Shanghai Entrepreneurs: Kevin Chen and Jiang Yongyue

By Alyssa Wieting, September 13, 2016

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Shanghai is a city of entrepreneurship. In our new series, 'Shanghai Entrepreneurs,' we talk to entrepreneurs from different backgrounds and businesses about their motivations, experiences and what they have learned along the way.  

You could say that Kevin Chen and Jiang Yongyue are the dream team in China when it comes to educational startups. With over 20 years of entrepreneurial experience between them, they joined forces in 2014 to create the language learning startup italki. Chen and Jiang tell us what made this experience different than the rest.

Tell us what you do in fewer than 50 words.
italki helps users become fluent in a foreign language through online lessons with native teachers. Personal lessons help you learn the language of your choice while making authentic human connections through language and culture.

Why did you choose Shanghai?
We didn’t consciously decide on Shanghai as a place to create our startup; we were both already here. Shanghai is an exciting, dynamic and international city where many world cultures come together. For a company that seeks to connect people around the world, it’s a great place to be.

What was the inspiration for your business?
There are so many people who fail to learn a language because they never use the language. In China, many people have ‘mute English’ (yaba yingwen, 哑巴英文). I (Chen) had the same experience learning French in school. I spent a lot of time studying grammar and vocabulary, but couldn’t have a basic conversation.

With the Internet there’s no reason why people can’t become fluent with guidance from amazing teachers from around the world. We really believe in the human side of language learning and the value in communicating with real people (and not just practicing with bots or games). Our users often tell us inspiring stories about how their teachers in other countries helped them get their dream job, pass a test or just helped them appreciate traveling in a foreign country.

Why did you decide to co-found your company?
Making an idea come to life is a daunting task, and it helps to have a partner to share that risk and responsibility. Doing a startup in China is even tougher as a foreigner, so it helps to have a Chinese partner. Since our job is connecting people internationally, it helps to have both local and foreign perspectives.

What makes your startup unique?
italki is unusual in that we’re a company based in China that serves a global user base, whereas most companies that come to or start in China are focused on the Chinese market. We have team members that come from all over the world, and this helps us understand our global users.

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