An Expert Interview with Alex Chang, the TEDx speaker who spoke out on the challenges in an Ivy League college, on Entrepreneurship and Education
Education is an extremely valuable asset in every society. We often define a good university degree as the key to success: it opens the doors to many opportunities in life, it helps us get a job much more easily, and it helps us earn more money and have a better life. Among all the universities in the world, people typically regard Ivy League universities as the best among the best. It is no wonder that, according to the New York Times, some parents are willing to pay up to $1.5 million USD for a full-service package of college admissions consulting to help their children get into a top university!
In the viral TEDx video “The Unspoken Reality Behind the Harvard Gates,” Harvard alum and education entrepreneur Alex Chang spoke about the challenges and pressure that students encounter after they get into a top university. The video resonated with countless students all over the world who are competing in high-octane and sometimes toxic environments, especially among students from cultures or families that value education.
We checked in with Alex to learn more about the education industry as well as his experience running his business in the US, Taiwan, and China.
Hey Alex, thanks for being here. Please tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I have been tutoring students since high school, and I taught a few Computer Science and Engineering classes as a Teaching Fellow for Harvard. However, even though I found teaching an extremely rewarding experience, as a Computer Science major and an Economics minor, I only considered tech, consulting, or finance jobs because “everyone else was doing them” and never thought I would go into education.
Unfortunately, my job searching process did not go as smoothly as I wished, and I was turned down by almost all the companies I applied to. I did have the opportunity to intern at a consulting company in Japan and with HTC in Taiwan, but I did not feel I would enjoy the work environment there as a full-time employee. As a result, I decided to pursue a 1-year program at Harvard Graduate School of Education, which could give me one more recruiting cycle to find a job.
When I couldn’t find a work opportunity for the summer after my senior year of college, I wanted to do something bizarre. I came up with the crazy idea to start a test prep and admissions counseling company in Taiwan by taking my private tutoring gigs a step further and setting up a company called Ivy-Way Academy. I hired and trained our teachers, created a standardized curriculum, and rented classrooms. We had a very successful program, which made switching my career path to education a very easy decision. Now, we run physical classes in 8 different cities in Taiwan and China and online classes for students throughout Asia and North America. Failing to find my “ideal job” initially was extremely frustrating, but it allowed me to try my hands on entrepreneurship, and I turned my passion in education into my career. In the end, it all worked out.
You mentioned in the video that the only path to success in Asia is to do well in school. Can you elaborate on how education is different in the US and in Asia?
The American society generally values one’s ability and attitude, while the Asian society right now generally values one’s education. Of course there are many exceptions, but proportionally more people in Asia believe that if someone is able to study in a top university, he or she is set for life, so more students in Asia will make their college entrance exam the most exam of their lives. However, in the US, while SAT and ACT are important, people tend to focus on discovering one’s passion and career paths, and that’s why we see more high school students in the US who are talented in sports or performing arts do these activities out of their passion. On the other hand, students in Asia very often put school, GPA, and exams first, and students whose strengths are not in academics suffer trying–but failing–to get good grades, all while sacrificing their opportunity to do their hobbies or explore their interests.
How do you expand and compete with businesses that are also providing educational consulting?
We guide students differently from most of the educational counseling firms in Asia, so we expand by finding our niche and attracting students who agree with our methodology. Most educational consulting services in Asia focus on “creating a spike” by sending students to companies or universities to do “internships” or “research,” even though students lack sufficient knowledge and experience to contribute to the organization. However, instead of helping students get an edge in the admissions process, such activity actually ends up hurting students’ chances because admissions officers consider activities with no real contributions as useless and a waste of time.
On the other hand, we believe in helping students develop their own ability and identity. What this means is that, when we mentor students in college admissions, we guide students and help them find their passion and show their strengths within this passion. For example, a student isn’t capable of attending a real, prestigious summer program, we will recommend appropriate courses to take to help them develop fundamental knowledge and work on realistic, exciting, and fulfilling projects. Afterwards, instead of just editing essays for the students, we give students a full 1-on-1 writing course to help them become better writers, with college application essays as their “final projects.” Therefore, students will be able to write about their exciting high school experiences in a unique, professional way that attracts admissions officers’ attention.
What was your biggest obstacle when starting your own business?
Undeniably, luck plays a huge role in a startup company’s success; I am very fortunate that Ivy-Way has been a pretty smooth journey overall, and the biggest issue was actually showing my parents that education entrepreneurship is the right career for me. Back in 2009, entrepreneurship was nowhere as common as it is today, and my parents wanted me to find a “secure job.” However, after running Ivy-Way successfully for two years, I was glad to have full support from my parents.
What advice would you give to someone asking for advice about becoming an entrepreneur?
The most important advice is that you need to have genuine passion in your product and company. A lot of people think entrepreneurship is just about making money. However, most startups do fail, and if money is your only driving force, you will have a miserable experience especially when your company encounters financial challenges, and your company will fail. Even if you end up with a profitable business, I’m not sure if miserably working for money really counts as “success.”
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