Note from Shlomo: There is more than one way to change the world. For a startup it’s a product or a service and the chance to fulfill yourself and hopefully do your exit perhaps. For a non profit, it’s the way you touch (metaphorically) people when operating your social enterprises.
I think that Social entrepreneurship is even harder then building a startup and bootstrapping. After all there isn’t too much money involved and you need to rely on other peoples good will. I truly respect those who build and operate non profits, how you guys do it?!
This is interview #3, on Dim Sum project, bringing in interviews with entrepreneurs in China.
This is how it works:
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3. You share this interview and knowledge with Startup Noodle readers, so everybody can learn from it.
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Interview by Obio Ntia (www.obiontia.com)
Irene Shao is an extraordinary communicator. She’s immensely capable, endlessly graceful and remarkably resourceful. As the visionary Founder/CEO of the non-profit Bridging Education and Mobility (BEAM), she managed to do the near-impossible: set up a non-profit in China. I caught up with Irene for a Skype interview during her last days in China before she flew to Boston to start her Master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is doing their Technology, Innovation and Education program and she is waiting to see if BEAM gets accepted for incubation at the Harvard Innovation Lab.
For more info about BEAM, visit http://www.beamalliance.org/.
How would you define and describe what you do at BEAM?
BEAM is different today than initially conceived. BEAM is a bridge that connects two parties and solves two problems.
On one end of the bridge, we serve teachers. There are a lot of really cool teachers out there in China who have really cool ideas for classroom projects. But because they don’t have the right incentives, because the Chinese education system isn’t built on incentives, to be quite honest, and they don’t necessarily have the resources to really turn those ideas into reality.
[pullquote] We serving as philanthropy advisers to provide trustworthy small projects that individuals or CSR groups or foundations can really believe in. [/pullquote]
So what we do on this side of the bridge is solving the problem that all of these ideas are currently going to waste. We provide the necessary incentives via monetary means or resources and provide the necessary resources to turn the ideas into reality.
Now on the other side of the bridge are donors and sponsors and they’re the ones who’re providing these resources and the corresponding incentives. But what the problem we’re solving on this side of the bridge is that in China currently there are a lot of people who are interested in donating but they literally have no idea which org is accountable or what they can trust because philanthropy in China is largely a mess. You know, Guo Meimei is a huge scandal from two years ago, right?
So, what we’re providing is very clear tracks of how every single dollar that’s being donated or sponsored is being spent. SO, essentially on this end we serving as philanthropy advisers to provide trustworthy small projects that individuals or CSR groups or foundations can really believe in.
Funny that you started right off the bat by saying that BEAM is different that initially conceived because that was going to be a follow up question: How is BEAM different today than it was when you first started?
The day when BEAM came to life, it was so simple. It had one project. Then I knew I had more ideas, that I wanted to do more than just that one single project for a migrant classroom.
So, I wanted to do this umbrella organization that allows for more projects to come to life.
The model for that entire first year was, to be honest, really messy and I couldn’t even describe that model very clearly in three sentences. We did a whole variety of things within that first year. We designed projects, we implemented other people’s projects, we designed projects for other people’s problems. It was just a whole slew of different things we did and at the end of the day, in that entire first year of operation, we did three continuous projects and two to three very small scale one-time projects.
So, it was very insignificant in terms of our actual impact compared to the kind of impact that we currently have and the trajectory of impact that we hope to have, so I’m really glad that we moved out of that.
You mentioned that one project that you had was with children of migrants. What was that and where were you then? Was that while you were at Teach For China?
At the time we launched that project, I was a student at PKU [BeijingUniversity] doing a dual master’s at PKU and LSE [London School of Economics] but I dropped out of that program about three months after I founded BEAM because BEAM just started taking up so much time.
At the time BEAM was, to be honest, a very low impact project that served more the international community—the donors— far more than the students themselves. We basically provided an opportunity for everyone who’s leaving China to donate things that they no longer needed.
[pullquote]I wanted to do this umbrella organization that allows for more projects to come to life[/pullquote]
So people donated bedsheets, coat hangers, clothing, small cell phones that they’re not going to bring back to the U.S. or Europe and then we took these to migrant communities and set up flea markets and donated the income from the flea markets to local schools.
