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A 35-year-old who dropped out of high school had a vision of a utopian future for China, the US, and the world — and it's led her to the forefront of a tech startup worth $3 billion

VIPKid CEO Cindy Mi has a bold vision.
VIPKid CEO Cindy Mi has a bold vision. Courtesy of VIPKid
  • The Chinese education startup VIPKid, which connects fluent English-speaking teachers with Chinese students, raised $500 million in April for a valuation of over $3 billion.
  • The company is led by its 35-year-old high-school dropout founder, Cindy Mi, who believes the company can help bridge cultural gaps between China, the US, and elsewhere while making high-quality education accessible and increasing interactions between people of different cultures.
  • The company faces stiff competition but has thus far succeeded in large part because of its fervent community of more than 60,000 teachers, who generally seem enthusiastic about both the mission and the opportunity for supplemental income.
  • At the same time, some teachers of color have reported experiencing rude, awkward, ignorant, or racist incidents with parents and students.
  • The company has faced criticism from some teachers of color who say the company is not being proactive enough about addressing the issue.

Cindy Mi, the 35-year-old founder and CEO of the online-class startup VIPKid, remembers the day the education system failed her.

Mi was 14 and had just moved to Harbin, a city in northeast China. The move cost her half a semester of school, and she was severely behind the rest of her new class in math. With a class of 60 students, her teacher had little time to help Mi catch up.

A vicious cycle ensued: With little time to personalize lessons, the teacher would ignore Mi's requests to further explain concepts. Later, the teacher would call on Mi to answer questions, but - not understanding the concepts - she couldn't answer. The teacher became convinced Mi either didn't care to learn or was incapable.

Eventually, Mi withdrew into herself, reading science-fiction magazines hidden in her notebooks during class. One day, Mi recalls, the teacher noticed, strolled over to her desk, ripped up the books, threw them in her face, and told her to get out and never come back.

"I left the classroom like a hero, but I had to return to school the next day, begging for her to take me back," Mi told Business Insider in a recent interview. "I lost all my confidence in learning."

The anecdote is something like Mi's origin story for VIPKid, the education company she founded in 2013 to connect fluent English-speaking teachers with young Chinese students for one-on-one 25-minute virtual tutoring lessons, in which students are taught English through an immersive curriculum that covers simple concepts like holidays and more complex topics like current events.

The Beijing-based startupraised $500 millionearlier this year at a valuation of over $3 billion and grew its revenue to $760 million last year from $300 million in 2016. The company said in August that it has over 500,000 students and over 60,000 teachers on the platform, close to double what was reported last year, and a massive jump from 3,305 students and 404 educators in 2015.

That makes it one of the fastest-growing startups not only in education tech, in which companies use technology to improve learning, but in all of China.

In her relentlessly positive and earnest way, Mi said she didn't blame the teacher for her inability to teach her. In a class of 60 students, she said, it would be impossible to provide the special attention many students need. But it is why she founded VIPKid.

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