A polyglot entrepreneur builds on his strengths to rediscover his personal passion.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
As part of The EdTech Awards, Lingoda recently took home the Cool Tool Award for Best Language Learning Solution, but there’s a deeper story underneath that speaks a universal language of human persistence as embodied in the award-winning company’s CEO, Michael Shangkuan.
Mike is an edtech entrepreneur, fitness fanatic, and polyglot, speaking six languages, namely English, German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Japanese. As a pioneer in language learning, he is the CEO of Lingoda GmbH, one of Europe’s leading online language schools, where he is in charge of the company’s strategy and daily business.
Previously, he held the position of CEO of Terra Education, a B-corp offering life-changing service learning summer programs to teens in Africa, South America, and Asia.
Mike has lived in six countries across four continents.
Less known, he is a former natural bodybuilder and competed at several international competitions. He is a graduate of Yale University and he holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. Mike was happy to sit down for a long-form interview to share with others in education and technology more about himself and the award-winning approach of the company he leads.
Could you tell us more about yourself and your personal background?
I am a polyglot, an entrepreneur and a former professional bodybuilder. Born in California to Chinese parents, languages have always been my passion. I speak English and Chinese as a native speaker, and at school, I enjoyed learning up to five languages at a time. I am fluent in six: Spanish, French, Japanese and German, in addition to those already mentioned.
For me, the common thread in language, business and sport is commitment. I think you need the same drive in learning a language, leading a scale-up company and excelling in a sport.
‘I think you need the same drive in learning a language, leading a scale-up company and excelling in a sport.’
From a business standpoint, I turned to the startup world after a start in investment banking and an MBA followed by experiences in marketing and branding in big corporations (such as P&G). That was the best decision of my life: it requires effort, dedication and commitment but allows you to see the impact of your work.
Since 2017, I have been leading Lingoda, which ranks among the top three language-learning companies globally, and working with a truly diverse and international team. Just to give you an idea: my executive assistant is Indian, our creative director is Australian, our PR manager is Italian, and our influencer marketing manager is from Hong Kong. And we have over 150 employees. That makes every day a true discovery.
I’ve also participated in natural bodybuilding shows for a few years, having competed at the local, state, and national levels. At the age of 40, I was fortunate to qualify to compete at the International Natural Olympia in Las Vegas, the largest and most prestigious competition in the world. I have always been one to take on new adventures and challenges in life. That’s what life is about – trying new things and going after those you become passionate about.
‘I have always been one to take on new adventures and challenges in life. That’s what life is about – trying new things and going after those you become passionate about.’
My old friends and classmates were shocked when they found out about it, as it’s so different from the nerdy Mike with the big glasses they knew at school. It breaks the stereotype of the average Asian-American, Ivy League grad. Now I’m reaching toward new frontiers as the first Asian-American to run a German company, innovating and reinventing my biggest of passions (language learning) and having a ton of fun doing it.
If I had to give a piece of advice, it would be this: know what you want, and don’t let preconceived notions stop you.
You started your career in banking and consulting, but at some point turned to edtech. What drove your choice?
I took the chance to get back to my personal passion, language learning. I was already working in education: the first startup I joined as Head of Marketing and Finance was an education travel start-up. I was the CEO of that company for six years. At that point, I wanted a new challenge, and I had the opportunity to join Lingoda.
It was my opportunity to combine personal passion and professional vocation. It was 2017; I packed my bags and moved to Europe, not knowing what I’d be doing there. I had already lived in Latin America and multiple countries in Asia. I always wanted to give Europe a try. Once I got to Germany, I started learning German and decided I wanted to live here. I then began to network around the European startup community in London, Paris, and Berlin. It was through networking (three degrees of separation from my initial contacts from Harvard) that I met Fabian (pictured, left) and Felix (second from right) Wunderlich, two German entrepreneurs from Cologne. They had founded Lingoda in 2013 and were looking for a CEO who had scaled a company before – ideally in education– with a marketing background, and from somewhere abroad. I happened to fit their qualifications and the rest is history.
‘It was 2017; I packed my bags and moved to Europe, not knowing what I’d be doing there.’
You have lived in eight countries across four continents, speak six languages, and now lead a team of over 150 people, coming from over 30 countries and speaking over 40 different languages. What’s next?
I am currently writing a book. It’s a memoir of my personal experiences: I know I’ve been lucky to experience so many different cultures. I have many stories to tell that I would like to leave a record of.
Fascinating! Now, let’s get even more into the company. In your own words, how would you describe Lingoda?
Lingoda is the number one trusted online language school. We offer private and small group online, live language classes available 24/7 in English, Business English, German, Spanish and French with qualified, native-speaking teachers. Our mission is to empower even the busiest people to master a language and unlock their potential – anytime, anywhere.
How is it different from other language-learning solutions?
