From Iowa City to China

Business teaches English to children in China with tutors in Iowa City

By Tom Snee, Iowa Now

China has about 100 million children learning English, and a pair of University of Iowa students have started a new business to help them.

Western Wise started offering real-time English language tutoring services for children in China over the Internet in February and has today about 25 clients, nine tutors, and a total of 10 employees. The business, which is headquartered in the Bedell Entrepreneurship Learning Laboratory (BELL) student-owned business incubator, is owned by Emily Roberts, a senior majoring in Spanish and finance, and Chen Cui, a doctoral engineering student.


Chen Cui, a doctoral engineering student, and Emily Roberts, a senior majoring in Spanish and finance, are the owners of Western Wise, which in February started offering real-time English language tutoring services for children in China over the Internet. Photo by Matt Jansen.

Roberts came up with the idea when she worked with students from China as a writing tutor in the Tippie College of Business’ Frank Business Communications Center. The students, she says, knew English vocabulary and grammar, but they still had a difficult time communicating in the language.

“The way they were taught English in China is very different because it’s designed to help them take standardized English tests, not to actually communicate,” says Roberts. Though she can’t speak Chinese herself, she started thinking about how she could work with students in China to improve their conversational English so they’re more prepared when they come to an English-speaking country and the idea of starting a business came to mind.

She turned to the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC) for help and started to attend the organization’s meetings and mixers. She participated in JPEC’s six-week startup program in the summer of 2014 and hung out in its THINC lab co-working facility, where she eventually met up with Cui, a native of China. They developed the idea for the business together while continuing to participate in JPEC activities: the Okoboji Entrepreneurial Institute, business model competitions, elevator pitch competitions, and working with mentors like Lynn Allendorf and Jeff Nock.

They also had a chance to pitch to a celebrity entrepreneur, Daymond John. The star ofShark Tank visited the UI campus in April and was part of a panel of Iowa business leaders and entrepreneurs who heard pitches from three teams of UI students who own startups.

All of these efforts provided sound advice, experience, network-building opportunities, and thousands of dollars in startup capital.

“Without any of that help, we wouldn’t have been able to start this business,” says Roberts.

As the business neared its launch, they hired a linguist to develop a fun, interactive curriculum designed to teach practical, American-style communication lessons, as well. They also hired tutors to teach the classes, mostly early-rising UI linguistics, communication, or education students and early-risers who can wake up early enough to teach the classes between 7 and 9 a.m. in Iowa, to account for the 13-hour time difference.

Roberts and Cui say Western Wise is not a unique business, as thousands of others provide a similar service to children in China. But they think that their fun and friendly style will set Western Wise apart, and with 100 million children in China learning English, the market is deep as an ocean.

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