Trust yourself — I feel like imposter syndrome creeps up on me every single day of my life when I show up to work. I shrink in the presence of people who I feel have more work/life experience than I do because I instantly feel insecure around them. But as it turns out after speaking with them, I’m either generally on the same wavelength as other people or others are facing the same issues that I experience. For example, I’m in a design leadership program called On Deck Design with some truly stellar individuals, but I realized that many folx are experiencing the same things I am as a leader and are looking for insight and advice, too.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tán Ho.
Tán Ho is the Co-founder and Chief Experience Officer at Fiveable, a social learning company that seeks to democratize learning and empower high school students through educational content, community, and collaboration. With his role spanning design, growth marketing, product development, and student success, Tán has helped Fiveable grow into a startup that supports more than 4M students across the globe. When he’s not staying up late contemplating the future of our education system, you can usually find Tán advocating for BIPOC and queer rights or experimenting with authentic Vietnamese recipes.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up as a first generation Asian American in a low-income household in upstate New York as part of a small family of three, including my mother and brother. My mother worked hard to provide my brother and I opportunities that she didn’t have as a young woman in Vietnam. I don’t have a relationship with my biological father, but throughout our childhood, we had a few father figures that came in and out of our lives who helped look after us.
I was raised to assimilate into society, speaking more English than Vietnamese. I felt the pressure of wanting to be like every other American family, but in that process I felt like I lost a huge connection to my culture from a young age. There was an expectation set that we needed to work hard in order to get ahead so my brother and I grew up playing sports and studied hard for school. Our house on South Street was the house to go to — everyone would come over to play basketball, kickball, baseball, and to go swimming in our pool.
When we first got a computer, I helped my mom write emails which improved both her computer proficiency as well as her English skills. That’s most likely why I feel so comfortable with tech these days and that early exposure ended up giving me a set of skills that have become invaluable to the work I do today. In exchange, my mother would teach me how to cook all different kinds of meals, such as bitter melon soup, or banh xeo, or my favorite: her homemade chả giò (Vietnamese egg rolls). Her knack for making sure other people feel loved and respected through food definitely rubbed off on me. It’s one of the things I am most grateful for to this day.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I’m particularly fond of the Best Buddies organization that I was a part of in high school because I interacted with people that weren’t identical to me, but we shared a common purpose in being a resource to other students and advocating for our peers who may have had a more difficult time than others. Being a part of Best Buddies also drew out the empath in me — in Asian culture, folx tend to mind their own business, but I felt just as strongly then as I do now that no student should get left behind, whatever their circumstances may be.
I was a part of our school’s campaign to “Stop the R Word” and it showed me how indifferent some people were to the plight of others. I vowed to not be that kind of person if I could help it.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Making a difference means being a positive force for good that impacts someone else other than you, no matter how small or large the interaction. Whether it’s opening the door for someone or helping your friend (or a stranger) pay their bills to keep the lights on, you are actively contributing to the betterment and well-being of another person — and that’s to be admired.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
The education system in the US is significantly fractured and unsustainable in its current state. The cost of higher education is skyrocketing along with a societal pressure that you must attend college to be successful. High school is already stressful enough without adding college into the mix.
Our team at Fiveable wants to make sure we’re helping young students grow into socially aware individuals who have access to all of the right resources and tools to reach whatever definition of success they have set for themselves. In order to do this, it’s a moral imperative to make education more equitable and open to all, rather than play into the tiered system that currently exists: the wealthy and everyone else. But in order to do so, we have to play the game before we’re able to change it from the bottom up by creating a student-led movement.
Democratizing education is difficult because it was built to be that way. However, where we fit in allows us to provide free to low-cost resources to all students. For example, we don’t put up paywalls to access our content because we believe that no one should be gatekeeping knowledge itself. Students can find content almost anywhere on the internet — they just need someone to help sort through it all.
We’re here to show students that they don’t have to go through life alone, especially when it comes to their own education and personal ambitions. Most of all, we fundamentally want all students to know that they too can achieve whatever they set their mind to, despite the obstacles that are put in their paths.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I always knew that there was something inherently wrong with how we view education. For many, we pursue it in order to climb the social ladder and seek out high-paying jobs that we think will make us feel fulfilled. Unfortunately, the reality now is that many students have lost their willingness to learn just for the sake of learning.
When I met my co-founder Amanda DoAmaral on Reddit, she instantly sparked a fire inside of me after our initial meeting because at the time she was a teacher watching all of this happen firsthand. We discussed how students, especially those from the underrepresented communities (that we are both part of), are facing the effects of a system that wasn’t designed for them. She is one of the fiercest advocates for students that I know and her passion gave me a sense of purpose.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My 20s were rough because I felt extremely aimless. What was I doing that was actually going to impact the world on a global scale? Nothing. I was trying to help companies make a profit through my freelance work, but I didn’t feel passionate about it, and at times, it was actually soul-draining.
