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In China, a CEO’s Journey from Teenage Tutor to Edtech Entrepreneur

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Growing up in the barren province of Hebei, Cindy Mi developed a deep curiosity about the world outside of China. She used her lunch money to buy audiocassettes and magazines to teach herself English. “I can remember the first English song I learned,” she says. “It was ‘Yesterday Once More,’ by the Carpenters.”

By the age of 15, Mi was helping other students learn English as well. At the time, she worked for a local language school, where she provided after school tutoring sessions to young Chinese students, eventually becoming part of the local language school’s leadership team and expansion efforts.

Along the way, Mi, now the CEO of  VIPKID, learned much of what she knows about the wants and needs of both students and their parents, as well as the educational landscapes in China and abroad. That first tutoring job, coupled with her own education experiences—many of which were self-taught, “gave me this belief that each kid is unique and different,” says Mi. “They deserve a platform that allows them to see the world or to envision the future that they would want to have.”

It’s that belief that inspired her to start a new kind of language school, one that pairs Chinese students ages 5 to 12 with native English speakers who tailor instruction to meet the needs of each child.

VIPKID is a three-year-old Beijing-based company that uses video conferencing technology to break down traditional brick and mortar walls. “For the entire first year,” she says, “all we did was pilot our program so we could develop the best curriculum, figure out the best way to work with teachers, and come up with the best platform.”

The biggest hurdle, says Mi, was finding people who had an interest in education as well as the technical skills required to build an online platform unique to VIPKID’s needs. Equally challenging was figuring out how to create a sense of community among an ever-growing number of teachers who live in disparate parts of the United States and Canada. “Now we have almost 2,000 teachers,” she says, “and we will have at least 4,000 by the end of the year.”

The teachers communicate with their young charges using a Skype-like set-up, one with features that allow both teachers and students to draw on the same PowerPoint slide as if they were in the same classroom at the same time. In addition, VIPKID provides teachers with various strategies to collaborate and stay in touch, including a Facebook page and chat rooms on Skype. “It’s a community that we need to talk to and work with,” says Mi. “All the teachers are in North America; none of them are in China.”

Mi says she specifically recruits North American teachers because they “are very caring, encouraging and fun,” providing Chinese students with “a classroom experience they’ve never had before.” It’s an experience, she shares, that inspires confidence, and “when they have confidence, everything starts to get easy.”

What's more, says Mi, the success of VIPKID reflects a nationwide interest in learning English. It also highlights the mindset of a new generation of Chinese parents who are less interested in top-down demands and test-driven outcomes and more interested in instilling in their children a true desire to learn and explore.

There are currently about 10,000 students enrolled in the company’s fee-based, one-on-one English classes, which are largely based on the Common Core State Standards and incorporate information from math, science, social studies and other subject areas. Another 150,000 students are enrolled in free-access, group seminars focused on subjects that include art, music, science, social studies, and, beginning in April, coding.

“You don’t want to just teach them grammar or vocabulary,” Mi says. “We would like to help foster critical thinking skills for kids, things like self-expression and confidence.”

Mi’s company, which is also known as the North American Elementary School Online, boasts a retention rate of 95 percent for students who take the one-on-one classes and 90 percent for teachers, who make an average of $1,500 a month. However, there’s ample opportunity to make up to four times that much.

Kate Christian, for example, makes upwards of $3,000 monthly, teaching students and evaluating teachers. The income, she said, is enough for her and her 12-year-old daughter to live comfortably in Cincinnati, Ohio. Christian, who taught at the elementary level for 16 years, left the classroom to homeschool her own child. Now she can spend part of the day working and part of it teaching her daughter; if they want to travel, she can take her supplies and her computer set-up and teach on the road. "I think it’s very cutting edge," says Christian. "I think that this is going to be happening more and more.”

Another fan is Janice Alguire, who taught at the elementary level for 19 years before becoming the vice principal at Emma King Elementary School in Barrie, Ontario. She started out teaching for VIPKID a year ago and now makes about $1,500 a month interviewing and evaluating teachers during her off hours. Even though the extra income was Alguire’s initial motivation, she says, “I probably would not have applied if it hadn’t looked like something that was a new, exciting way to teach English, to teach students—that’s really what intrigued me.”

In a certain sense, all that Mi’s company has become—the benefits it brings to students and teachers alike—has been in the making since Mi was in middle school learning English from pop songs. “This,” she shares, “is something I’ve been imagining for years.”

Think You Might Like to Tutor Overseas Students Online?

Here are the requirements:

  • Minimum one year teaching experience in North America with children ages 5 to 12
  • Current certification or ESL teaching experience
  • Bachelor’s degree or AA in Early Childhood Education
  • Availability to teach at least 7.5 hours per week
  • High-speed internet, laptop or desktop computer, audio/video capability
  • Ability to make a 6-month commitment

Here’s what you get:

  • Compensation is $7 - 9 per 30-minute class; with bonuses, the total compensation can reach $9 - $11 per 30-minute class
  • Flexible schedule; available work hours (Pacific Standard Time) are 3 - 7am daily, 6 - 9pm Friday and Saturday nights, 6 - 9pm daily during the summer
  • ESL teacher training, lesson sharing and ongoing professional development
  • Opportunity to earn an all-expenses-paid summer trip to Beijing

Lucy Hood is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance reporter with nearly 20 years of experience covering education

This article was sponsored by VIPKID and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.
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