…surround yourselves with the best mentors and the best support network you can have. Hire a very strong team, who are much smarter than you. You don’t build your company alone. Talk to your partner and your spouse — they will give you invaluable mental support that you need it more than anything else because being the CEO is very lonely. And lastly, reach out for help when you need to — even if it’s just a small thing in your personal life. You can benefit from any help you can get. I reached out for friends to help bring food to me when I’m sick — because I can’t do it all myself. You don’t have to be strong and do it all. You will be surprised how powerful this little help in life can give you, and will help you survive the challenge of being a female founder.
Asa part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ms. Vu Van, a female entrepreneur and the Co-founder & CEO of Silicon Valley-based ELSA, one of the world’s smartest English pronunciation apps. She worked with leading speech scientists, machine learning scientists, and linguists from around the world to create ELSA. Powered by the company’s proprietary AI and speech recognition technology, ELSA scores a learners’ speech to pinpoint individual syllable and phoneme level mistakes with real-time feedback.
Prior to founding ELSA, Vu lived and worked in Vietnam, Singapore, Denmark where she experienced the challenges of an English language learner abroad. She served as an Engagement Manager at Booz & Co, one of the top four global management consulting firms. Vu earned an MBA and a Masters in Education from Stanford University and is originally from Vietnam.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Leaving my previous job at Maersk, I decided to pursue a degree at Stanford. This was not an easy decision, as I was progressing positively with my career at Maersk. I was amongst the Management Trainee program (MISE) and was about to take critical positions. My colleagues were wonderful — I must have had the best boss ever, who was CEO at that time and taught me many valuable lessons. Yet after many years, I realized that it would still not be my ultimate passion developing myself at the corporate and succeeding where I considered my second home. I was still unclear about my passion, yet I knew for a fact that staying at Maersk would make it too comfortable for me to seek my true calling. Then I decided to leave the job and come to the US to pursue MBA degrees at Stanford’s for 2 years to have time looking inside me and find the answer for the hanging question “What do I really care about, and why?” More importantly, to find the courage to follow that call.
That was when I founded ELSA. The stories between me and ELSA come from my personal experience in trying to learn English. I moved to the US for my MBA and Master in Education at Stanford. My first year at Stanford was very challenging because of my inability to speak English fluently, even though I was among the top students in English subject when I studied in Vietnam. A lot of the time, people misunderstood me. I lost confidence and felt quite embarrassed. When I looked around, I was not alone. Most of my international friends who studied abroad had the same shock in the first year. Yet when I discovered this problem, there was no good solution to solve it. When it comes to speaking, people could either go to a speech therapist that costs them $150 an hour, who could listen to them and fix their pronunciation, or they could go to YouTube or watch Netflix, which is a one-way learning solution as there’s no direct feedback to you when you speak it right or wrong.
So I decided to develop ELSA with my co-founder Dr. Anguera to create a proprietary speech recognition technology that helps 1.5 billion English learners around the world speak English fluently and with confidence.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
That was when I and the ELSA team in Vietnam organized 2017 Pronunciation Day, on the occasion of one-year-old ELSA birthday in Vietnam. I was very surprised when the users gave so much love to ELSA, although we did not do much of promoting during the first year ELSA was released. They all said that they fell for ELSA like “love at first sight”, and even wished they had had ELSA at the very beginning of their learning English journey. That made me very emotional and was even more motivated to develop the app.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I have always considered a good “product” to be of vital importance for a startup, especially a tech startup. You need to have a product that can be an innovative solution to a crucial problem in a big market, with the potential to become the market leader. For ELSA, it is the first-ever application of speech recognition technology, powered by A.I, in language teaching. ELSA is the solution for the market of 1.5 billion language learners around the world. It has come to my attention that they don’t have many options when it comes to pronunciation or communication; either they seek help from speech therapists to listen and fix their accent in details at around 150 USD per hour, or they go to Netflix or Youtube which is a one-way method. ELSA was created to bring about the affordable interactive method of learning pronunciation with expert standards right in your hand. In the future, not only can ELSA help you with your English pronunciation, but also other languages because pronunciation is the basic foundation to learn any language.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As we just finished Series A funding round, this helps us accelerate our growth and potential in new markets, such as Japan, Indonesia, and India. The support and resources from Gradient Ventures are aligned with our company’s focus on AI. We look forward to working with their team of experts as we scale our global team and advanced AI capabilities to meet the international demand for English speaking skills. Later this year, we will also introduce new social features to foster community-based learning and build out more advanced AI capabilities to evaluate other speech elements like rhythm and intonation for a more complete evaluation of learner’s speech.
Besides, after a successful pilot program of the educational platform in Vietnam, we will open the teacher platform offering to a global market.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
There are a lot of data that shows female founder usually raises less money than male founders on average. There are a lot of reasons why this is the case. Female founders are usually being under-estimated of their potentials or their ability to build great products that can change the world. There’s always a bias that women will build products or work on ideas that are not bold enough, or not technical enough, and more a lifestyle business that has less of growth potential. This is not always true — and we need to be able to educate our investors about how big our market is because investors are not always aware.