I just never saw myself in entrepreneurship because I knew only a little about it. I never felt that I could pursue it to the level that I wanted. I didn’t have friends or family that could relate, either. I didn’t feel confident nor did I feel equipped for success if I was to pursue something on my own. It wasn’t until I learned more about Fiveable and Amanda that I decided to pull the trigger, not only because I had a chance to make an impact on young people, but also because there were already other people out there doing what I wanted to do.
Suddenly, it didn’t feel as lonely or as unachievable anymore. I actually felt empowered and unstoppable getting to know Amanda, realizing that we were approaching a moment in time where, if done correctly, we would make waves in the education space. Edtech is an industry I could clearly see making a hugely positive influence on young people during one of the most important times of their lives.
While we started off with AP test prep, that’s ultimately not what we cared about as an organization. It was the betterment of young people and aligning ourselves to their needs and definition of success, not the one placed upon them by society. For the first time in my life, I feel devoted to a mission and a cause that I am proud of.
We now serve millions of students every year, and we built that out of nothing except sheer willpower, a dream, and the trust of a new generation of students trying to find their way in a world that hasn’t been easy for them. As a millennial, I feel that on a deep level and why I care so much for their continued wellbeing and prosperity.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
When I joined Fiveable as one of the first employees, I saw that Amanda had laid a pretty solid foundation for the time and resources that she had. She was a one-woman operation and did a fantastic job building out the precursors to all of the departments that exist at Fiveable today.
However, she was only one person.
When I first joined, I saw an immediate need to improve our branding and outreach efforts. This involved a complete revamp our website and messaging and ability to nurture our small student/teacher community that was forming. We then had to figure out what else our audience wanted or expected from us as we continued to grow. Was it more resources? More teachers? More opportunities to build something cool? As it turns out, it was all of the above!
Since the beginning, we have built Fiveable with students. They always communicated their needs to us and that’s how we aligned our strategy. We tested out growth experiments that brought immediate value to students, such as quick diagnostic quizzes or building out a new trivia system. Once we found out what worked best, we doubled down on that channel.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’ve experienced so many types of things over the course of Fiveable’s journey, whether that was flying around the country throwing happy hours for teachers, jet-setting to different cities for investor meetings, or getting to change my title several times as I navigated through various roles at Fiveable.
But nothing comes close to the moment where, just a few days ago, I was sitting on the couch and casually catching up with Amanda for our regular one-on-one. During our conversation, she threw out the idea of me becoming her co-founder. I never pushed for that title officially, but we’ve been building Fiveable together since almost the beginning, and created a whole new family since. I felt like we had powered through the last 2 years and my sole goal was to not let the company die and to continue growing our community, but I never gave anything like this too much brain space.
It might feel like a small thing to other people, but for me, it transformed the way I thought seemingly overnight. The fire inside me grew even bigger and I instantly knew what I had to do next to continue growing our company and the team.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
When we first started Fiveable, we built our original website completely on WordPress. Every article or video was created on their own static page. It was super basic and there weren’t any account management features made, it just literally was a space to post our content. However, the way that we set it up meant that you had to manually update every page or link or emoji whenever you needed to change something.
At Fiveable, we tend to emojify our content as a way to break down a lesson or important fact through silly visual representation. Plus, our students love it. But when our WordPress site got injected with random code, we had to restore the website to make sure the code was eliminated. This ended up turning all of the emojis on our site to question marks and I realized what a hassle it was going to be to fix all of that. It was literally thousands of emojis all over the site spread across several different pages and posts.
Instead of fixing the issue on our WordPress site, I decided to learn how to completely build a new website in Webflow which feels a lot smoother and doesn’t have the security issues that WordPress does. Thanks to Aaron (Head of Engineering) and the rest of the engineering team, our website is built completely dynamically and we no longer have to scour through hundreds of manual pages to update small things. Our content had already been moved to our new React website and there was no need for the WordPress site anymore.
Lesson learned: invest in engineering, invest in your web infrastructure, and build dynamically — it’ll save you hassle in the long run.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Our wonderful investors, Kimmy and Sergio Paluch from Beta Boom, have been an absolute delight to have along the way. They are real people who have faced similar issues as we have, something that feels so genuine and refreshing to have in a support network. They have always understood the struggles that we were going to face as founders of color in a predominately white space. But they were also real with us in how they felt about certain ideas and how we were approaching things.
It was always clear that they were looking out for our best interests, knowing that this was the first time Amanda or I had been in the entrepreneurship space.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When I participated in our student-run podcast about [LGBTQIA+] Pride, several students pulled us aside and let us know that they identified as such, which was a shock to me but made me feel extremely grateful about the work that we do. They only did so because they felt comfortable with us as people and felt like they were part of a community that cared about them. As a queer founder of color, that made me fiercely protective of them, and as a result, we spun up inclusive spaces for other LGBTQIA+ folx that grew rapidly. Since then, we’ve had many powerful discussions on what intersectional identities means in the modern age, and how we can empower and advocate for other marginalized communities that may feel powerless or unheard.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Every community needs to be resourced with broadband and access to internet. It’s almost criminal that not everyone has access to high quality internet during a time when almost everything was forced to fit into a virtual world.