So, it didn’t really have any real educational impact. And the people that it helped far more were the people who were donating the clothing and the bedsheets and not so much the kids that were receiving it because it was such a material side of benefits rather than any holistic education focus.
That’s not where we wanted to be. And we wanted to take a more education high impact, rather classroom high impact direction. So, from there we started doing a lot more educational projects or English curriculum projects or comprehensive psychological classroom development projects and it just grew from there.
Dropping out of a graduate program: Was it a tough decision?
It wasn’t. It wasn’t tough because I hated my program [Laughs]. I felt my program was so low quality. I know it’s PKU, but compared to the education I was receiving in the US be it growing up, in college, and even in high school. I was very privileged to have a very good college education. It seemed [at PKU] like there was so much hand-holding and I felt so babied in that environment that I didn’t feel like I was actually learning or growing that much academically.
And once I started BEAM it was just this passion that I didn’t even know was there. I knew I was interested in education but it was always something on the side as something that I never paid much attention to.
[pullquote]Once I started BEAM it was just this passion that I didn’t even know was there.[/pullquote]
And I think Teach for China had a hand in bringing that passion out as well. And it was once I realized that passion, I realized that what I was studying in school was completely useless because I was doing a degree in international relations. And you know the fact that going to LSE means that I had to drop another $30K it was an easy decision to be like, yep, I’m dropping out and not spending that thirty thousand dollars!
So, it wasn’t very hard for me to make that decision. It was harder for my parents to hear and accept that decision, but they dealt with it and eventually realized it was the right decision when I got into Harvard, which to Asian parents is, you know, their saving grace, so therefore they eventually became OK with it.
Was that the only program you applied to?
I applied for three. I applied to the one at Oxford as well as the one at Stanford. And for all three, I applied for Technology and Innovation. Or Technology and learning or whatever technology program they had.
Going back to your education, you mentioned there was the passion that wasn’t there before. Did the passion just came sort of naturally? And that TFC maybe had a hand in that, you said. Where did TFC fit in that timeline?
I graduated from Cornell in 2011. Starting in Sept. 2011, I started interning at TFC. That internship officially ended in May but pretty much around the time BEAM started, which was in February, so for the last three months, essentially, of that internship I didn’t do too much.
For TFC, what I did for them was recruiting so it wasn’t so much, I wasn’t teaching or anything. What I was doing was helping them design their
I was doing interviews, helping them design how to conduct interviews and the elements within the interviews and designing rubrics to evaluate interviews and stuff like that. I guess the hand that TFC had was that it made me realize for one that I really like designing things, I really like designing systems that work and testing out just how the systems I have designed worked and tweaking the designs and making them better.
I like that far more than the academic track that I was on which was very much like: Do my masters, do my PhD, become a professor in Chinese diplomatic history. So, it was more interesting than the research and writing track.
[pullquote]And it was once I realized that passion, I realized that what I was studying in school was completely useless because I was doing a degree in international relations.[/pullquote]
But it was also during the time when I was with TFC I did a lot of volunteer teaching at migrant schools, and working within TFC in the mission they had in fighting education inequity and actually seeing what education inequity looked like in migrant schools, it was the combination of those things that really made me want to do something about what I was experiencing.
So, TFC had two roles: one was making me realize that I wasn’t as passionate about the traditional trajectory I was on in doing research, and the second was giving me an opportunity to see what it’s like to fight against education inequity.
Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Do you relate to that word?
Oh, It’s going to sound a bit silly, but that word has become such a buzzword that it’s hard to.
Like, if I associate with that word, I am a trend. That word doesn’t have that much meaning to me, unfortunately. Which is sad.
But, my father is an entrepreneur. He started his own engineering firm when I was, like, three years old. And at the time, I mean I grew up in China for about six years when I was really little, and during those first six years of my life, entrepreneurs wasn’t the type of hype and a trend as it is today. So, it was a very big deal that my father was one.
So I definitely see him as one and that had significant influence in my personality and the type of environment I grew up in. But I currently have a hard time associating with that word just because I think so many people use it as a “look at how cool I am” word.
Regardless of whether you associate yourself with that word, you do demonstrate that spirit. You started something that is much larger than just you or one person. And lots of people have ideas and they think it would be cool to do something and they want to dream big, but they don’t execute. So, for people accessing this interview—or people in general– who look at what you’ve done and want to do something similar, what are some of the secrets that you’ve learned along the way to help you actually execute?
