In recognition of International Women's Day and GoEast's 6th Anniversary later this month, I interviewed one of the co-founders of GoEast about her experience starting a business, being a female CEO, and starting a company with an all-female founding team. Emily Wang (王蓉), CoFounder and CEO of GoEast Language School, has an MA in Comparative English Literature from Fudan University and a BA in Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and English Language and Literature from Beijing Foreign Studies University.
"I never regarded myself as a leader or entrepreneur. For a long time I was ashamed to call myself a CEO."
Emily's background and training is in language. At university, she studied comparative English literature and teaching Chinese to non-native speakers. During her undergraduate and master's degrees she had no business or finance classes. She was prepared to become a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a reputable and secure career choice which her parents fully supported.
When she announced her decision to abandon a diplomatic career and focus on teaching Chinese to foreigners, her parents were furious. Her father cut off her financial support and she was left with 5,000RMB (<$1000USD) to pursue her dream. This unexpected financial independence served as powerful motivation for her to succeed as an entrepreneur.
"Oh my gosh, they give you that much money just for an idea?!"
While supporting herself in graduate school with a job tutoring Chinese language students, Emily saw a poster advertising an entrepreneurship competition with prize money for the winning teams. Her tutoring was already such a success that she decided it would make a good business proposal for the competition. She was not only tutoring CEOs and corporate presidents in Chinese language but also Chinese cultural and economic perspectives. The combination of teaching language and culture, providing insights for businesses and individuals to succeed in China, was the founding principle of what eventually became GoEast Language Center.
The girls win! and so do the boys
Emily's all-female team (all three co-founders of GoEast and a fourth member), was one of two winners of the entrepreneurship competition. The prize money enabled them to start GoEast during her second year of grad school in 2012. Over the last six years GoEast has grown slowly and steadily at its headquarters in the Yangpu District of Shanghai. By contrast, the other all-male winning team opened an office next to GoEast, grew aggressively in the first year and has subsequently moved to five different offices, experiencing significant fluctuations in their growth over the years. Emily points out the differences in the two companies, including their gender, but explains that one outcome isn't necessarily better than the other, just different.
"They only asked me because I'm female."
In their 3rd year, GoEast sought investors to help fund their growth. There was a lot of interest so they were comfortable saying no to investors who disrespected them. During one interview, the male investors asked "When are you looking at getting married and having kids? Could you promise that you won't do this in the next 5 years?" Emily asked if this was a standard question for every founder and company. They admitted that they only asked her because she's a woman. Emily immediately told them "Thank you, I don't need your money."
"When I started GoEast I was very anxious and afraid because I had zero background in business or management."
Emily is a teacher by training. She does not have an MBA or a history of successful business endeavors. So when GoEast was established, she found opportunities to learn about business and management. She took classes at Fudan University and online, attended seminars, workshops, and read lots of books. "When I was younger," Emily admits, "I only wanted a good score on exams." Now that she has a specific problem to solve, she is dedicated to learning about entrepreneurship. Although, one of the business professors at Fudan University who encouraged Emily, told her that "Business people are not taught, we're born."
"Now I am definitely more of an entrepreneur and businesswoman."
In China, people from Zhejiang province, like Emily, are known for being good at business. She lives up to this stereotype, especially since she started GoEast without studying any business theories. "I followed my intuition [and] was open to advice," she says. Advice comes from the people in her network - professors, mentors, co-founders, and GoEast team - people who appreciate Emily and her abilities as a businesswoman and leader. Her advice to others is to maintain a supportive network and "get away from people who try to not give you credit."
"You're just a woman, don't push yourself so hard."
Emily persists in working hard and making GoEast a successful business. Her stubbornness and competitive nature enabled her to persevere even in the face of criticism and doubt from her parents. As with many children of the 80s and 90s, Emily was told that she can succeed at whatever she does. Her parents fostered her drive for success and she regularly performed at the top of her class from first grade all the way through graduate school. Yet when she started GoEast, her parents expressed concern, asking when she was going to get a real job, every time they talked for three years. Emily confronted her parents, pointing out that they taught her to work hard to pursue her dreams. Her mother said, "I lied to you. Now you're a grown up, you should understand life is much harder." Emily understands that her parents wanted to protect her daughter, that they didn't want to see Emily fail and suffer.
"In the end, your ability and ideas and how you do business speaks louder than your gender."
Six years later, GoEast is prospering with in-person classes and a new online learning platform. They have hundreds of teachers and students all around the world. Emily's parents have finally stopped questioning her career choices and express their pride in her accomplishments. "They could see that I am financially independent and they saw the growth of GoEast." As always, Emily demonstrated her abilities and changed even her parents' first impressions of her. Her dedication and hard work continues to impress investors and clients as GoEast grows and teaches Chinese language and culture on a global scale. Even though her title is now CEO and Co-founder, Emily stays true to her roots as a teacher, educating others by her example as a successful entrepreneur and businesswoman.