Founder Spotlight: Cindy Mi of VIPKid

Here in the US, the fable of the dropout-turned-tech-billionaire is a familiar one. But it doesn’t usually bring to mind a young Chinese woman reinventing her country’s foreign-language education system.

Cindy Mi_2019Meet Cindy Mi, the 35-year-old founder and CEO of the online teaching platform VIPKid, who’s bringing new life—and considerable business savvy—to the bootstrap stereotype.

Hailing from the northeastern region of China, Cindy developed an early passion for all things English. Books, magazines, comics, newspapers: she read it all. And it worked. By the age of 15, she found herself tutoring her peers in English, even as she chafed at the inflexible nature of the traditional Chinese education system. In particular, Cindy remembers a math teacher who wouldn’t call on her or explain concepts when she had questions. This led Cindy to hide magazines inside her textbook to read in class. Once her teacher caught her reading a sci-fi magazine and tore it into pieces, then threw her out of the classroom.

Still, Cindy’s early proficiency and passion for English catapulted her toward a career path she had never envisioned. Down with the old, tired, and broken system of education, she thought. Maybe there was a different path: one where technology, education, and English all worked together. 

The Successful Dropout 

Weary of the assumption that quality English instruction was the stuff of dreams, Cindy dropped out of school at the age of 17 and immediately founded a chain of English academies alongside her uncle. That chain—ABC English—would expand all over China.  

But even after her success in the world of brick-and-mortar tutoring centers, she felt something was missing. With firsthand knowledge of the huge demand for quality English instruction in China, she realized physical classrooms could only go so far. 

Her answer? Return to school, earn an MBA from a top-tier Beijing university, and start an online teaching platform that would revolutionize the way Chinese students learn English. 

In 2013, Cindy pitched the idea of teaching English online to Sinovation’s Kai-Fu Lee. Just over a year later, she and her compatriots had a working platform. Enter VIPKid.  

Changing the Game 

VIPKid matches Chinese students with native English speakers for real-time instruction. The idea is simple: native speakers make the best language teachers, but they’re often separated from students by thousands of miles. Use the Internet to connect students with teachers and everyone wins. 

Students use VIPKid to schedule 25-minute classes with their teacher. The teacher, in turn, works from a set of established curricula based on Common Core standards. The teacher presents their lesson directly to the student in a one-on-one video chat. Both parties can communicate back and forth, share feedback, and ask questions. 

With a single keystroke (and, well, years of business planning), Cindy solved the problem of English education in China. An entire generation of Chinese youth now has access to quality, affordable English instruction via a medium designed to accommodate both parties.  

VIPKid’s Meteoric Rise 

Cindy’s brainchild found its legs in October of 2013. Within three years, VIPKid’s total revenue exceeded $300 million. A cool $500 million funding round (at a staggering $3 billion valuation) in 2018 showed the world that Cindy had effectively cornered the market on online teaching.  

Numbers continue to rise, but as of March 2019, nearly 70,000 teachers work directly with over 500,000 Chinese students. These are promising numbers, especially when one considers that VIPKid taught only 3,000 students in 2015.  

A Philosophy of Caring 

Despite VIPKid’s rapid growth, Cindy’s underlying philosophy remains the same. Quality, she says, is the sole metric on which her teaching platform is built.  

“What keeps me up at night is not growth, it’s quality,” she says. Her dedication to her company hasn’t slowed, and if users are any indication of the platform’s quality, her success should not come as a surprise. 

Indeed, Cindy’s philosophy speaks to a broader set of changes she wants to embody. Efficiency, not time spent, should be the focus of quality instruction. Parents want what is best for their children—and their wallets. If two 25-minute VIPKid sessions accomplish the same as a week’s worth of in-class time, everyone wins.  

Following her Instincts to Success

Cindy Mi’s success story is both typical and atypical. Like some Silicon Valley wunderkinds, she followed an early passion along an unconventional path, and turned her personal dissatisfaction with the status quo into an innovative business plan. She also earned an MBA and the chance to pitch her idea to one of the world’s most notable funders (Sinovation’s Kai-Fu Lee). But it’s also important to remember where she started: as a high-schooler—living 1500 miles from Beijing and oceans away from Silicon Valley—reading sci-fi during math class and thinking, there’s got to be a better way to reach students.

Dane S is a freelance writer who writes about lifestyle and travelWhen he’s not riding around sunny Southern California, Dane can usually be found typing away furiously on topics including educational technology and finance.

Banner photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

It’s Time for Tech to Step Up

There are many sad truths about the state of tech today:

It’s this last point to which I want to speak more about here (though I could talk on end about the first two). In fact, the first two are in many ways feeding the third. It has been acknowledged that the center of the tech industry, Silicon Valley continues to be obsessed with myopic first-world problems in part due to an ongoing lack of diversity (gender, race, and socioeconomic). This is the reason I have chosen to focus on rising tech cities — to avoid some of the past mistakes in these new ecosystems and broaden the scope of companies that are being funded.

Impact is not a dirty word

We understand that it’s easy to go after frivolous and trendy problems, but to leave the greatest issues to non-profits, philanthropy and governments to solve is putting us greatly at a disadvantage as a society. Further, the myth that alpha cannot be gained in a mission-based company needs to be debunked if we are to see this tide change.

Melinda Gates recently drew light on this issue, stating:

One thing that does bug me is that, even for the big world problems Bill [Gates] and I are talking about, sometimes the tech world thinks the solution is to give somebody an app. Well, that’s not going to change everything. I would also love to see more tech innovation on behalf of the world. “Let’s create the next thing that tracks my dog” — that’s fun and nice, but come on, there are people dying.

Melinda Gates on Tech Innovation, Global Health and Her Own Privilege
You would perhaps be demonstrating an excess of sympathy to feel sorry for ultrawealthy philanthropists. But it’s fair…www.nytimes.com

Entering the VC space, I have been bothered by this as well. I am considered an impact investor, which can often seen to in be in conflict with venture and as deleterious to returns. But why? Are we to believe that asking ‘does the world need another one of these’ is a bad thing that can reduce potential profits. 

I often advise companies that if the way you make money and the way you positively impact the world are in-line, or better yet interdependent, then your triple/double-bottom line will grow together. 

These are the kinds of companies that we must seek to make the new norm. We need to stop believing that conscious companies are bad investments. And we certainly must stop being complacent with the deficiencies of tech based on historic biases.

The future is in the whitespace

In the same way that data is compiling to support that startups led by women outperform (returning 78% of every dollar vs. 31% otherwise), that diverse teams outperform (35% more likely to beat national average performance) and rising tech cities can produce higher multiples (Midwest and South yields the highest multiple in the US), so too do I believe that investing in mission-based companies can match or outperform the status quo. 

It’s time for both founders and investors to start digging deeper and acknowledge that the way capital is concentrated today is not the most efficient and a better path is emerging to follow if we wake up. Creating a better world and making a profit are possible, but it requires us to step away from the biased track record of the past.


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