Small Business

Entrepreneur's Journal: Launching a Language School in Beijing


Corinne Dillon, 25, started Discover Mandarin to teach the language over the Internet

The Entrepreneur: Corinne Dillon, 25, founder of Discover Mandarin Background: From grade school through Harvard, the New Jersey native was fascinated by China and struggled to learn Mandarin, eventually relocating to Beijing in 2007. She finally felt comfortable writing and speaking a few months after studying with Chinese language tutors who favored conversations over textbooks. Inspired by her breakthrough, she quit her job at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in 2009 to establish a Mandarin-language teaching business with her husband, with $25,000 of their savings. The Company: The Beijing-based business has 10 full-time teachers, including Dillon's original five tutors, who give live, one-on-one lessons over the Internet to predominantly English-speaking students located around the world. Since launching in April, Discover Mandarin has landed 30 customers who pay between $175 and $1,500 for packages of classes, and Dillon expects revenue to reach $100,000 in 2011. Her Journal: Most people's Chinese names are transliterations of their native names. For me, when I was at Harvard, I had a professor from Beijing who named me Di Qing. It was the name of a real Song Dynasty general, a man. My teacher said, "I think you are very lihai, which means 'fierce,' and you have potential to go to China and do great things." There is a saying that if Di Qing is in the vanguard, you'll win. I don't know that I am deserving, but I am very proud of this name. I had spent two summers in Beijing and lived in Hong Kong for three years as a kid when my dad was working for Avon. When I graduated, I knew I was going to be involved with China. The language was a challenge I wanted to beat. A lot of Americans have this misconception that learning Chinese is impossible. I am living, breathing proof that that is not true. I want to give people the linguistic tools to interact with China in a positive way. Along with my husband and five of my own Chinese teachers-cum-friends, I started Discover Mandarin in November 2009. It is registered in the U.S. but we're based in Beijing. We're a young company—we now have 10 full-time teachers and some of my employees are younger than me. The economy just opened up in 1978, so it's newer, it's fresher, and people have drive and entrepreneurial ideas. In the U.S., someone my age might not have had this opportunity. If I'd stayed in the U.S., I'd probably be working at a big corporation and wouldn't have been inspired by daily contact with the scrappy, "only in China" brand of entrepreneurs. The hardest thing as an entrepreneur, even in the U.S., is that you get up every morning and you have to be your own best advocate and your own cheerleader. No one else can give you that positive mental energy every day. When we first got started, some days I needed to be on the subway by 6 a.m. to get to our office by 7. This is difficult and unpleasant in Beijing, a huge, sprawling metropolis that has the worst traffic and longest average commute time of any city in China. If you ask Chinese people what China's biggest challenge is, most will say there are too many Chinese people. Even though I can do the bulk of the work from home, I still make an effort to come to the office at least four times a week. I love my teachers—I love speaking and practicing my Chinese with them, brainstorming with them, and talking to them. Commuting also keeps me on a good schedule, while at home it's easy to get distracted by laundry, ironing, and, of course, Chinese soap operas. I also still deal directly with the students: They're mostly high schoolers but we've also had undergrads and business professionals from the U.S., an Italian journalist, and an Australian professor who needed to prepare for high-level meetings with Chinese officials. I am hoping for a big influx in the next few weeks for the back-to-school push and have increased capacity to handle 100 students. My favorite Chinese idiom is "Be prepared; have no worries." It's a good motto for business. If you prepare in advance, you'll be good. I'm ready.

—As told to Venessa Wong

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