A Pinay's journey: From selling fish to owning a college in England

Rose Eclarinal, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Feb 06 2018 04:55 PM

LONDON - Nova Fossgard is living proof that working hard to better one’s life happens if one perseveres. 

Fossgard, 46, had humble beginnings. Born in Tukuran, Zamboanga Del Sur to a fisherman father and stay-at-home mother, she started to peddle fish at the age of five. She still recalls how she would sell fish in the market.
 
“You are in the market and you have to shout – fish, fish, bente, bente… Isda, isda, bariles, bariles. Bente, bente,” Fossgard said.
 
She also vividly remembers how she would play mischief at her aunt to get a portion of fish to be sold in the market.
 
“Nangawat ko isda sa auntie ko (I stole fish from my aunt). That’s a secret, but I will tell you. Because I was starving. I had this little girl, I gave it to her and passed it on to the market. This little girl gave me the money and I gave her commission,” she explained.
 
Fossgard credits early exposure to business and her knack for selling for the success of her family-owned business, a language college she runs with her husband Jan. 

Fossgard is now director and her husband is principal at Purley Language College in Purley, 25 minutes away from London.

“I’m sure that coming from a family that had a small business themselves it must have helped her a lot. She had to work at a very young age. She must have felt what it’s like not to have a lot. That [is] probably what has driven her to better things through the years,” said her husband.
 
STARTING THE BUSINESS 
 
In 2006, the opportunity came at an unexpected time when Fossgard and her husband lost their jobs. Jan was a journalist and finished both his undergraduate and master’s degrees at University of Oxford. 

He applied for a job at the college, which offers English language courses, and was asked if he wanted to take over the business. The former owners already wanted to retire.
 
“It was just by coincidence really. My husband applied to teach English here. Then my husband was approached if he wanted to buy out the school,” said Fossgard. 
 
The couple embarked on a new challenge. Fossgard then juggled between her newfound job while running the business with her husband. Work for her was 24/7, until she became full-time at the college. She took care of administrative matters, accounts and student registration, among others.
 
From one student, the college now has more than 3,000 students enrolled every year from different parts of the world.
 
“In the beginning, we borrowed so much money. We remortgaged and it tested us, our relationship, financially and emotionally. It wasn’t easy,” she said.
 
Jan believes his wife’s business acumen drove the college forward. He said they also complement each other’s personalities.
 
“She's got a bubbly, magnetic personality. She is bold enough or confident enough to speak to people in different levels. She enjoys travelling as well, so she can operate in many different countries. She is able to relate to people and negotiate and close the deals,” said Jan.
 
 FROM DOMESTIC WORKER TO ENTREPRENEUR 

Fossgard finished a degree in accounting at Southern Mindanao College in 1991. Desperate to help her parents send her younger brothers to the university, she worked in Hong Kong as a domestic helper right after graduation. 
 
“I went through as a domestic helper first, cleaning. Even during day off, I worked part-time,” she said.
 
While working in Singapore as a domestic helper, her former boss made an offer that she could not resist: to be the companion of his octogenarian mother in England.
 
“They had a housekeeper, a gardener. I just sat down with her, just to be a companion. I learned so much from her. She educated me a lot: taught me [how] to cook, read a lot of newspapers and books,” she narrated.
 
It was in Oxford where she crossed paths with her husband.
 
VALUE OF EDUCATION 
 
Fossgard wants to inspire those in the provinces to reach for their dreams and never give up. For the former fish vendor who managed to finish university and set up a college in the United Kingdom, getting education is the surest way forward.
 
“How can you be successful without education? I kept telling my brothers, education is the best capital for you. Then once you have education, look for what you are passionate about. Then focus on that one thing,” she said.
 
For those who often doubt themselves and their abilities, she has this advice:

“Don’t be afraid. Follow your instinct. Gawin mo lahat ang gusto mo sa buhay. If you keep holding back with your fear, you think may mangyayari? You have to overcome (your fears). Takbo ka, don’t crawl. Always run."