OK, I think that’s a really important question. And I’ve actually had the opportunity to speak on this topic quite a few times, so I vaguely have kind of a trade answer.
I think the secret—and it’s not just a secret—it’s very much the key to how all of this works, is that you dream big, like dream as big as you want, but you have to start small.
You start with one tiny little thing and you go from there.
I speak often to high school and college crowds and I think one of the most important lessons for starting something, especially to the younger ages, is that we have this disgusting habit of wanting to change the world and not having the patience to lay out what that actually looks like.
[pullquote] I really like designing systems that work and testing out just how the systems I have designed worked and tweaking the designs and making them better.[/pullquote]
You have this beautiful dream, but if you don’t break it down to very simple concrete steps, you fundamentally can’t realize that dream.
So, I think the message is definitely dream as big as you want. The sky is the limit. The universe is the limit. But start with something so concrete and so small that you can start right now. And then you can take that second step tomorrow.
Obviously when you sell your idea to investors or to potential partners, you want to sell that big vision, you wan to sell that big dream. But at the same time, you want to tell them that while you have that big, big, big huge dream, you know how to lay out the blueprint of actually achieving it.
It is especially difficult setting up non-profits here, so how did you set up your legal status in China?
We’re still in the middle of this nightmare. We knew it was virtually impossible to set up an independent thing in China. So, we never actually aimed to set up an independent thing.
Our first step was gaining legal status internationally partially because my entire founding team holds American and Canadian passports.
So, we know, at least in our name, it was very hard to do anything here, so we set up legal status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in New York first. We were realizing although many of our donors are happy to donate through the NY channel, the multinational companies needed something local.
So, see, again, it comes to the small steps. We had this idea of incorporating because our long-term goal was not to stay in China. Our long term goal is to go international, so we never really just wanted China operation or China registration. So, we started with the easiest first small step and then realized that’s not enough because MNCs needed local registration.
But then we realized most of them are OK with Hong Kong registration, so that’s the second place we tackled, trying to get Hong Kong registration. And we’re still in the process of finalizing a lot of the paperwork in Hong Kong. I think we submitted the first two rounds of paperwork but it takes a couple of months to do everything.
So, we don’t have a bank account in Hong Kong yet, but that’s our next big goal.
Having that already gave us a lot of fundraising power in China, which is great. But we also realized to tackle a lot of foundation grants we want, we really need registration in China but we’re in the process of deciding whether a special fund under an existing foundation or guakao under a foundation would work better. So, there’s this ongoing debate and research as to what is the best legal status in China that best fits our need. So, it’s still an exploratory phase. So, right now we’re operating illegally in Beijing, but that’s not at all uncommon here.
Can you tell us a little more about the projects presented on the BEAM website?
The projects that you currently see on the website on the front page are all projects that are still looking for funding. If you click into the completed section or sponsored section, you will see all the projects that were done in the past.
Thus far, 27 projects have been completed that have received funding and were completed. There were a couple of projects that failed our ultimate standard so even though our number of projects that were sponsored is higher, we go by number of projects that were completed.
And, as I mentioned, within the first year of operation we had about 4 or 5 projects, so it’s really since March that we had about 23 or 24 projects because we changed our model of operation in March. Because we didn’t do microgrants that first year, which is unfortunate.
[pullquote] I currently have a hard time associating with that word [entrepreneur] just because I think so many people use it as a “look at how cool I am” word.[/pullquote]
So, this fall, we hope to have 50 to 100 projects completed. And by the end of this coming fiscal year which ends July 31st, so hopefully by July 31st 2014, our goal is to have 500 projects completed. That is a big and lofty goal! We have the blueprints laid out for how to achieve it, so hopefully we will achieve that goal.
So, you’re heading off to get your Master’s at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in their Technology, Innovation and Education program. How does that fit in to your work with the org?
I have a career goal. I don’t know whether I will achieve it, but godspeed on achieving it. It’s ending education inequity in China—and, if I live long enough—around the world.
So, the way I see it given my current experience, what BEAM is doing is great, but BEAM alone really is not a solution in ending education inequity.