I think women usually think they can’t have it all — both family and career. And usually make a choice early on what they need to sacrifice. While I believe it’s hard, and it’s a personal choice what we want, but I do believe if you truly want both, you can make it happen. 1) I think a strong family is a great foundation that can help you go very far in your career. It gives you the balance and the inner peace that you need, and in those moments where you feel lonely and overwhelmed, it’s your family that will help keep you grounded and help give you the boost of energy. 2) And a successful career (however you define your own success) will allow you to pursue your passion and what matters to you. At the end of the day, just make sure it’s your personal choice that makes you happy — whether you want family or career or both. Just don’t let that choice be pre-defined for you and you limit yourself to what people think.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Overall, being a female startup founder probably brings you a bit more challenges than if you were a male founder because you need to handle all startup responsibilities just like any male partner would do. But on top of that, you also have your own commitment as a woman. Some of the female founder mentors here once told me, you probably have to put in 300% of your efforts when you are a female founder — and while it’s hard to really quantify that 300%, i think it’s somewhat true being a female founder myself.
My tips: 1) don’t let being woman constraint you in thinking your capabilities are limited. People said female founders raise less $$ than male founders, and that might be true statistically, but you will never beat the odds and be successful if you want to stick to statistics. Be the one that stands out and go beyond all these statistics, 2) don’t let people define who you are just because you are women. Some people say women usually don’t pursue big ideas because the risk is too big — if you have some big bold ideas, go for it, 3) women are more discouraged by failure — and blame themselves. While male partners fail, they talk about it proudly and share their failure lessons. When females didn’t succeed, they blame themselves first. I think we should be more forgiving to ourselves, and even if we didn’t succeed the first time, it’s OK. Failure is part of the learning process, and the only true failure is when you stop trying again.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I think the best way is to surround yourselves with the best mentor and the best support network you can have. Hire a very strong team, who are much smarter than you. You don’t build your company alone. Talk to your partner and your spouse — they will give you invaluable mental support that you need it more than anything else because being the CEO is very lonely. And lastly, reach out for help when you need to — even if it’s just a small thing in your personal life. You can benefit from any help you can get. I reached out for friends to help bring food to me when I’m sick — because I can’t do it all myself. You don’t have to be strong and do it all. You will be surprised how powerful this little help in life can give you, and will help you survive the challenge of being a female founder.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There’s a story at the beginning of ELSA, I came to a teacher who is a leading expert in the field of speech recognition technology (who, according to many experts, is considered a “legacy”). I wanted to ask him to do technical advice for ELSA. At that time, because I did not know much about this area, so I did not know how famous he was, I simply thought that he had a lot of experience and I could learn and ask for advice from him, hence I asked him to be the technical consultant. After some time of persuasion, he finally agreed — and that is one of the factors that determine ELSA’s success to date. Many experts in this field are thrilled to know why ELSA could have such a top-notch consultant because he is very busy and usually rejects invitations from the world’s largest corporations despite great offers. Later when I worked closely with him, I courageously asked him why he accepted my invitation at that time, he answered honestly: “I can see that you are quite desperate, and you seem to really need help to achieve your mission,” he answered, and laughed. I think sometimes ignorance is a bliss, and it’s OK to show to others our weakness, you never know what help you get.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Growing up in a family where my parents strongly believe in the value of education and how it can change your lives and the lives of many others, I have been influenced by them. When I was at Stanford for my MBA, being overwhelmed by how good their education system is, and how that really transforms my personal life, I realized how privileged I was to receive this world-class education, and I also wish I could bring a part of this education system back home to Vietnamese people. And there’s no better way for me to do that than to equip myself to be a better educator, starting with obtaining a Master in Education degree at Stanford School of Education, where it’s known for its education ideology, education philosophy and where I can learn with the best educators and professors in this field.
I co-founded a fund called Vietseeds. The idea of establishing Vietseeds stems from the desire to pay back to the community. I find myself very fortunate because there were many people along the way to help me, by bringing me conditions to study, pursue my passion for the work I want to do. When I was admitted to Stanford, I was also awarded a great scholarship from Vietnamese alumni, and thanks to that I was able to pursue my dream of studying at the world’s top school. My life has changed a lot since then. Now that I have developed myself, I wish to pay back to the Vietnamese community and create similar conditions for poor students in Vietnam who struggle to go to school, so that they also have the opportunity to change their lives like the one I had.
Having been in contact with many brilliant and hardworking students but due to financial difficulties, they had to give up their dreams. I wish there would be no such circumstances in the future. It is believed that education is the most stable foundation for young people because when you have the knowledge, you will secure your future even if your starting point may be lower than others. Through education, you can change the life not only of yourself but also of your family and those around you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is a quote from John F. Kennedy: “Those who dare to fail miserably can achieve greatly.” If you stay in your safe zone for too long, one day you will be stumbling upon the inherent potentials of yourself unknowingly. That will kill your future. It is often said that people tend to regret what they do NOT do, rather than what they have done. So have the gut to know what you want, and have the courage to do that.