing compared to the job she initially thought would be very easy. “Handing out flyers outside, approaching Brits walking on the street making a sales pitch was certainly not easy.” Especially for a foreigner like her who was still adjusting to the life and culture of the country, she added. “Doon nawala lahat ng hiya ko,” she would tell clients and employees when sharing her experiences as an OFW in London. She owed her exceptional skills in sales due in part to her being pushed out of her comfort zone in her work in the UK. Cathy worked in London for three years. In that three years, she took notice of the fact that like her, most Filipinos working there have jobs that are on a contractual basis that they have to go back and forth when contracts end or are renewed. The struggle of every OFW most of all, due to our “tight-knit family” culture, is always that they had to be away from their loved ones for long periods of time. “There must be something better than this,” she thought desperately. But unlike most people who feel and choose to remain powerless over the status quo, she was one of those who dared to challenge it. This would lead to her discovery of the UK study visa which gives international students part time work rights. Aside from the obvious benefits of the considerable amount you could earn working there, an international education will put a Filipino’s qualifications and competence at par globally. Plus, you can also have your dependents accompany you for the duration of the visa period. “This was it!” she thought. It was like a lightbulb moment as this big idea struck her. Cathy didn’t just see a business opportunity. She saw a big way she could help fellow Filipinos who want to make a better living abroad. Cathy went home to the Philippines with a big dream in mind. She was going to help kababayans back home who want to go to London by setting them in an alternative albeit a much better pathway in her opinion. And so in 2007, with a burned CD in hand - a disk containing a PowerPoint presentation of how immigration processes work abroad, particularly in London - WORLDCONNECT Consultancy Services was born. With only two employees, she started operations at her home in Daraga, Albay where she held seminars and consultations to anyone who would be interested. But with the limited manpower and no established office yet, people’s reception to what she was selling was at best, underwhelming. “Konti pa talaga ang believers,” she said. Many people thought she was too idealistic to cope with everyday business life. Some even predicted the company might fold in just a year given the market. Nevertheless, she wasn’t about to give up and a year later in January 2008, she was able to register the company as a corporation with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Two years later, the company already expanded to Naga City, Metro Manila, Cabanatuan City, Bacolod City, and Iloilo City. The main operations in Daraga moved to a new office in Legazpi City which would become the company’s head office. By then, WORLDCONNECT has established a good track record sending students to the UK. It has partnered with international schools in London and Cathy couldn’t have been more happy with how the company had grown and how much it’s helping make a difference to the lives of not only her fellow Bicolanos but also Filipinos all over. But getting the company on the ground was not her toughest challenge yet. A turning point The global financial crisis that hit London hard caused a lot of international schools to close down in 2010. Consequently, this hit the company hard. With no school to send students to, WORLDCONNECT practically had no service to offer. Worse, because the schools filed for bankruptcy, it was impossible to refund a lot of clients’ already paid tuition fees. Cathy was not just faced with the possibility of her company closing down like what happened to similar agencies in the Philippines, she also had angry clients to answer to. “I think out of maybe twelve agencies who offer the London study program, only two or three remained and WC was one of them. Nagtago nga ‘yung iba,” Cathy recalled. With the schools closed down, there was no one else for the clients to turn to for refunds but Cathy and the company. Little by little, she shelled out money from her own pocket amounting to more than Php 5 million to partly cover the refunds. It might have been the company’s lowest point, but it also was a turning point towards what would be her company’s best years. New Zealand, franchising Undeterred, she set out to look for another destination country for international studies. She found that in the little piece of paradise in the Southwestern Pacific - New Zealand. A small country with a population of 4 million and a growing economy, it was ripe and open to immigrants and international students. Aside from being diverse and one of the best education systems in the world, it had better opportunities and better immigration pathways and policies. Cathy knew New Zealand was the answer. In what would be another beginning for the company albeit armed with more experience and better insight, introducing