Because as great as it is in having teachers and allowing teachers to realize their project ideas, what quality education really comes down to is having very well-trained “teachers” and I do this in air quotes because I see teachers as those who impart knowledge.
And I think in the current system, at least in the current education sphere, the way to have the best knowledge imparters, is not through humans because from my perspective you can never have a perfectly-trained teacher in every single classroom around the world. The amount of resources it takes to do that is incredible.
I think to achieve that goal, it’s going to be outside my lifetime. But what technology can do is replace that. It can take the place of the knowledge imparter. As in if you develop these beautiful programs where students can learn at their own pace and programs that can tailor to not only students who learn faster or slower, but who learn differently, who fundamentally have different ways of learning.
If we can create these types of programs through technology, technology is going to be able to achieve far more than what any individual teacher can do.
Because if you’re one teacher in a classroom of 20 or 30 or even if you got really lucky and you only have a classroom of only 10 or 15 students, it’s really hard for you to be able to give individualized attention and learning to every single student.
So, my ideal classroom in the future, not in the future, in the next 5-10 years is to have technology as the knowledge imparters. The ones who are teaching math, teaching the ABC’s, who are teaching—as you get older—calculus, and algebra and US History or whatever it is. And the human being, the human teacher in the classroom, they become facilitators.
They’re the ones who are there for emotional needs, for pairing students together who are struggling or who are doing well. They are the people who facilitate the progress of the classroom, rather than the ones who are teaching you what 1+1 equals, or how to do algebra, or how to memorize chemistry formulas et cetera. So, that, in my mind, is the ultimate solution.
So, what I really want to learn is how to integrate the newest and coolest trends and innovations in technology effectively into the classroom. And that’s why I chose the technology course.
What do you have planned for your relationship with BEAM after Harvard?
I’m coming back to China. I may or may not come back as BEAM’s CEO depending on BEAMs own capacity to pay salary.
[pullquote]I have a career goal. It’s ending education inequity in China—and, if I live long enough—around the world.[/pullquote]
And, to be honest, even if BEAM can pay salary, I would rather they hire a different CEO and that’s because I’m probably the only person who’s willing to do—well, not the only person—but one of only three people in the world willing to do work for free work for BEAM, so whether I am paid or not I am always happy to give time, so if we have salary, I would rather them pay someone else.
How did you assemble your initial core team?
We have a core team of 5. We have like 8 interns. Most of the core team came through almost luck, I guess.
I met my partner at a social event. It wasn’t even like she was initially interested in BEAM. She was doing an interview with a NGO based in Beijing and she just asked if she could interview me and during her 10 minute presentation, all these people decided to donate.
She came back to me like: “Here, I raised all this money for you through my 10 minute speech.” And then we got talking from there and then after a couple of lunches, she decided to join the founding team and get involved.
That was fairly early on, in the first couple of months of BEAM’s operations. From there, it was one of her friends who wanted to join on a trial basis.
And then another core manager, the one who manages all the incoming projects and grant-giving, she started with us as an intern and she was a college student and the reason why she was introduced to us was that her professor is one of my close friends.
So, the team kind of came together randomly, to be honest, and it wasn’t: “I was looking for this profile and I went out and hired for it and someone came along”. So, what we really relied on in this first year or so of operation is really individuals who have the passion and they demonstrate the passion of wanting to join the team and believing in the vision of this organization.
And most of them worked for free for at least six, seven months for BEAM on a part-time basis. So, it wasn’t that we were hiring for someone hoping they were a good fit and we interviewed people to see if they were a good fit, it was individuals deciding and demonstrating through hard work that they were a good fit for the organization.
What about funding? What were some of your funding milestones of the last year?
There were a couple of easy breathers that were really interesting. It was somebody coming to us like: “we’re organizing this charity event but we forgot to get a charity. And the event is in three days. Do you want the proceeds?” Yeah! [Laughs] So, those are great.
Our own anniversary party brought in quite a bit. Our anniversary brought in the biggest chunk we’ve received to date. Besides that—and this is something I often mention a lot, when you start a venture, often the people who are the first donors are not the ones who believe in your vision or believe in your mission or think this is going to be the next big thing, it’s a series people who believe in you. So, it’s a lot of my family and friends around me who really believe in what I can do.