What differentiates us is that we are at the forefront when it comes to accessibility, flexibility and efficiency. Lingoda combines the superior in-class experience of brick-and-mortar language schools with the convenience of a digital solution: our learners can take a class anywhere, at any time. Our qualified, native-speaking teaching professionals take a personalized approach to each student and accompany them on their learning journey, regardless of their level. The learning materials and courses are based on internationally recognized standards and produced in-house by a team of language-learning experts. If we take language-learning apps for example, they offer great flexibility and short learning units, but their downfall lies in the simplicity of the terms they teach and their unprofessional nature. They don’t teach you to speak competently to a real person and apply what you’ve learned right away, which is one of the key aspects when learning a language.
What are the key ingredients to master a language successfully online?
The first key ingredient is creating a routine. Speaking a language is first and foremost an action that we perform, and only by performing it regularly do we acquire it naturally. The convenience of an online language school is particularly beneficial for this habit-forming purpose. Daily practice can fit around your schedule, freeing you from any obligation to get to a physical location and/or adhere to a set timetable.
The second key ingredient is an immersive learning experience that exposes students solely and exclusively to the target language. Lingoda’s lessons take place entirely in the target language thanks to our over 1,400 qualified native-speaking teachers around the world who expose students to a real language, including a variety of regional accents and expressions within the same language. Our learning materials are also built in a way that no translation is strictly necessary, leading students to slowly build vocabulary and sentences on their own. The use of meaningful vocabulary and topics that are applicable to students’ interests, careers, and daily lives facilitates this process.
‘The use of meaningful vocabulary and topics that are applicable to students’ interests, careers, and daily lives facilitates this process.’
Lastly, the third ingredient is the ability to speak as much as possible, ideally within a group dynamic, which helps students overcome fears of making mistakes or being judged by others. Our small group classes include a maximum of four or five students which leaves them enough time and space to practice speaking in every lesson.
The company was founded in 2013; how has the development been over the years?
Looking back, we are proud to say that we were among the pioneers who believed in the potential of online learning.
In 2013, the two entrepreneurs Fabian and Felix Wunderlich, combining their backgrounds in business consulting and educational management, realized that there was an unsolved need within the language-learning space. The market was dominated by language-learning apps (fully asynchronous technology solutions) and tutor marketplaces (matchmaking solutions between two native speakers of two different languages), but there was no solution that offered the high teaching standards of traditional schools and the benefits of a digital environment. They decided to create Lingoda, a business that would impact the lives of others.
In seven years, the company grew at a steady and sustainable pace. Then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and accelerated the chasm of online video adoption. In the last year alone, we’ve seen in four months the adoption that we predicted would happen in four years. As a result, our customer base grew by nearly 200%.
The turning point came earlier this year: in April, we welcomed a new lead investor on board and increased our funding to date to $83 million.
COVID-19 strongly impacted the education sector. Are changes here to stay?
Yes, we strongly believe so. The events of the last year have changed the way we work, the way we learn, the way we do everything. It also changed the way we learn languages permanently.
‘The events of the last year have changed the way we work, the way we learn, the way we do everything.’
We have experienced that an alternative way to the predominant one was possible. Prior to the lockdowns, students had the misperception that learning online would not work or would not be engaging. But it is just as effective as offline, if not better, and fits everyone’s busy schedules better.
What message do you have for educators in these times?
The past year has been a challenge for all of us, most of all educators. However, we should see technology as an opportunity. Now students can access educators from all over the world, not just those in their vicinity. Moreover, innovation is driving the online classroom experience to be much more engaging and better than the offline alternative. These are great tools to help educators do their jobs even more effectively. Plus, they can now enjoy the flexibility of working anytime, anywhere from a laptop. Lingoda is leading the evolution to give educators more options and better access and tools to teach and advance in their careers.
Before we go, you recently raised a considerable amount of funding. What plans does Lingoda have for the future?
In April this year, we raised $68 million in growth equity from global growth investor Summit Partners. We have major plans regarding the use of the funding: first of all, we are expanding in the US, where we recently opened an office in Miami, FL. If you consider that only 20% of Americans can converse in two or more languages vs. 56% of Europeans, it’s easy to understand the great potential the US has when it comes to language learning. We can foresee it could become the number one market for our business in the upcoming years.
We also want to improve the learning experience for our students, and this will include enhancing our tech platform with more self-learning tools.
Last but not least, we aim to become the world’s largest online language school, offering our students and teachers more learning and teaching options than any other provider. To this end, we will expand our roster of teaching professionals to offer more classes to our students and consequently more teaching opportunities to our teachers. We’ve already changed over 70,000 lives through language learning and we have ambitious goals in this regard.
How do you think online learning will evolve in the next ten years?
Two key words come to mind: disruption and disintermediation. More will go online and the experience will become far superior to offline learning.
‘More will go online and the experience will become far superior to offline learning.’
Just as the future of work took many leaps forward from Covid, the same is true for education. Video technology works very well, and it will keep getting better. It saves us time from commuting to a class and it gives us access to anybody in the world. In addition, there are things we can do online to make the experience more interactive and engaging that could not easily be imitated in a live classroom.
Anything else you care to add or emphasize before we say auf wiedersehen?
I’ve already referenced the ambitious plans we have for the future. Bottom line: watch out for Lingoda.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]