“Education is the only way for us to get out of poverty,” Nhu’s father explained repeatedly when dropping her off at school every morning. He did so rain or shine despite having to run all over the city to sell construction equipment after his paint business went bankrupt. To further her education, Nhu’s older brother even dropped out of school because the family could only afford to pay tuition for one child. A desire to repay such sacrifice motivated her to succeed at some of the world’s top companies and then, recently, co-found an edtech startup. Nhu’s venture, Schola, was built to help devoted parents like hers find quality education for their children.

Born and raised in Saigon, Nhu was an exemplary student, thanks in part to the value her parents placed on education. She received a scholarship to attend Southeast Asia’s top university, the National University of Singapore. While there, she encountered a significant setback: her English speaking skills were not good enough. Many students in Vietnam can excel in reading, writing, and grammar but lack the confidence, skills, and experience for public speaking. For Nhu, this meant her peers in Singapore refused to work with her on group assignments. On one occasion, a classmate even stole her idea, receiving a good grade when passing it off as her own. Nhu couldn’t effectively communicate to convince the teacher that it was, in fact, her idea.

Nhu fought the desire to drop out and instead dedicated herself to a multitude of extra-curricular activities that helped her improve her speaking skills. Upon graduation, she landed a job at Garena, where she helped launch games such as Thunder Strike, which attracted more than 10 million users in Vietnam alone. She then spent four years at Facebook managing the ad portfolios of various Vietnamese companies, helping some of them become among the highest-value accounts in the country.

Making an Unpopular Decision

Nhu’s decision to leave Facebook last year didn’t only affect her. Resigning from a prestigious and high-paying position had ramifications for her family as well. Her parents rely on her for financial assistance, and striking out on her own as an entrepreneur makes their future less certain. Yet she was determined to start Schola to help Vietnamese students overcome the same issues she faced. 

Nhu remembers vividly her encounter with a cleaning lady who works in her office building. Even though she had spent over US$1,000 sending her daughter to English classes, she still couldn’t speak well. To this mother, it was a huge investment, and yet it had seemingly been for nothing. Stories like this devastated Nhu and further convinced her of the importance of Schola.

Schola, the Latin word for “school”, is the brainchild of Nhu and her co-founder Aditya Gupta. It connects students with accredited native teachers around the world for one-on-one classes that emphasize confidence in speaking via an immersive American common core curriculum. For six months, Nhu worked 10+ hours a day at Facebook and then stayed up until 2AM connecting with parents and sharing about Schola, one family at a time. She needed to be sure Schola had potential before committing herself to it fully.

After they delivered 10,000 classes, Nhu knew it was time. Despite the protests from her parents and cautions from her friends, Nhu left Facebook and relocated to Saigon to focus full-time on Schola. It’s been an arduous journey convincing families to part with their hard-earned money. It is especially challenging because when it comes to education, results are often long-term and difficult to quantify. But thankfully they now have numerous real success stories to serve as proof. More importantly, Nhu’s personal story — her family’s sacrifice for her education, her own struggle with English communications, and her effort to overcome such struggle — resonate among many of the parents she speaks to.

Nhu brainstorming with other founders in Saola

From Educators to “Students”

Prior to talking to 500 Startups, Nhu’s co-founder, Aditya, had participated in several other accelerators and had grown skeptical of them. That skepticism persisted when they were invited to join 500’s Saola program; however, it quickly went away. “People here really care, and that’s one of the defining factors. When that happens, we can derive a lot of value,” said Aditya about their time with Saola.

Among many lessons, for Schola, diligently setting and monitoring metrics and KPI’s serves as one of the most important. In the past, they had operated via bootstrapping and thus had a somewhat haphazard way of assessing their growth and accomplishments. For Nhu, she found values for Schola through the depth of experience of the Saola growth experts. They were able to not only show her why taking a more holistic approach was important but also how specifically to do it.

Nhu reveals that one of the biggest challenges for Schola is scaling effectively. Because the company relies on personal interactions and a vast network of qualified educators, her charisma can only stretch so far. Eventual plans to extend to older age groups and countries beyond Vietnam compounds the problem. There is, of course, no certainty she will succeed. 

That said, Nhu admits that she is quite stubborn. Her desire to help Vietnamese children thrive compels her to continue dedicating her time, energy and effort. After all, it was the same dedication that her parents gave her, and this is her way to pay it forward.

 

Written by Paul Christiansen

NOTE: This article reflects the personal views of Paul Christiansen and not necessarily the views of 500 Startups. Nothing in this article should be construed as an offer, invitation or solicitation for investment, or be construed as investment advice. Data provided is as reported by portfolio companies, third-party sources, and/or internal estimates and may not have been independently verified.

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