Every school needs better funding so that teachers have the resources to create and build the classroom spaces that they believe will help their students. Teachers need to be recognized more for the work that they do in building up the next generation of leaders. As of right now, they’re expected to teach students, provide mental health support, serve as a babysitter, and then also fund their own classrooms with salaries that barely support their basic essential needs.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Trust yourself — I feel like imposter syndrome creeps up on me every single day of my life when I show up to work. I shrink in the presence of people who I feel have more work/life experience than I do because I instantly feel insecure around them. But as it turns out after speaking with them, I’m either generally on the same wavelength as other people or others are facing the same issues that I experience. For example, I’m in a design leadership program called On Deck Design with some truly stellar individuals, but I realized that many folx are experiencing the same things I am as a leader and are looking for insight and advice, too.
- Organize your personal and work life — When you’re building a company and live at a startup house, the lines become really blurred. You realize that you were never intentional about setting those boundaries initially, and that catches up to you fast in the form of burnout, strained relationships, and low morale. When I joined Fiveable and moved to Philadelphia, I also had to get a low-paying job working at a restaurant just to have something in my wallet. I’d work there during the day, and then came home to build Fiveable at night. Sometimes, I ended my workday at 4, 5, 6am just to make sure that we kept our momentum up. I don’t recommend this to anyone because it took an extreme hit on my mental health. I had to intentionally carve out time and space for myself and insert breaks into my day where I didn’t think about anything for hours at a time. Now, I actively take naps during my workday, don’t take meetings before 11am, and take advantage of our mental health stipend to make sure I’m doing okay at the end of each week.
- Fight for what’s best for your people, not what others think you should focus on — When you’re a young entrepreneur, you can easily fall into the trap of leaning too far into what people want you to do. You know your audience and your users. You have taken in their needs as your own. Therefore, you’re best equipped to make decisions that would benefit them. As a team, we already have so many ideas and perspectives about how to approach certain situations. We’ve been told to do this, or do that, to try to increase our bottom line — but those things never felt right or aligned with our values. At the end of the day, we will always choose what’s best for our students because what’s best for students is what’s best for our business.
- Invest in your personal growth — Building a startup is one of the biggest gauntlets I will ever be put through. I realized I knew so little coming in about everything from personal relationships to technical skills to anything business-related. This caused me to be arrogant or bold about the wrong things and have uninformed opinions. I began reading and researching everything about my (ideal) role, about what it means to be a startup, and how your decisions, no matter how small, can be interpreted in any which way by a variety of people. Once you’ve accumulated such knowledge, your job is to share that with your team, your direct reports and your interns, to continue tempering those ideals together so that they best represent the company at large.
- Normalize failures and take lessons away from each one — I’ve never failed at so many things in my life until my late 20s. Each one caused me to beat myself into submission and place immense pressure on myself. Success was engrained in me from a young age and I never felt like I measured up when I made a mistake.
But now I thrive on failures, no matter how small. It’s the only way to figure out whether what you’re doing is correct or if you need to pivot in what you’re doing. You need that acknowledgement and validation that what you’re doing isn’t working, could be improved, or is actually on the mark. As I tell my interns, I am a series of failures and that’s how I got to where I am today. I wouldn’t change anything about myself, but I would have changed the way I approached a lot of things and treated many relationships. I couldn’t get to that point without having initially done something about it in the first place.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
An important thing for young people to focus on in order to make an impact on society would be to think about what they need (personally, academically, socially, professionally) to thrive and how they can go about scaling that up for the masses. Once you have those things in place, you feel empowered to pay that forward to other communities that might not have had the same opportunities or resources as you.
For example, when I was younger I needed a male mentor who looked like me and understood the pressures of coming from a family like mine. They could have shown me all of the different things that were possible in the areas that I actually wanted to pursue (Marketing and Design), and not felt pressured to solely pursue a career in medicine. I could have been making an impact earlier than my 20s!
Be that person for someone else because it will change their life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have a conversation with Pete Buttigieg because I’ve been following him since the 2020 Democratic Primary and believe he is going to be one of the main drivers of the Democratic party, along with Lauren Underwood and so many others. I’ve seen his personal growth as time has gone on, and I truly appreciate his vision for America in terms of what government can do to better to serve its people. However, in order to continue supporting him, I’d love to learn more about what he is doing and learning about to make sure that policies he will be implementing won’t harm black, brown, and queer communities. He hasn’t been perfect in this aspect, but it’s our duty to hold all of our politicians responsible, especially those who are genuinely trying to understand a complex geopolitical landscape and make it better.
How can our readers follow you online?
They can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter! Warning: I’m not afraid to advocate for BIPOC representation or discuss queer rights on LinkedIn, nor do I hold back in showing off my dope baking skills on Twitter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!