Working as an English-language teacher in Beijing in 2013, Cindy Mi realized there was untapped demand from students desperate to learn the language. Her answer was VIPKid, an online platform that pairs students with tutors in North America. Today it is the world's largest K-12 English-language online educator, with over 70,000 English tutors providing lessons to over 600,000 students across over 35 countries.
CEO & Founder, Cindy Mi
Q: How did VIPKid get off the ground?
A: VIP Kid was founded in 2013. We really spent the first couple of years piloting the program with this idea of a global online classroom where teachers teach online and kids learn online. So the idea is very simple to inspire and empower every child for the future by building them this global classroom where they can learn English with the best teachers around the globe. We launched in 2015. We started with 200 students and we’ve grown to almost 700,000. We also have around 70,000 teachers now. Most teachers are from the US and some are from Canada.
Q: How else has VIPkid grown since it began?
A: The growth of VIPKid is a reflection of the online education sector and how the industry has grown here in China. There is a $15 billion U.S. market where parents are spending on their children to learn English. The fact is 15 percent of Chinese parents’ income goes to supplemental education. So when I started VIPKid, almost every child learned offline. On weekends they would go to a training center where they would learn for a few hours. So the way VIPKid has grown really is to provide more student value. They’ve found much better teachers and the online learning experience is extraordinary. In 2017, two years after we launched, we went from 200 students, to 200,000 and by then we had 30,000 teachers. And from there we just grew into where we are today. Almost two out of three children in China who learn online, in a one-on-one program, now learn with VIPkid.
Q: What does the VIPKid brand mean to people?
A: We have a very strong brand. Parents believe that we have the best teachers, great online learning content and the best online experience. We were very honored that Mary Meeker at the CodeCon Conference 2019 highlighted VIPKid’s growth by saying “if we look at online education remote video chat, VIPKid is one of the global leaders here with a very impressive growth trajectory.” So I think that would probably best illustrate how we’ve grown. But I think really it’s the student value we’ve created. It is so much better and more effective and efficient than it used to be in the brick and mortar world. We are so fortunate to have so many students learn with us and we’ve created so much value for the teachers. They’re making a very decent income and they enjoy tutoring young kids here in China as a teacher.
Q: How is it that VIPKid got involved with the team at Bryant Stibel?
A: Bryant Stibel was interested in the education sector. They found us through our mutual friends at Learn Capital, who have been our long term partner–Rob Hutter and Greg Mauro– they support VIPKids so much that they’ve invested themselves, so they recommended VIPKid to Bryant Stibel. We’re very fortunate that it has always been Kobe and Jeff’s vision to invest in companies that drive change. I would quote Kobe on this. He said “VIPKid’s platform is changing things, and we have to look for companies adding value to society, helping kids learn and grow.” So I think we had the same mission. This was something great for society and something in China which had a high growth trajectory. I think it is just great that we were able to get Bryant Stibel as our investor and we’ve been enjoying the partnership so much for the past few years.
Q: What was it like to join the team and the other Bryant Stibel investment companies at New York Stock Exchange in 2016?
A: That was such an unforgettable and an amazing experience. It was my first time visiting the exchange and then after the event, everyone in China saw the amazing photo of Jeff, Kobe and me at the exchange. Everybody is still talking about how Kobe and Jeff announced Bryant Stibel and that they’ve invested in two companies in China. If you saw that photo of the portfolio companies, the two Chinese companies, Alibaba and VIPKid, were right in the middle. It was also really amazing to finally meet with the entire team at Bryant Stibel. We felt that we now had a team of partners that can give us great advice around the things that we work on.
I would say the biggest surprise though came when Pete said “oh by the way Cindy, welcome to the event, we’re going to announce the investments tomorrow.” So our China team in Beijing heard of the great news happening in the morning New York time, which means it’s evening in China, so everyone on our team got up and they started to work and prepare for the big announcement. A couple of days earlier we had just announced our celebrity movie star endorsement. I think Kobe and Jeff totally stole the thunder because prior to that, no father would talk about VIPKid, because after school tutoring is such a mom thing. But then when the news went out, everyone talked about VIPKid in the photo and then Kobe, because the fathers all thought Kobe works so hard. They respect him so much, the Mamba spirit and everything. The next day, they were all talking about VIPKid and now suddenly we have support from fathers for their children to join the VIPKid program. I think I had thousands of wechat messages congratulating me that day.
Q: How has Bryant Stibel supported VIPKid?
A: Most importantly, inspiration and mission because both Jeff and Kobe know how important learning languages is and how important being a global kid from day one is and how important it is to work hard and build on your skills. It’s so inspirational to me and my team.
The team at Bryant Stibel has been so helpful in support of the mission. Jeff and Pete are such great strategists and they know the capital markets so well that they were able to help us think about integrating storytelling with a great business model and then how to expand globally and think very differently. They always gave me such valuable advice. You know when Bryant Stibel invested, VIPKid was a fairly small company. All these strategies and ideas have been tremendously helpful along the way.
I also remember the Wall Street Journal event where Kobe talked on stage for half an hour and spent quite a few minutes on VIPKid. I sat in the audience and Kobe said “Cindy is here. She’s awesome.” And he spoke of our passion and our mission. He shared with the world how amazing VIPKid’s global platform is and how the global classroom is helping both teachers and students. That mission has always been the driving force and it just helps connect and unify everyone. And I would just like to say thank you to Kobe, Jeff, Pete and team.
Q: Do you think that being a female entrepreneur provides a unique perspective for you in leading this education based company?
A: Yes, because I’m a teacher myself. I started tutoring young kids in 1998. And if we think about our teachers, over 85 percent are female. So I resonate with our teachers. I am one of them. I am always thinking about how I can build the company better so we can better support our teachers who are mostly female and who care and love the world and want to make the world a better place.
Then you think about our students, young kids. They’re the best of our world and they can be the best of themselves but as they learn and grow, how can we build a platform around their needs and learning style and always have the student at the center? I think being a female has been really helpful there. But I would say on my team, it’s not about gender. Everyone joins VIPKid because of the shared value of the mission.
Q: What is the long-term vision of VIP kid in your mind?
A: The long-term vision is to build a global classroom that, as our mission states, empowers and inspires every child for the future. It empowers teachers and students through more personalized learning driven by technology and connects cultures across the world, and as a result, ignites a passion for lifelong learning. Two key words would be personalization and empowerment. This global classroom had always been on my mind. It should be accessible to all students. It should be affordable. It should be personalized. And this I think would make the world a better place. Generation by generation the world will become a better place through education.
Q: How can the team at Bryant Stibel help the VIPKid in the future?
A: One way is to help us to build a global brand that inspires more children and their parents. People follow leaders and Bryant Stibel is a leader, not only in the venture capital space but also Kobe in the sports world and his views on bettering yourself and pushing limits. And secondly would be to continue motivating us with the mission that we should build VIPKid, the brand, the company around adding value to society and continue to guide us on ways we can do that.