Beijing-based VIPKid is giving American teachers an income boost from halfway around the world. Under cofounder and CEO Cindy Mi, the online learning company contracts with more than 30,000 North American instructors and matches them with some 200,000 primarily Chinese pupils for one-on-one video sessions in English—along with a growing stable of other subjects. Educators rave on Facebook and YouTube about the ability to teach classes from anywhere (and to typically make about $20 an hour, usually in the time before or after school). Parents seem to share their enthusiasm: The platform has a 95% student-retention rate. In 2017, VIPKid’s 25-minute-long classes brought in $760 million in revenue—up from $300 million the previous year. Below, Mi shares her vision for the future of education.
Fast Company: What is it about China that made you see an opportunity for VIPKid’s services?
Cindy Mi: Parents in China spend $15 billion a year on children’s English-language learning. When you look at other subjects, like math, the market is four times as big. After-school tutoring accounts for 15% of our household income [in China]. It’s tiger moms and dragon dads; we have parents in Asia who think that education is a game changer. The second reason is: There are 18 million new babies born in China every year. And there are only 27,000 qualified English teachers from North America residing here. In Beijing alone, we have over a million elementary school kids—27,000 [teachers] are not even enough for the city!
FC: How do you optimize students’ learning experiences online?
CM: To identify the best teachers, we have a five-step, 14-day process that includes an [internet course]—so that teachers learn how to teach online, and to teach students who don’t speak their language. After they start teaching, every sixth class is an evaluation class, and a different teacher basically vets the first five classes to see how it’s going. We also work with professors and AI scientists to analyze the engagement level of students; we can tell when a student is looking away from the camera. As a teacher myself, I’m always wondering how to make our classes more efficacious.
FC: How do your previous experiences in the classroom inform VIPKid?
CM: When I was 17, my math teacher spotted me reading a science-fiction magazine. She threw it in my face and kicked me out of the classroom. Today, I empathize with her: It’s hard to personalize anything when there are 50 students in the class, as she had. I ended up having a lot of difficulties with school and dropped out in 11th grade. Ironically, I became a teacher and cofounded a brick-and-mortar English-training company. I’ve noticed educational discrepancies across countries and neighborhoods, and it’s unfortunate for the children if they meet a teacher who breaks them instead of makes them.
FC: It sounds like you’re trying to address some of the problems with classrooms today.
CM: Twenty years from now, I think the definition of schools will be very, very different, [thanks to] technology and personalization. When we are reading a news feed, it’s personalized. Why are we not reimagining learning in this way?
FC: At a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China, what role does VIPKid play in creating a bridge between the countries?
CM: We have been in contact with [state] senator Howard Stephenson, from Utah, where teachers are moving to Salt Lake City for better income opportunities. VIPKid creates an incentive for them to stay in their smaller towns and spend locally. We also work with the US-China Strong Foundation to increase access to Mandarin-learning classes in the U.S. So I think for both cultural and economic exchange purposes, what we’re creating could be great for future relations. Sometimes our teachers even try to send little gifts to students and don’t realize it costs them $100 to mail a $2 gift to China.
FC: What draws new teachers onto the platform?
CM: Our pitch to our teachers is that we want to empower them. They can work from home. I [recently] met a VIPKid teacher who said she paid off her student loans as a result of the extra work.
FC: Currently, VIPKid only works with teachers in the U.S. and Canada. Will you branch out to other countries?
CM: For now, we’re focused on North American teachers because our curriculum is based on Common Core standards. But in the future, when we have more curriculums, we’ll expand. Today, our students come from 32 countries [beyond China]. We want, eventually, to be able to help every child on the planet.