New Zealand was not hard. The country became the company’s flagship and only study destination offer. She later sought to better the company’s services by hiring an in-house licensed immigration adviser who will be based in New Zealand, as well as offering lifetime free tourist visa processing to all clients. WorldConnect also became a corporate member of the prestigious Philippine-New Zealand Business Council and Cathy as a council member. With a solid reputation and a very high approval and success rate, Australia was added to the study destinations. The company also tied up with another licensed immigration adviser this time based in Australia. WORLDCONNECT steadily became one of the top and trusted Philippine agents and partners of international schools in NZ and AU. Cathy also sought to better herself and improve her knowledge and business acumen. She enrolled in a master’s program in Entrepreneurship at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business. For two years, she juggled managing a company with six branches nationwide and braving the twice a week, back and forth commute from Legazpi to Manila to attend her MA classes. She earned her master’s degree by 2012. She also got certified and became of one of the only six (6) New Zealand Education Specialist Agent in the country. In the same year, the company tried to look into franchising, a move that would prove to be the company’s riskiest yet. Unlike the businesses with business models more suited for franchising, an immigration consultancy firm was trickier. It has never been done by an agency of this kind before. Alfredo, Cathy’s husband and the company’s VP, thought it a big risk since the services the company specializes in tend to navigate around the tricky territory of legal restrictions and constant policy changes in immigration. And so they and pilot-tested the franchise program in Baguio City putting up a new office there. When they were confident enough that the business could not only thrive but also grow more through franchising, the company made the big step by joining a franchise expo in Cebu in 2013 organized by the Filipino International Franchise Association (FIFA) and RK Franchise Consultancy (RKFC). The response was positively overwhelming. Many were interested to franchise but the company was careful to only grant a few. From that expo, came more WORLDCONNECT locations such as the ones in Cebu, Zamboanga, Cagayan de Oro, and Davao City. The franchisees all performed well and contributed to what would be the company’s busiest years to date. 10 years, future plans This year, the company is celebrating its first decade in the business. In an annual corporate gathering celebrating this milestone, Cathy thanked everyone who believed in her and helped take the company to greater heights. “Careers that contribute to the well-being of a community are not built overnight. In the past decade, we have all worked hard to assist our fellow Filipinos in bridging the road towards a better life for them and their families. We created the hope to experience life that is far more promising than what our country can offer at the moment in terms of economy, education, safety, and security,” she said. She also reminded that ten years in a business sector that is constantly and rapidly advancing is quite an achievement. “It means we have managed to establish ourselves in this sector. We’ve claimed our rightful place and we deserve to be here.” The tenth year in the business also marked the commencement of the company’s expansion plans. More recently, new study destinations in Canada and Ireland were launched. By now, the company has helped more than 1,500 Filipinos study, work, live, or even settle in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia. And it is more than ever dedicated to serving its community-oriented goals. There are also ongoing negotiations to open more offices outside the Philippines, particularly in Romania, Bulgaria, Singapore, Hong Kong, Colombia, and the Middle East - to cater to more Filipinos, specifically OFWs who want better opportunities. The Bicolana behind WORLDCONNECT attributes the company’s growth and success to her people’s belief not just in her but most especially to the company’s vision and mission as an agent with a major role in improving people’s lives and future through international education. The recipient of this year’s Halyao Outstanding Bicolano Young Entrepreneur Award, Cathy shared how the recognition brought upon a moment of reflection. “Whatever I have built a decade ago will not have been possible without the people who were with me through the ups and downs,” she said in her acceptance speech during the awarding ceremonies last July 29, extending her gratitude for the hard work and dedication of those who believed in the work that they do. “As for WORLDCONNECT, we look toward a future where Filipinos won’t get left behind in this rapidly advancing and more connected and globalized world; that international education is something that’s neither impossible or out of reach to any Filipino who wish a better life for themselves and their families.” - By Aldrin C. Brosas