Why you should care

How one bad experience with a teacher plus an MBA equaled English tutoring success.

This story was originally published in January. You can catch Cindy Mi at OZY Fest, this summer’s hottest party, in New York City’s Central Park on July 21–22. Details and ticket information can be found here.

China’s $4.5 billion online language learning market is fiercely competitive, but Cindy Mi, founder and CEO of online education company VIPKid, is not easily fazed.

Inspired in part by a bad experience with a teacher when she was a schoolgirl, Mi has forged her own path from an early age, eventually launching a real-time online tutoring company aimed at China’s tens of millions of 4- to 12-year-olds. VIPKid connects Chinese pupils with English tutors in the U.S. and Canada.

Charging 130 RMB ($20) for 30-minute one-on-one video sessions focused on a U.S. curriculum, VIPKid has grown rapidly as it taps into China’s increasing demand for English teaching. The business completed a $200 million fundraising in August last year and is valued at more than $1 billion.

“Online education is such an amazing opportunity in this era where we can leverage technology to change the way children learn,” says Mi. Her own experience of English began at age 13, when she started to teach herself the language. John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Yesterday Once More” by the Carpenters were the first songs in English she learned.

I found it fascinating, the possibility to connect teachers and students in real time.

Cindy Mi

At 14, Mi moved from Hebei province, near Beijing, to Harbin in Heilongjiang province in northeastern China, close to the Russian border. At her new school she had a “very bad experience” with a math teacher over her education — a clash that made her determined to become an educator and help children develop a love of learning.

Mi left school at 17 and with her uncle co-founded ABC English, a bricks-and-mortar language teaching company. From the beginning, she led business development and campus expansion across China. She also managed to find an additional four or five hours a day on top of 14-hour working days to continue her own English education and self-study for an English literature degree.

“In China we have a self-taught system, where you take exams that are equally or more difficult than those of university students,” she says. “[But] it is very hard … I think very few students do this.”

From 2010 to 2012, Mi studied for an MBA at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) in Beijing. The course, which included an exchange program with Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in the U.S., would be instrumental in the development of her early idea that would lead to VIPKid. “I found it fascinating, the possibility to connect teachers and students in real time, one-on-one in an immersive session. It is so engaging,” she says.

Mi decided to study for an MBA because while she had learned a lot on the job at ABC English — “I had all the street smarts” — she felt a rigorous academic program taught by business school professors would make her “book smart.” Particularly important were lessons on the ways technology has disrupted traditional industries and classes on business strategy and corporate finance.

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VIPKid founder and CEO Cindy Mi (left) and TechCrunch moderator Megan Rose Dickey speak onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 at Pier 48 on Sept. 20, 2017, in San Francisco.

Source Steve Jennings/Getty

CKGSB also instilled the idea that students should not be thinking about just one company, one industry or even one country, Mi adds. It highlighted the importance of business around the globe. Being taught to see the world from a “galactic” view — to view the planet as a whole, as if from the moon — helped Mi realize that “the world is a big classroom,” she says. “We really need to imagine education for the future and to teach [children] a love of learning.”

CKGSB provides strong support to entrepreneurs, she says. Professors helped with her business plan and students were paired with mentors from the executive MBA, which meant one-on-one time with people who had extensive backgrounds in business. “They would share their experiences and we shared our questions,” she says. The mentors gave students assurance and helped build their confidence.

She was also helped by CKGSB’s “Chuang Community” network — an incubator that encourages students to start their own businesses and collaborate with some of China’s largest internet companies, such as Tencent and Baidu.

In the past 12 months, VIPKid has grown from 6,000 teachers to more than 30,000 and has more than 200,000 paying students. A hundred thousand classes are taught on the platform each day. In August last year, VIPKid launched Lingo Bus, a Mandarin tutoring service for children.

Mi forecasts that VIPKid will have a million students globally within the first quarter of 2019. Revenue for 2016 was 2 billion RMB ($301 million), with 2017 revenues forecast to reach 5 billion RMB ($753 million).

With growth comes challenges. One of the biggest for Mi has been convincing parents in China that online teaching is effective. “We had to create an entirely new market,” she says, “and build trust through an unending focus on learning outcomes, teaching quality and curriculum.” She adds that nearly 70 percent of new VIPKid customers now come from existing parent referrals.

Online learning is expanding rapidly in China. According to consulting company iResearch, the country’s online learning market in 2016 was worth 30 billion RMB and it is forecast to grow 20 percent a year until 2019, to 52 billion RMB.

Since that miserable experience with her math teacher, Mi has put her desire to help children develop a love of learning at the heart of everything she does. “I learned that through learning a language,” she says. “The global classroom can be a game-changer that makes everything different.”

An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect amount in RMB that Cindy Mi charges for a 30-minute one-on-one video session. It’s 130 RMB, not 30 RMB.

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By Janina Conboye

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