Our intern, UW Lavin Scholar Sarah Jacob, sat down with Create33 member Tina Tran Neville, CEO of Lana Learn for this interview. Tina was recently recognized by the Puget Sound Business Journal as a “40 Under 40” honoree, and will be representing Seattle in a US Senate women’s entrepreneurship table in Washington DC on 9/23. Read more about it here!
What was your inspiration for Lana Learn?
When I was a child, my parents and I had left Vietnam and came to the United States as refugees. It’s hard to get a job in America if you don’t speak English. In order to support our family, my parents started a series of small businesses, and that really was my first taste of entrepreneurship. I was the first in my family to go to college. After graduate school, I joined the U.S. Foreign Service. I worked overseas for awhile, and then I moved on to my next career, a teacher in Washington DC. Utilizing new skills as an educator, I returned to my entrepreneurial roots and launched my first company Transcend Academy. Our focus at Transcend was to help students get into U.S. universities. A few years later, I moved to Seattle and with my husband we launched my second company, Lana Learn, a global online English language platform. Our mission with Lana is to harness our expertise in education and international markets to advance English education as a tool to increase academic and professional opportunities, improve economic development, and build cultural bridges.
What tools did you and your parents use to learn English?
We would watch Oprah, read books, and practice speaking it in our community. One moment really stands out for me. In elementary school, we had these hardcover books with large print letters that kids would pick up if they’re just starting to read. One day I came home and realized my mom was reading my second-grade book on her own! Looking back at it, I realize she was learning English alongside me.
How do you differentiate your curriculum from other English tutoring sites?
Most people who are teaching online lack a background in teaching; you could be 20 years old and traveling the world while teaching English. For Lana, we curate a community of qualified teachers to deliver our curriculum. Further, we take a uniquely holistic approach to our curriculum. Many sites focus solely on pronunciation, but Lana enables students to practice writing and learning basic grammar rules in parallel to speaking.
How do you believe that technology is changing the education system?
Access to education has scaled globally. Technology has enabled us to find new ways to connect people and change the way people learn. Technology allows teachers in the United States to connect with students all across the globe. A lot of English teaching is now done through Skype, Zoom, or Google Hangouts. As a former teacher, I’ve found that people learn in different ways, and just speaking to someone isn’t always enough for them to grasp a language. So, at Lana Learn we built our own video conferencing platform, which includes a whiteboard to help students have a more immersive experience. They can see the instructor and the whiteboard while also practicing writing the language. We also added a multi-language chat feature with real-time translation, so that students who speak Thai, for example, can communicate with English-speaking instructors.
Do you see technology breaking the barrier of learning a second language?
Absolutely. Technology allows us to scale at an affordable cost. As we progress, we plan to use machine learning to make this more accessible to more students at lower costs.
What’s been the biggest challenge in growing Lana Learn?
The technology roll out for China. Due to the “great firewall,” we have to locate our servers in China and obtain separate business licenses through much red tape. Also, to receive funds from China we have to set up a physical bank account in China. China is 15 percent of the online English learning market so we can’t ignore the market, but we must carefully devise an effective strategy and the infrastructure to serve that market. Our first three priority countries are China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Our plans over the next six months include testing, polishing our service with customer feedback, and achieving growth targets.
Last, how do you see Lana Learn impacting our economy and startup ecosystem?
With all of our teachers based in the United States, we are proud to be creating jobs here in our home country while having a global impact on economic development. With such a strong immigrant and international affairs community in Seattle, it’s important to us that we’re creating opportunities locally. Lastly, it’s thrilling to demonstrate that education technology (EdTech) can scale globally! EdTech is a great example of American innovation that can benefit people around the world