When Bryant Stibel looks at potential companies to invest in, the team is especially attracted to partners that inspire, innovate and have an ability to change the world. That’s why when the Bryant Stibel team was introduced to the founder/CEO of VIPKid
, Cindy Mi, through mutual friends at Silicon Valley VC firm, Learn Capital, it was a connection that made sense. Mi, who became an English teacher at 17 and an entrepreneur was already a couple years into piloting an online program with the idea of creating “a global classroom,” where teachers from around the world would teach English to Chinese kids one-on-one.
Mi saw a major opportunity form in the online education sector in China – so she pounced. “There is a $15 billion U.S. market where parents are spending on their children to learn English,” reveals Mi of her inspiration for starting VIPKid in 2013. By recognizing that “15 percent of Chinese parents’ income goes to supplemental education,” Mi immediately noticed a fundamental problem with that equation.
“When I started VIPKid, almost every child learned offline. On weekends, they would go to a training center where they’d learn for a few hours. The way VIPKid has really grown is in providing more student value. They’ve found much better teachers and an online learning experience that is extraordinary,” says Mi of why VIPKid caught on so fast.
That’s been another extraordinary element to the company – the rapid growth. Mi launched the site in 2015 with the simple goal “to inspire and empower every child for the future” with the “best teachers around the globe.” Two years after, “We went from 200 students to 200,000, and by then, had 30,000 teachers,” Mi says of the early scale.
“From there, we just grew into where we are today.” Which is a company with almost 700,000 students from 35+ countries being taught by roughly 70,000 teachers, mostly based in the U.S. and Canada. Ultimately, VIPKid has become the world’s largest K-12 English-language online educator with “almost two out of three children in China who learn online, in a one-on-one program, now learning with VIPKid,” according to Mi.
Bringing on the Right Team
If you’re going to succeed, it often helps to have the right partners by your side. In this regard, Mi felt the pairing of VIPKid and Bryant Stibel was a natural fit from the beginning given Bryant Stibel’s interest in the education sector and history of academic partnerships.
“We’re very fortunate that it has always been Kobe and Jeff’s vision to invest in companies that drive change,” says Mi, who was particularly taken by Kobe Bryant’s early interest and assessment of how ‘VIPKid’s platform is changing things, and how we have to look for companies that add value to society, helping kids learn and grow.’
In partnering up, both parties quickly identified that “This was something great for society and something in China, which had a high-growth trajectory,” reveals Mi of their early talks. So much so, that Mi expresses gratitude for having Bryant Stibel on their side ever since. “We’ve been enjoying the partnership so much for the past few years.”
Ringing the Bell at the NYSE
One high point was the day Mi appeared at the New York Stock Exchange in 2016
with the Bryant Stibel team. As she recollects, that’s when a photo she took with Jeff and Kobe created buzz back home in China – the day before Bryant Stibel announced their investment in VIPKid. “Everybody’s still talking about how Kobe and Jeff announced that Bryant Stibel 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.”
Mi says the positive effect back home was palpable. “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,” remembers Mi of that moment in time. “But then, when the news went out, everyone talked about VIPKid in the photo… 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,” recalls Mi of the photo. “I think I had thousands of WeChat messages congratulating me that day.”
During that memorable day at the NYSE, Mi adds that she found it “amazing to finally meet with the entire team at Bryant Stibel” and “felt that we now had a team of partners that can give us great advice around the things that we work on.” Overall, Mi was impressed by the team’s overwhelming show of support for their company mission.
“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,” Mi says of the immediate kinship. In terms of the team’s tactical approach, Mi also issues praise. “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.”
She’s quick to add that when Bryant Stibel invested in VIPKid, they were still a “fairly small” company. But the “strategies and ideas” and “always giving such valuable advice” has created value for VIPKid by simply being “tremendously helpful along the way.”
Taking the Global Classroom Into the Future
As an entrepreneur with a vision for democratizing high-quality education, Mi has made great strides in a space that has only gotten more competitive since she joined it.
Strides evident in the fact that Mi raised $500 million in a Series D+ funding round that valued the startup at over $3 billion in 2018. Also impressive is the fact that Mi was also named a Glassdoor Top 100 CEO in 2019
, one of only seven women on the list.
Along those lines, Mi answers the question to whether she thinks being a female entrepreneur has leant a unique perspective that’s fueled VIPKid’s successful mission. “Yes, because I’m a teacher myself,” confesses Mi. “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.”
It is this mission that Mi keeps her mind on with the help of partners like Bryant Stibel. Mi admits to “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.”
Ultimately, as Mi points out, the company’s overall mission is all about students and young kids learning, growing, and evolving. “They’re the best of our world and they can be the best of themselves.” It’s a notion she says Kobe even touched on at a Wall Street Journal event where he spent some time talking about VIPKid. “I sat in the audience and Kobe said ‘Cindy is here. She’s awesome,” recalls Mi. “He spoke of our passion and mission. He shared with the world how amazing VIPKid’s global platform is and how the global classroom is helping both teachers and students. And how that mission has always been the driving force and just helps connect and unify everyone.”
One of the company’s goals is breaking down boundaries and promoting understanding between cultures, but Mi sees two key words as resonating most in her pursuit to ignite a passion for lifelong learning: personalization and empowerment.
“This global classroom had always been on my mind,” reveals Mi. “It should be accessible to all students. It should be affordable. It should be personalized… Generation by generation, the world will become a better place through education.”
As for working together in the future, Mi sees Bryant Stibel as an integral piece in VIPKid’s goal to continue building a global brand that inspires children and parents.
One, because “people follow leaders and Bryant Stibel is a leader, not only in the venture capital space, but also because of Kobe in the sports world and his views on bettering yourself and pushing limits.” But also by guiding VIPKid, by “motivating us” and helping to “build VIPKid, the brand, and company around adding value to society.”
Be successful at that and maybe the world will learn a thing or two along the way.