They’re the individual donors who sponsored pretty much the first year of operation. They’re the ones, the reasons why we were able to survive the first year. And now we’re really targeting MNCs and CSR groups to get much bigger chunks of donations.
How much did you raise?
I don’t remember exactly. In the anniversary we were able to sponsor 23 projects? But now we approach CSR projects and ask can you sponsor 50 projects, or can you sponsor X number of projects?
So, the projects aren’t necessarily that expensive?
Yea, some of the projects are really, really cheap. Our cheapest project this year was 391 RMB. They range. I would say on average, the average project is around 1000RMB.
What are some of the more creative projects that come to mind?
There are a couple that are my favorite. One of them is called the MP3 Library. This teacher, instead of buying an MP3 [player] for every single student—since they may take it home, and possibly lose it or lose interest after a week—she created an MP3 renting library.
And based on good behavior or good scores or whatever, after getting a certain number of points from classroom participation or whatever it is, you could rent an MP3. And on each MP3—she’s an English teacher—there are English songs, English poems, there are rhymes to help you remember grammar points and sentence structure, things like that.
You rent it for however long and when you come back with it, you turn it in and do a report on whatever you learned. What she found was that through this MP3 library was: one, it’s a lot cheaper than buying every kid something. And this becomes an incentive for kids to behave better and participate more in class.
And she also found that kids don’t get bored of the MP3s. Because one of this teacher’s friend also wanted to do an MP3 thing where she bought everybody something—not through us—but the kids kind of lost them over time and lost interest.
But with what this teacher did through her project, it was one semester long, she saw a 109% increase in test scores. Like, the kids essentially doubled, more than doubled their average scores in her 3 or 4 English classes. So, I think that’s one of the coolest projects.
Another one that I like a lot is called Ukelele project. This is also coming from an English teacher. He also taught music. Or, he decided to teach music because he wanted to give the kids access to a music curriculum for the first time.
So, he bought ukuleles. He bought six ukuleles through our donor support. And he taught the kids to play really simple chords and taught the kids to compose on the ukeleles. But then he used the songs kids composed and made English rhymes that again helped with remembering grammar points like “I, am, you, are, he, she, is” and used that in English kouyu classrooms. That also worked incredibly well. I thought that was a very well-rounded project that integrated music very intelligently. Very creative. Both of these were in Yunnan.
Then in Beijing we have projects like ‘GeGe Jiejie’ (哥哥姐姐, meaning:Big Brother, Big Sister), and that’s an ongoing, cumulative, comprehensive project that develops children via their interest talent, and extracurricular activities. It gives them extracurricular access but it also provides English and math tutoring, so that project is much more comprehensive and we spend a lot more resources on Gege Jiejie.
While you are in your grad program, will you be managing BEAM or will you be more hands-off?
I’m gonna have weekly meetings with the executive team, and I’m going to get weekly reports from the executive team covering what they’re up to and what they need from me.
For example, if I need to help connect them to this person, or if they’re running an event and I need to help them find locations.
What I’m doing this morning is doing an application to the Harvard Innovation Lab. I really want BEAM to be part of that. So, I will actually be, not that hands off. And I’ll remain in the role of CEO.
[pullquote]So, my ideal classroom in the next 5-10 years is to have technology as the knowledge imparters. The ones who are teaching math, teaching the ABC’s, who are teaching—as you get older—calculus, and algebra and US History or whatever it is. And the human being, the human teacher in the classroom, they become facilitators. That, in my mind, is the ultimate solution.[/pullquote]
And I will do a lot of development from the US side, basically fundraising. Because it’s so much easier to do fundraising in the US, to be honest. And we also have the structure to do fundraising in the US because we have a bank account there and we have legal status there.
Earlier you mentioned speaking to high school and college kids, do you usually speak at schools?
I get invited to speak often. Most recently, at a WEMUN expo which is a Model United Nations event. High school and college kids were together for a massive MUN conference over 4 days. In total, there were 1300-1500 kids. That’s the largest crowd I’ve spoken to. Other times, I do panels, like at Beida. Or startup conferences.
You’re like a local celebrity!
[Laughs] Not quite! That would actually help with fundraising.
BEAM is currently in the middle of a Fundly campaign. You can support or donate at http://fundly.com/bridging-education-and-mobility